I, DANIEL BLAKE
An emotional, gripping film that makes you want to stand up and shout
Winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Directed by KEN LOACH. Written by PAUL LAVERTY
Daniel Blake (59) has worked as a joiner most of his life in Newcastle. Now, for the first time ever, he needs help from the State. He crosses paths with a single mother Katie and her two young children, Daisy and Dylan. Katie’s only chance to escape a one-roomed homeless hostel in London has been to accept a flat in a city she doesn’t know, some 300 miles away. Daniel and Katie find themselves in no-man’s land, caught on the barbed wire of welfare bureaucracy. Directed by Ken Loach
FROM DIRECTOR KEN LOACH
What lies at that root of the story?
The universal story of people struggling to survive was the starting point. But then the characters and the situation have to be grounded in lived experience. If we look hard enough, we can all see the conscious cruelty at the heart of the state’s provision for those in desperate need and the use of bureaucracy, the intentional inefficiency of bureaucracy, as a political weapon: “This is what happens if you don’t work; if you don’t find work you will suffer.” The anger at that was the motive behind the film.
Do you feel it’s a story that speaks mainly to these times?
I think it has wider implications. It goes back to the Poor Law, the idea of the deserving and the undeserving poor. The working class have to be driven to work by fear of poverty. The rich have to be bribed by ever greater rewards. The political establishment have consciously used hunger and poverty to drive people to accept the lowest wage and most insecure work out of desperation. The poor have to be made to accept the blame for their poverty. We see this throughout Europe and beyond.
Why did you decide to set the film in Newcastle?
We went to a number of places – we went to Nuneaton, Nottingham, Stoke and Newcastle. We knew the North-West well having worked in Liverpool and Manchester so we thought we should try somewhere else. We didn’t want to be in London because that has got huge problems but they’re different and it’s good to look beyond the capital. Newcastle is culturally very rich. It’s like Liverpool, Glasgow, big cities on the coast. They are great visually, cinematic, the culture is very expressive and the language is very strong. There’s a great sense of resistance; generations of struggle have developed a strong political consciousness.
How did you come to cast Hayley Squires as Katie?
We met a lot of women who were all interesting in different ways but again, Hayley’s a woman with a working class background and she was just brilliant. Every time we tried something out she was dead right. She doesn’t soften who she is or what she says in any way, she’s just true really, through and through.
You changed how you edited this film from previous ones. How and why?
We’d been cutting on film for many years but we found that the infrastructure for cutting on film was just disappearing. The biggest problem was the cost of printing the sound rushes on mag stock and also printing all the film rushes. It was more than I could justify so, reluctantly, we cut on Avid. It has some advantages but I found cutting on film was a more human way of working - you can see what you’ve done at the end of the day. Avid seems quicker but I don’t think the overall time taken is any less. I just find the tactile quality of film is more interesting.
Do you make films hoping to bring about change and, if so, what would that mean in the case of I, DANIEL BLAKE?
Well it’s the old phrase isn’t it: ‘Agitate, Educate, Organise.’ You can agitate with a film - you can’t educate much, though you can ask questions - and you can’t organise at all, but you can agitate. And I think to agitate is a great aim because being complacent about things that are intolerable is just not acceptable. Characters trapped in situations. where the implicit conflict has to be played out, that is the essence of drama. And if you can find that drama in things that are not only universal but have a real relevance to what’s going on in the world, then that’s all the better. I think anger can be very constructive if it can be used; anger that leaves the audience with something unresolved in their mind, something to do, something challenging.
Dave Johns is a stand-up comic as well as an actor. Why did you cast him as Dan?
The traditional stand-up comedian is a man or woman rooted in working class experience, and the comedy comes out of that experience. It often comes out of hardship, joking about the comedy of survival. But the thing with comedians is they’ve got to have good timing – their timing is absolutely implicit in who they are. And they usually have a voice that comes from somewhere and a persona which comes from somewhere, so that’s what we were looking for. Dave’s got that. Dave’s from Byker, which is where we filmed some of the scenes, he’s a Geordie, he’s the right age, and he’s a working class man who makes you smile, which is what we wanted.
FROM WRITER PAUL LAVERTY
Rebecca (producer) and I didn’t think it would take Ken long before he wanted to sink his teeth into something fresh after JIMMY’S HALL, despite the rumours. It didn’t. It was a rich cocktail that seeped into what became I, DANIEL BLAKE.
