“This is a story about a new strain of an old oppression, a fresh alienation from a long-standing social order” – Ian Maleney on Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake
The story is simple, as it must be. Daniel Blake is a Newcastle man, a carpenter and joiner, in his late fifties or early sixties. He’s had a heart scare and his doctor has told him that he can’t work. To compensate for the loss of income, he goes to the Department of Welfare and Pensions to claim his Jobseeker’s Allowance. What he finds is a labyrinthine obstacle course seemingly designed to make the claiming of benefits next-to impossible. I, Daniel Blake is the story of one man’s interactions with the contemporary state apparatus, and an illustration of what happens when the two are at odds.
There isn’t very much to talk about with regard to I, Daniel Blake as a film. The aim of the film-making is largely to get out of the way of the story, to let the story speak for itself as it were. The music is minimal, the camerawork is staid, even the writing is nothing particularly special. It is telling that many of the most powerful moments happen without any dialogue at all. As an audience, we are invited to observe and relate. Most of us will understand what is happening, what we are seeing; we will not need to be told. Beyond some specifics of the plot, there is nothing to say this film couldn’t have been made in 1966 rather than 2016. And that, rather depressingly, is surely part of the point. This is a story about a new strain of an old oppression, a fresh alienation from a long-standing social order. The film attempts to outline the shape of that oppression and alienation today, and to make clear that it is different only in shape, not in kind, from the oppression and alienation of yesterday. This is why the methods of half a century ago can be used, and used effectively, to tell a story of now.
The central thesis of the film is that the state — in this case Britain, but it could in truth be almost any western European country — has changed from a support network designed to level out inequality and provide a safety net for its citizens into an administration designed to force people into certain, pre-ordained ways of living and approved forms of behaviour. There are, of course, a long litany of punishments for those who cannot or will not fit into the roles assigned for them. Leaving aside the argument that the nation state has always been an exploitative control apparatus, we might ask what the nature of this change means for those who are forced to interact with the state. Those who find themselves in dole offices, on workfare placements or attending mandatory CV workshops are often those least equipped for a battle with an administrative class tasked with moulding them into modern, streamlined, precarious workers. The ideal state service-user is one with no baggage; no illnesses, no claims on their energy or attention, no unruly desires. Daniel and Katie, the single mother-of-two recently relocated out of London he befriends, are not ideal service-users. They have heart problems and needy children, they care for people other than themselves. In their inability to match the administrative categories, they create friction. And in an economy where the mass casualisation of work has been a core strategy for decades, friction is unwelcome.
There are two strands of the story that are particularly moving and worth thinking about. The first is the relationship between Daniel and modern technology. Much of Daniel’s frustration with the benefits system lies in his inability to interact with the technologies they use to manage applications. He has no experience of using computers and no understanding of the internet. He relies on the help of friends and strangers to navigate this part of his application, and it is no coincidence that he first goes to a public library to find a computer he can use. The library is packed and their resources are badly overstretched. Daniel’s next-door neighbours, two kids who have no problem using the internet (and indeed use it to eke out marginal financial gains by acquiring and selling globalised commodities), highlight the serious changes in education and skill sets which have become normalised in quite a short period of time.
More importantly, Daniel’s troubles are evidence of how technology can be used, and is so often used, to discourage and alienate people who don’t care about it, people whose value systems are built around different centres. Daniel may be fascinated that the kid next door can Skype with a kid in China about Stoke City’s Charlie Adam (the Premier League is an exemplary global brand — none of the people in this film could actually afford to attend a Premier League game), but he treats it somewhat like magic. He appreciates it but never once feels like it is something he could make his own. By forcing him to do so much vital work online, the state administration is actively failing to meet Daniel’s needs. It is like making a job-centre inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair, and it is another example of the state making requirements of people before helping them, when they are entitled to that help regardless of their computational ability. The use of computers in this area allows for the further categorisation and surveillance of the people who come into contact with the system, filtering and numbering them as they arrive. The complete inability of most of the job-centre staff to have a conversation with Daniel — from the contracted “health professional” who decides he’s fit for work through to the manager who chastises the one member of staff who does try to help him — accentuates the vision of technology as a bulletproof screen through which the state can more comfortably and cost-effectively interact with its citizens.
The second telling part of the story is more subtle. Katie and her two children are moved into a dilapidated council house, which they try to turn into a home. Daniel, handy man that he is, helps out by doing lots of little odd jobs that Katie might not know how to do. On the face of it, this is simply one instance of a kind person helping another without any expectation of return, a rare occurrence here, and an example of the socially undervalued skills which Daniel possesses. Beneath that however lie examples of the ‘lifehacks’ which are so often valorised when the basic necessities of daily life are reduced or taken away entirely. Daniel teaches Katie’s kids about putting bubblewrap on their single-glazed windows to keep the heat in, and demonstrates the popular clickbait trick of using two flowerpots and a tea-light to warm up a room. While you could see this as just a mark of the man’s practicality, it seems more useful to wonder why fundamental things like food, warmth and light are denied to those who cannot afford them. This isn’t supposed to be some story of survival against the odds. It’s not Bear Grylls we’re watching, it’s just ordinary people in an ordinary city doing ordinary things. And for too many ordinary people, these kinds of ‘hacks’ are just one component of a never-ending desperation. Moments of intimacy and kindness are only specks of light against a darkness of intense strain, a constant struggle to stay alive. It is no wonder then that, when the type of people who smell opportunity in that struggle appear, whether loan shark or pimp, landlord or employer, their prey is incredibly vulnerable.
In a sense, the great emotional climax of the film is not the end, when Daniel’s speech about his citizenship is finally heard, nor even in his triumphant, desperate attempt at rebellious graffiti. It is when Katie breaks down in the food bank. Torn apart by hunger, fear and stress, she surreptitiously opens a can of chopped tomatoes and attempts to eat them. She is inevitably discovered, and she dissolves into floods of tears. The staff at the food bank instinctively understand what’s happened, they take care of her, talk her through it, calm her down. They give her food and water. They mind the children. In a world of purely transactional relationships — and this is what people mean when they talk about “neoliberalism” — the idea that people would have time for one another, that they might understand one another and empathise instinctively is almost a call to revolution. It is sad that it is only in these most degrading of situations that some people find the last vestiges of the social.
In various pieces leading up to its release, it was sometimes said that I, Daniel Blake ought to be shown in parliament, that it would show those ignorant politicians the reality of their decisions. This is a nice thought, but it is illusory. The kinds of decisions which result in the story of this film are not made ignorantly. They are made very intently, with an express purpose in mind. Politicians do not do what they do unknowingly. Even if they are not often exposed to the reality of those decisions, they make them because they have a vision for how they feel society ought to work. That vision, as it has been implemented in the UK and elsewhere over the last forty years, has as its heart the single goal of a logical, transactional, frictionless social organisation in which people know their place and are happy with that because they see that it makes sense. If there is a problem with I, Daniel Blake it is that it relies a little too heavily on the idea of “common sense” as a bulwark against this other type of imposed sense. In the battle for a better future there is no “common sense,” there is no neutral path, no middle way. Common sense is a battle-ground, and it is fought over in job centres, workplaces, council houses, streets and homes every day of the year. I, Daniel Blake, like all pieces of good protest art, is terrific at documenting how the particular demands of a dominant sensibility tragically affect those who have to live under it. And, also like all good pieces of protest art, it begs the question; what are we going to do about it?