Finally got round to watching I Daniel Blake. I found it realistic, unsentimental, largely accurate and above all human. It is undoubtedly a war cry. The film is intended to make you angry. Loach makes no bones about that. And it does. The scene in the food bank is devastating in a quiet, very British sort of way.
Its critics say it’s doesn’t represent reality. Ian Duncan Smith, architect of our current sanctions-based welfare policies, said the film lumped all the bad things about the system together to stretch a point. Camilla Long in The Sunday Times film critic said the film “doesn’t ring true”. She did have the grace to admit she wasn’t “an expert on welfare.” It was, she went on, “misery porn for smug Londoners”. Toby Young in the Spectator said it “was unremittingly depressing”.
Well yes it is because for many people life on benefits is unremittingly depressing. Perhaps Young and Long should pop down to their nearest food bank and talk to a few punters. But let’s put them to one side except to say that the vehemence of their attacks is partly down to the fact that reality the film depicts is hard to watch. It’s harder to live it. And for supporters of our penitential welfare system quietly shaming.
The debate which followed the film’s release made this point convincingly. The protagonists – Dan, the dignified chippy with a heart condition down on his luck, and Katie, the single mum struggling to make ends meet, are “deserving poor”. As opposed to the “undeserving poor”, the drunks, the Asbo junkies, depicted in Benefit Street. Where were they ask the critics?
It’s a reasonable question. But it’s irrelevant. We have succumbed to the dismal narrative that we, the people, are divided into “scroungers and strivers”. This leads unavoidably to a system where claimants are obliged to prove their good intentions. And that is corrosive, it diminishes us and degrades those who go through it. It eats away at the sense of community and solidarity which, sadly, we only ever see when terrorists are running amok. It’s a divide and rule approach.
I am a huge admirer of Loach’s work. I love the matter-of-factness of his movies. He has a knack of hitting the nail on the head so hard and with such precision that it feels like he’s driving a stake through your heart.
His films are not balanced or impartial. Sometimes he crams stuff in which jars a little. But they are intended to make a point. Daniel Blake is Ken Loach. I know that. Caveat emptor. But I also know, because I come across it day in day out, that what he depicts is a pretty accurate portrayal of the hell that many people in this country have to go through to get what is rightfully theirs.
Alain Catzeflis Steering Group, Alliance for Camphill