A Gentle Revolutionary Filmmaking: "I, Daniel Blake"

in 69th Cannes Film Festival

by Rita di Santo

Ken Loach returns to Cannes with I, Daniel Blake, a drama about two honest people caught in an uncaring welfare system.

I, Daniel Blake portrays ordinary people pushed to breaking point by circumstances beyond their control and by a bureaucratic welfare system seemingly designed to beat them down. Loach, who wrote the script with his long-time collaborator Paul Laverty, achieves an extraordinary balance of emotion and fact, telling the story with an urgent simplicity that is surprisingly powerful and moving. Also impressive is Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, with an unfussy representation of the Newcastle.

At the centre is Daniel Blake, played by comedian Dave Johns in a performance all the more moving for its restraint, and for the dogged determination etched deeper into his face with each fresh frustration. A skilled carpenter in his late fifties, Daniel lives alone in a housing block, maintaining a scrappy but good-natured rapport with his neighbours. He managed to remain gainfully employed even while nursing his late wife through a long illness, but doctors have forbidden him from returning to work until he has sufficiently recovered from a heart attack. The beginning of his odyssey is amusingly played out in off-screen dialogue heard over the opening titles, as a so-called healthcare professional interviews Daniel about his eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance. His impatience grows as he fields a string of inane questions about basic motor skills and continence, none of them having anything to do with the condition of his heart. When the assessor judges him fit for work, his travails begin, first on a telephone helpline with epic hold time, and then at the local job centre, where getting someone actually to listen while he explains his situation proves impossible.

Fifty years since Ken Loach raged against homelessness in his television play Cathy Come Home, the British filmmaker imbues this film with the same soft but renewed anger about the failings of the society around him. Not only capturing a specific point in British history and its politics, but precisely articulating a battle versus a neo-liberal project, a society “driven towards privatization and de-regulation”.

This is Loach’s manifesto to safeguard workers – who are constantly under attack, in a society that it’s not doing for them any favours at the moment.

This is a film with a radical political content, but contained within ideology by its narrative form.

Loach’s style left behind a documentarist approach in favour of the sympathetic observation of the reality. Expressing the truth is of the utmost importance, the object is not simply to show the events, but to sincerely communicate. Loach’s camera moves up close to each character, nobody is left behind, each one is carrying a personal story (the young neighbour selling Chinese shoes, the children looking for a father figure, the workers at the food bank). Capturing the intimacy of their relationships, makes the viewer a witness and an accomplice.  Dialogue is realistic and spontaneous, while sporadically philosophical in a way that made one think beyond the film. It is a radical new type of film compared to what Loach has done before.

I, Daniel Blake, makes the viewer think and feel, not only about what they are watching, but about their own lives, thoughts and emotions as well.

Rita Di Santo
© FIPRESCI 2016