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‘I, Daniel Blake’, or how to stand up for yourself

Ken Loach’s latest film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ (2016), brought him his second Palme d’or and is now finally out on the UK screens. Film critics and the general public have often reacted in a strong, emotional way, debating whether the fiction realistically depicts the British society today. Regardless of your personal and political opinions, it is therefore an important film to watch, even just to know what this fuss is all about.

‘I, Daniel Blake’ is frustrating and unnerving from the first scene, as it is the story of a middle-age man, Daniel (Dave Johns), who desperately tries to sort out his financial situation by following various administrative procedures, after he had suffered from a heart attack. We first hear a female health professional asking him a heap of irrelevant questions and Daniel gradually losing patience. The screen remains black until his last answer and the woman is not given a face nor a human consciousness. Except for her accent and Daniel’s attempt to explain the situation to her, as if she could understand him, she behaves exactly like a robot, so that you finally wonder who is the stubborner of the two.

Because this scene, among many others, is deeply rooted in the daily experience of anyone living in the UK today, I initially wondered what made ME come all the way to the BFI to watch such boring things. Red-tape already takes a significant part of my time and energy every day, so I thought I might have as well stayed home and updated my CV or applied for a student Tax Discount - and the to do list goes on… However, I soon realised that my questioning the point of taking time out from administrative procedures was precisely what the film was denouncing: a sprawling, impersonal and dehumanising bureaucracy that crushes every chance of individual self-fulfilment.

I then noticed that I had instantly identified myself with Daniel, and so I could not abandon him in this mire. Although he seemed impatient and ill-tempered at first sight, he is quickly justified by the wall of incomprehension and deafness he constantly runs into. The film itself becomes even more appealing when Daniel suddenly stands up to defend a distressed young lady, Katie (Hayley Squires), who is about to be expelled by security from a Job Centre. Recalling chivalrous instincts of what ought to be a fairy-tale gentleman, Daniel therefore becomes the embodiment of a generally extinct common sense, and the hero of a daily life altercation.

The rest of the film is a fast-paced succession of difficult situations raising moral questions. Ken Loach seems to willingly blur the line between fiction and documentary, making the audience emotionally engaged and highly vulnerable to these dilemmas; He repeatedly asks them what THEY would do in a similar position. As a result, the palpable tension is gradually building up, although the main characters bravely fight to bring back some humanity, affection and solidarity into their lives. As much as Daniel and Katie try their best to improve their circumstances through legal, recommended ways, it just would not work. Their mental and physical health is increasingly jeopardised until they are both forced to accept that the present system cannot and will not help them. As precarity, poverty and social exclusion lurk and they realise they will not get a second chance, they start looking for other, less socially acceptable solutions. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ in fact reaches several climaxes when both character have to individually choose between their dignity, self-respect and survival, whilst committing to big sacrifices.

Ken Loach discusses through Daniel and Katie’s lives a number of classical socio-economic theories which seem to have greatly influenced the British society and politicians to this day: Adam’s Smith’s liberal idea that, when the conditions of a free market apply, poor people deserve to be poor for some logical reason and can realistically improve their socio-economic situation by working more; Friedrich Hayek’s ultra-liberal theory according to which the state actions should be limited to sovereign powers such as making legislation and protecting the national territorial integrity, but excluding all sorts of socio-economic interventions; and Albert Hirshman’s microeconomic theory of individuals solving problems either by accepting the circumstances they are facing (Loyalty), expressing their disapprobation (Voice) or totally rejecting them by leaving the situation (Exit). Daniel is in fact torn apart between his good British education which compels him to abide by the rule as much as he can, and the vital need to vent and denounce the illogical, absurd misunderstandings that threatens his entire life. However, he also feels the need to exit sometimes, to show that he cannot support nor tolerate such a rotten system.

To conclude, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ appears to belong to a body of fundamental texts advocating for human dignity and rights, against an autocratic state machine. Between Russian Golden Age literature such as Gogol’s short-stories ‘The Overcoat’ and ‘The Nose’, Emile Zola’s article ‘J’accuse’ published in 1898, and Andrea Arnold’s acclaimed film ‘Fish Tank’ (2009), ‘I, Daniel Blake’ gives a bare, almost non-fictional vision of the British public sector and how it can ruin UK citizen’s lives. The scene at the food bank is one of Ken Loach’s best achievements and anyone who has felt overwhelmed by the urban, administration-driven way of life in the UK will certainly related to it in the deepest of their hearts.

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