A brief thought about I, Daniel Blake, including **spoilers** (for which apologies).
The film is about the title character (Dave Johns), who has recently had a heart attack. Although his doctors advise that he does not return to work, the company contracted by Blake’s local employment bureau in Newcastle deems him fit for work.
As a result, Daniel must go in search of work – at least nominally – in order to get benefits and thus economically to survive.
One day in the employment bureau, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother relocated to Newcastle from London by the housing association, who misses her first meeting at the bureau, and so who thus does not receive benefits.
The two strike up an unlikely friendship, with Daniel helping to keep Katie’s home warm, helping her out with food and more.
In some senses, I, Daniel Blake is a large-format, narrative version of the famous ‘Computer says no’ sketch repeated in various ways on Little Britain (Matt Lucas and David Walliams, 2003-2006): it is about the inflexibility of systems that are dominated by information technology.
It is not that information technology is necessarily bad. It is the internet and a direct link to a show manufacturer in China that gives Daniel’s neighbour, China (Kema Sikazwe), a chance of getting out of his own employment misery.
But, through Daniel’s unfamiliarity with computers, it does speak of a generation of humans who are being left behind by the insistent computerisation of all aspects of life. If one does not know how to use or speak to the computer, then the computer will inevitably say no.
As per Ken Loach’s Kes (UK, 1969), Daniel’s answer is frustratingly right before his (and our) eyes, and yet he does not act upon it. In Kes, Billy Casper (David Bradley) demonstrates at length that he is excellent with animals. And yet at no point do any of his teachers or the employment office suggest that Billy might make a good zookeeper, say, with Billy himself also fairly resigned to working down in the Barnsley pit.
Likewise, carpenter Daniel fabricates beautiful wooden mobiles – suggesting in some senses that he might also simply endeavour to work at a pace that is not stressful or necessarily detrimental to his precarious health, and to sell his wares at least to supplement his benefits lifestyle. At one point, Daniel even turns down an offer to buy some of his work from a man (Stephen Halliday) who otherwise buys up all of his furniture.
Something of a tangent: when Lewis Mumford writes in The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development that the surplus labour force provided by slaves in the USA basically led to a stagnation in technological development (no need to create machines to do work that humans will do for free), he also would seem to suggest that it was only when machines were created that could outperform slaves that slavery was abolished.
It is a controversial claim, but one might even say that the American Civil War was in some senses brought about for economic reasons: advances in technology and thus the ability to make profit without slaves is what made some people comfortable with the idea of abolishing slavery – while those who did not have the same technology (the South) were forced to accept the ‘privileged’ perspective that slaves were (now) deemed to be a Bad Thing… and ended up going to war over this.
And so it might be with computerisation: the privileged, technologically advanced people can force their technologies on to everyone else, thereby consigning to misery those who cannot really afford or get access to them.
(Read in terms of a technologised elite imposing its privileged perspective on the masses, one can in some senses account for both Brexit and the election of Donald J Trump as a negative reaction against precisely such a process – however ‘misguided’ or otherwise one might consider both Brexit and/or Trump’s election to be.)
There has been a lot of hoo ha in the reactionary press about I, Daniel Blake being contrived (I think of reviews by the likes of Toby Young). And yet, its contrivances are what make I, Daniel Blake most powerful.
For, there is a sense in Loach’s film of making absolutely clear at all stages that this is a film: the ‘naturalness’ of the acting (which can sometimes seem ‘amateur’), the somewhat forced nature of the script. It would seem that Loach is not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes that this is a film.
This is also made palpable as a result of Daniel’s death at the film’s end: Daniel cannot deliver the speech that he has written about his experiences and how he has been handled, which instead Katie reads out at his funeral. If Daniel lived and delivered the speech himself, then the contrivances of the film would be hidden. Instead Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty place them front and centre. Daniel Blake must die.
This is not to say that we should dismiss I, Daniel Blake simply on the grounds of being manipulative. What else do you think that cinema is if it is not manipulative? Acknowledging its own manipulations, the film nonetheless brings its viewers into a position of having to think about why the film is doing this – not simply for the sake of fooling viewers. On the contrary, it is so that we might take seriously what the film has to say.
The final confirmation of this is when Daniel and Katie enter at first into Daniel’s hearing (if I remember correctly). Looking directly at the camera – for the first time in the film – both speak not to the assembled assessors, but also directly to us.
I, Daniel Blake contains warmth and nightmarish visions of life on benefits in equal measure, with Katie’s display of hunger at a food bank (where she opens and begins to eat directly from a tin of cold baked beans) being in particular harrowing.
We are all implicated in this world. We all should take on the collective responsibility for our fellow citizens. Through the false, Ken Loach encourages us to confront the real.