Review: "I, Daniel Blake", a film by Ken Loach

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Ken Loach’s latest film, I, Daniel Blake, has already generated a lot of ink. First because it is the work of a very expressive film-maker who is well-versed in criticising the capitalist world. Second, because the film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, to widespread surprise. Since then there have been numerous articles in the press, praising or attacking the film, seeing it either as a real social thermometer or as an alarmist tear-jerker.

We don’t intend to portray Ken Loach as a new Eisenstein[1], or his film as a new equivalent to the Communist Manifesto, or to see it as a sentimentalist apology for the British Labour Party, as one or two reviewers have claimed. Even though Loach denounces the “conscious cruelty” of David Cameron and has all kinds of illusions in the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, none of this really effects the quality of the film: it sometimes happens that a work of art escapes its author and takes on a life of its own.

In this film, Loach inveighs against the destruction of whole sectors of the economy and sides with the unemployed who are told to go out looking for non-existent jobs. This reality of de-industrialisation and this approach by the state are certainly realities. Ken Loach has the merit of showing this while going beyond observing how miserable everything is, pushing his audience towards a real indignation against the current state of affairs. He has the rather rare quality of providing a lucid and dynamic image of the consequences of the capitalist crisis in Britain – consequences which can easily be transposed elsewhere – and of exposing the totalitarian face of the state through its practice of social exclusion, repression, and dehumanisation.

All the passages in the film showing the “treatment”, via the telephone,  of the unemployed by “healthcare professionals” who are made to function as the guard-dogs of the system, would be laughable if they were not so realistic. This facet of the democratic state – in fact its dictatorship – is no fiction: the capitalist system, its democratic institutions, including those which are supposed to support or protect vulnerable, elderly, sick or unemployed people, function like a juggernaut and like tools of exclusion. Trying to get the minimum needed to live on becomes a real battle where you pay heavily for the least slip in writing, the slightest sign of the “wrong” attitude, and often end up starving. Daniel’s partner Katie is more or less cornered when she falls hungrily on a tin of beans after going with him to a food bank.

But what’s really at stake in this “social” movie, as with all the others, is whether it can envisage a perspective of resistance, of struggle against the crisis and the capitalist Moloch. Is such a struggle possible? Who could lead it? It’s on this level that you have to judge the real qualities of this kind of film and few are up to it. Most remain at the stage of merely recognising powerlessness or retreating into ethereal ideals.

On the first question, Ken Loach’s film expresses all the difficulties of the working class to fight back and confront the state. Today, most attempts to resist, to keep your head above water, are limited to the level of the individual or to narrow networks of mutual aid. The title of the film, I, Daniel Blake, is a clue in itself: individual self-assertion as the only possibility.

Here we are very far indeed from a collective, offensive class solidarity, which is a real weapon in the struggle and in developing a long-term perspective of going beyond capitalist society. This is not in the frame of the film and none of its characters gives any sign of raising it. The only situation where we catch a glimpse of something more collective is when Daniel reacts by daubing graffiti on the walls of the job centre. Enthusiastic reactions and applause from passers-by: they understand his action and perhaps live in the same situation, but at no point do they express solidarity by coming to talk to him or opposing the cops who come to arrest him. They are no more than impotent spectators. Only one individual reacts more openly: a homeless person, who you imagine to be marginalised, probably alcoholic – a whole symbol of powerlessness.

But the film does have some small, limited moments, where we see human reactions, people listening to each other, helping each other, taking pleasure in sharing. Between Daniel and Katie, her children, with a former work-mate, a neighbour, an employee at the job centre who really wants to help but whose initiatives come to nothing – all this is a source of humanity, even if none of them can see how to go any further.

Clearly, behind the immediate incapacity to change anything, we feel that there are sparks of life, possibilities that contain the basis of really human social relations. This is not at all like the film by Stéphane Brizé, La loi du marché, where behind the same observation of social problems and the reality of unemployment the most awful nihilism is advertised, without a trace of hope, without any perspective, a totally static vision of society, which can give rise to nothing but “no future”, to death[2].

Another aspect emerges very strongly from this film: the dignity of the characters, their sense of self-worth. This is definitely one of the qualities of the film. The key to any proletarian’s self-worth is to hold on to moral values, to defend their dignity whatever the circumstances. The defence of this proletarian morality is what reveals the possibility of a future in which humanity can go beyond barbarism, beyond each-against-all. Daniel Blake expresses this when he discovers that Katie has had to resort to prostitution to avoid dying of hunger. This devastates him more than anything, even more than his own drama. Dignity again when Daniel insists that “When you lose your self-respect you're done for”.

But this proletarian dignity is also contradicted by the words attributed to him and read out at his funeral:

“My name is Daniel Blake, I am a man, not a dog…I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less”. Daniel sees himself as a citizen rather than a proletarian. But to be a citizen means belonging to a nation, not a social class. The difference is fundamental, above all for the proletarians. It’s always in the name of citizenship or the defence of democracy, or the Republic, that the ruling ideology tries to mobilise us for the interests of our exploiters. This can only be the logic of the bourgeoisie. The defence of citizenship is not the logic of the proletariat. It leads to competition and division and the perpetuation of the capitalist world.

As Daniel Blake expresses it, his situation is shared by millions of exploited proletarians, thrown into precariousness, excluded by the capitalist system. Whether it’s in Britain, France, China or anywhere else, the same capitalist laws of wage labour exert their violence on us. Even when it wears a democratic mask, capital divides us, grinds us down, kills us.

Real class solidarity, which is a necessity for the future of humanity, must above all be expressed by struggle: a conscious, collective struggle which goes beyond national frontiers. The phrase from the Communist Manifesto, “the workers have no country” is no dream. It’s the key to transforming the world.

Stopio, 15.12.16

 

 



[1] Eisenstein was a Russian film-maker of the early 20th century, who has had a major influence in the history of cinema. His work was able to give form to the tide of revolution after 1917, although his compromises with Stalinism later made him a pioneer of cinema as propaganda.

[2] See our article (in French) ‘’A propos du film La loi du marché: une dénonciation sans réelle alternative” https://fr.internationalism.org/icconline/201506/9226/a-propos-du-film-loi-du-marche-denonciation-sans-reelle-alternative