To Have Not I, Daniel Blake
Director: Ken Loach Reviewed by Charley Bolding-Smith
Ken Loach has been raging against the machine since he burst into cinema with Poor Cow in 1967. Nearly fifty years later, he is still creating vital work and his latest Palme d’Or-winning film (his second, after 2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley), I, Daniel Blake, is one of his most powerful. What’s interesting to this director is getting to the truth. The movie observes the eponymous figure (Dave Johns) manoeuvering through his surroundings. Dan spends his days chatting with his neighbour, seeking assistance from the local JobCentre, and helping a single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), as she struggles to get by. And yet, through Loach’s lens, this everyman’s ordinary life couldn’t be more fascinating.
The screen remains black as the opening credits roll, as we listen to a conversation that evokes horror and humour; and, by the time Loach pairs the sound of Dan and an unhelpful government employee with the corresponding imagery, the absurdity and the injustice of his situation is already clear.
This is a film about people; their small acts of kindness and amusing antics while being beaten down by officialdom; making the most of what they’ve got, and doing whatever it takes to claw their way back up again. They confront their social deprivation in different ways: Katie eventually turns to the ‘easy’ money of prostitution to feed and clothe her children; China (Kema Sikazwe), Dan’s neighbour, is aspirational about selling rip-off trainers for profit. There is no sense that, blighted by poverty though their lives are, they will not survive, and – possibly – prosper. Survival is their aim, however achieved. But Dan is doomed by his innate common-sense belief in the purpose of a system seemingly designed to punish rather than aid those in need. The film has been described as Kafkaesque in its portrayal of a nightmarish bureaucracy. But the banal, every day, oppression of fellow citizens by petty Government officials ‘just following orders’ (and taking pride in their efficiency in doing so) reflects more the attitudes of Nazi or Cambodian concentration camp functionaries.
The film comes out against a backdrop of the Government’s apparent assault on the unemployed; it preferring, instead, to give £369m to a billionaire family to do up their ghastly neoclassical London pad whilst chiseling away at the few benefits that millions of their citizens depend upon. It’s hard not to leave the movie theatre without a sense of anger. Be angry: be very angry