The sustained and systematic campaign against anyone on welfare spearheaded by the right wing press, backed by a whole wedge of poisonous TV programmes jumping on the same bandwagon caught our eye. Much of it was crude propaganda, savouring the misery of often pathetic characters in the most prurient fashion. And all the better if they had a drink problem, a sure sign of them wasting precious taxpayers’ money.
Little wonder it led to a spectacular aberration. Studies found that the average person thought that in excess of 30% of welfare payments were claimed fraudulently. The truth is that it is 0.7%. It was no surprise to find out that many people on benefits had been insulted and humiliated with a significant number being attacked physically.
But the immediate spark for this story started with a call I got from Ken to join him on a visit to his childhood home of Nuneaton where he has close connection with a charity that deals with homelessness. We met some terrific workers and they introduced us to some of the youngsters they were working with. One lad whom they had recently helped shared his life story with us. It was his casual mention of hunger and description of nausea and light-headedness as he tried to work (as usual, zero hour contracts with precarious work on an ad hoc basis) that really struck us.
As Ken and I traveled the country, one contact leading to another, we heard many stories. Food banks became a rich source of information. It struck us that when we made MY NAME IS JOE or SWEET SIXTEEN, or even going further back to Ken’s earlier films, one of the big differences now was the new world of food banks.
We heard stories of “revenge evictions” i.e. tenants thrown from their homes for having the temerity to complain of faults and poor conditions. We were given examples of the poor being moved from London and offered places outside the capital, a species of social cleansing. And it was impossible not to sense the echo from some fifty years back when Ken and colleagues made CATHY COME HOME although this was something we never talked about.
Breaking the stereotypes, we heard that many of those attending the food banks were not unemployed but the working poor who couldn’t make ends meet. Zero hour contracts caused havoc to many, making it impossible to plan their lives with any certainty and leaving them bouncing between irregular work and the complexity of the benefit system.
Another significant group we spoke to in the food banks were those who had been sanctioned (i.e. benefits stopped as punishment which could be from a minimum of a month to three years) by the DWP.
Some of the stories were so surreal that if we had them in the script they would undermine credibility, like the father who was sanctioned for attending the birth of his child, or a relative attending a funeral, despite informing the DWP of the reasons. Literally millions have been sanctioned and their lives, and those of their children, thrown into desperation by a simple administrative decision. Criminals are treated with more natural justice, and the fines are often less than what benefit claimants lose when hit by a sanction.
One worker in a Jobcentre showed me a print-out that showed how many sanctions he and his colleagues had given out, together with a covering letter from his senior manager, stating that only three “job coaches” had carried out enough sanctions in the past month. If they didn’t carry out more sanctions they would be threatened with the Orwellian sounding PIP - “Personal Improvement Plan”
Another key group that caught our attention were those men and women who were sick or injured and who had applied for Employment Support Allowance. The medical assessments for this benefit had been subcontracted to a French company, and then in turn to an American multinational after a series of scandals. The stories we heard, and the practices revealed, were legion. One furious young doctor told me of one of his patients who was dying of cancer, could barely walk, who was deemed “fit for work.” One day he fell at home and cut his head. The ambulance was called but he refused to get in as he was signing on the next day at the Jobcentre and feared a sanction that would stop his benefits. He died about three months later. What needless misery and humiliation was caused to this older man in his last days.
Daniel Blake and Katie Morgan are not based on anyone we met. Scripts can’t just be copied and transported from the food bank or the dole queue. Dan and Katie are both entirely fictional, but they were infused with all of the above and more. They were inspired by the hundreds of decent men, women and their children who shared their intimate stories with us. Faces of articulate intelligent people now come to mind, frightened people, older people tormented by the complexity of the system and new technology, (many of the staff within the Jobcentres told us they would like to have helped more but were prevented by managers obsessed with reducing “footfall” from doing so)
There were endless possibilities. The characters could have been similar to the young people in Nuneaton scrambling around, hovering over homelessness on zero hour contracts. They could have been disabled, as we found out from experts the disabled have suffered on average six times more than any other group from the government’s raft of cuts, a truly staggering scandal. Many of those sanctioned have been psychologically vulnerable suffering from depression and other mental illnesses. In the memorable words of one civil servant, the easy targets were “low-hanging fruit” which perhaps could be the title of another poignant ballad to join Billie Holiday’s.