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Following a major heart attack which leaves him severely weakened, Blake fails the government’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ eligibility test for the sickness benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). This despite a formal diagnosis from his doctors indicating he is far from being fully recovered.
The Kafkaesque assessment instructions issued by the DWP along with the feelings of powerlessness Blake is subjected to make for moving viewing, especially for anyone who has ever had the delight of traversing the many layers of bureaucracy to claim benefits you are entitled to.
The brutal dilemma Blake is unjustly forced to face, like so many others in Britain today, is to either look after his health, or to try and find work which he is not capable of.
The importance of the film lies in its bare-faced, honest story-telling. Despite denials and cries of exaggeration from the upper class media elite – most of whom have no personal experience of the welfare system themselves – the film accurately portrays the suffering of everyday people, including the lengths they will go to in order to survive – a signature motif of Loach’s films. Crucially, the film acts as a much needed push-back against the divisive rhetoric spouted by the media and the government in their intentional vilification of welfare claimants.
This ‘conscious cruelty’ of the system, as spoken about by Loach in an interview with Channel 4, is beautifully exposed in I, Daniel Blake. What gives the film such tragic poignancy is its salient depiction of the silent suffering that so many face today in modern Tory Britain.
In the film, Daniel meets Katie, a single mum who has been forced to leave her London home taking her kids in search of cheaper rents. After being sanctioned herself for being marginally late to her assessment, the two try to brave the cruel and unrelenting circumstances together.
There is a naturally strong human element in the film as shown in the reciprocal kindness and warmth of Daniel and Katie towards one another. This can be viewed in stark contrast to a coldly-frustrated portrayal of the welfare state, one that is as sinister as it is cynical towards those who it purports to help.
What comes to light strongly in the film is the powerful sense of alienation experienced by the two main characters in their separate situations. When the support networks and social safety nets they both desperately require simply don’t appear, they try to cope in any way they can, doing whatever it takes as a result. This is far removed from the ‘strivers not skivers’ mentality of the Tories – the same party who celebrate the opening of food banks – who simply cannot acknowledge that such scenarios arise for ordinary people.
The film explodes the notion of the ‘undeserving poor’, an idea that is consistently recapitulated in new forms in our so-called civilised society. Perhaps the government should focus on the undeserving rich and their place in society? With inequality widening at an ever-increasing rate, can it only be a matter of time before real-life experiences such as these break into the wider public discourse?
I, Daniel Blake can potentially serve as an amplifier for those who have been previously stigmatised and ignored. It can offer an opportunity to break through the hideous cultural norms set by TV shows such as ‘Benefits Street’, and provide the basis of a real conversation, long overdue, about what the ills are in our society and how they came to exist in the first place.
Moreover, the film reminds us that the strength to survive through intense hardship and suffering comes from mutual support and solidarity with one another.
In order for the film to have the impact it deserves, it is of vital importance that those who have seen it treat it than more than just a cinema trip. It should be regarded as an exposé on how the weakest and most vulnerable are treated by those currently in power, and, ultimately, a wake up call to all those who are tacit in their response to avoidable human suffering.