“This doesn’t have to be your problem.”
The above is essentially a throwaway line in Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” but it’s the one piece of dialogue that stuck with me throughout. The global rise of far-right politicians and policy remedies has threatened longstanding social welfare structure, and this is likely a much scarier development in Europe, where these programs are much more deeply ingrained. In this time, what constitutes a problem, and for who?
Loach has long been an empathetic chronicler of people relegated to the periphery of central institutions in their lives – family, city, nation. By involving us in their marginalized or overlooked stories, his cinema makes the case that a problem caused by our societal arrangements is not just a problem for one person. They are a problem for all of us, and by taking society at face value, we sign off in support of these issues.
“I, Daniel Blake” takes an unsparing, unadorned look at austerity in England through the eyes of a man most likely to slip through a hole in the safety net. Dave Johns’ eponymous Daniel Blake is among the most vulnerable left behind by technological changes in the economy: a senior citizen losing his capacity to contribute physically and remains well behind the pace digitally. When a heart problem sidelines him from a construction job, Daniel must navigate the bureaucratic mess to collect disability leave … or is it unemployment? The system can never quite figure out what to do with him or what kind of checks he should collect.
Loach’s feelings about the red tape ought to be crystalline from the opening credits, which roll over a black screen during a dialogue exchange between Daniel and a welfare officer. She’s obviously reading from some kind of script meant to level the playing field by creating easily replicable standard talking points for each person she sees. To Daniel, however, this talk is demoralizing and as depersonalized as hearing words spoken by people we cannot see in the frame.
Later on at the same facility, he overhears the protestations of a young single mother (Hayley Squires’ Katie) who similarly refuses to be bossed around by the bureaucrats. It’s here when Daniel is advised, “This doesn’t have to be your problem.” It’s here where he realizes that these agencies encourage us to look out for each other, collective responsibility for each other be damned – and also that it doesn’t have to be this way. At this moment, Katie’s problem becomes Daniel’s problem, and their problem becomes our problem.
Loach never shies away from just how daunting a situation they face, even with each other’s support. As Daniel attempts to find work through government offices, he must learn to use a computer for the first time. Loach never documents his tribulations with torturous contempt for the audience, though he does ensure we notice the absurdity of trying to force-fit an older generation into a new system that does not fit their skill-set. Similarly, he ensures that hunger is not an abstract construct or a piece of poverty porn to elicit our sympathies from afar; it’s a grim, grimy reality. When Katie gorges herself on canned provisions at a food bank, the moment is a crucial emotional release for her and a wake-up call for us.
The film might take a turn toward the didactic toward the end, typical for Loach and frequent screenwriter Paul Laverty, but that hardly erases the impact of “I, Daniel Blake” throughout. We could all use 100 minutes that challenge us to reaffirm or renege our collective responsibility to our fellow countrymen. This need not require the level of commitment Daniel exhibits for Katie and her children. But it starts with hearing their stories. It continues with examining the structures that create and perpetuate their dwelling in poverty. And, perhaps, the solution lies in us. B+ /