“When you lose your self-respect, you’re done for.”
The story begins with a dark screen, void of anything but a pair of voices that fill the atmosphere. One of them belongs to a man named Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), who we discover has just endured a heart attack, immediately disqualifying him from being an effective worker. As Daniel’s cardiologist, the other voice instructs him to give himself more time to recover and avoid returning to work.
You see, Daniel lives a simple existence — as a carpenter, he spends his newfound free time continuing to work with his hands and carving hanging mobiles. That is, when he isn’t trying to reap the government benefits he rightly deserves until he gets back on his feet. Ken Loach’s latest, I, Daniel Blake, is a modest, yet moving celebration of the working class, tenderly humanizing them in all the ways that the system rejects them for.
For the first time in his adult life, Daniel needs some help of his own. After spending much of his life caring for those around him — from complete strangers, his neighbors, to his wife who needed medical and emotional assistance until her passing — it is Daniel that is finally forced to seek the help he was accustomed to reject for so long, as he instead constantly distributed his service to those around him.
While he recovers from his heart condition, Daniel tries to collect Employment and Support Allowance to keep his head above water. Unfortunately for him, the system doesn’t agree, referring him to Jobseeker’s Allowance instead, essentially forcing him to waste his time and theirs by following meaningless rituals like attending CV workshops, filling out tedious forms on an advanced technology called the Internet, and searching for jobs even if he must ultimately refuse them. All of this in the name of collecting a monthly payment. Nothing less, nothing more.
In the midst of this conflict, Daniel meets a young, single mother named Katie (brilliantly portrayed by Hayley Squires) to whom he quickly establishes himself as a parental figure. Katie herself has been persecuted by the system for the most ridiculous and unjust of reasons — she was only a moment late to her appointment, therefore causing the Job Centre to put a halt to her benefits and now unable to feed her family of three and keep them warm. As she attempts to care for her young children, she is forced to sacrifice all that she has, even resorting to surrendering her dignity for the sake of their wellness.
As Daniel and Katie bond over their struggles, whether it be sharing a home-cooked meal, going to the local food bank together, or helping each other in carrying groceries home, Loach highlights a textured, heartrending relationship between the pair, bringing out some of the most emotional scenes of the film. Even when the system fails them, they provide the emotional support and humanity no form of government could ever provide.
In the face of an unforgiving system, I, Daniel Blake is an extraordinary piece of commentary about ordinary people merely trying to survive their everyday lives. With its clinical, straightforward cinematography, the film depicts a bleak representation of reality, which in this case may simply be its purest, most honest, form. Loach remembers the human stories that get lost in the shuffle of systemic rejection, highlighting the simplicity of their lives whilst showing just what makes them superhuman, having to overcome far more than they are given credit for.
I, Daniel Blake is playing at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles