Interview: Ken Loach on I, Daniel Blake

The new film by British filmmakerKen Loach, I DANIEL BLAKE, won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and is set to open the Gent Film Festival this month.

Loach’s unique style of social realism has been at the forefront of British Cinema for over 50 years, directing a prolific slate of passionate tales of social injustice, including POOR COW (1967), KES (1969), LAND AND FREEDOM (1995) and THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (2006), the film that won him his first Palme d’or.  Loach is one of only nine directors to have twice won the prestigious award.

The film tells the story of Daniel Blake (played by actor & stand-up comedian Dave Johns), 59, who has worked as a joiner most of his life in Newcastle. Now, after a heart attack and nearly falling from a scaffold, he needs help from the State for the first time in his life.

He crosses paths with a single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) 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 as played out against the rhetoric of ‘striver and skiver’ in modern day Britain.

Loach first rose to prominence with his episode of the Wednesday Play TV Series in 1966. CATHY COME HOME was described ‘an ice-pick to the head’ of anyone who saw it. The bleak tale of Cathy, who loses her home, husband and eventually her child through the inflexibility of the British welfare system, directly lead to changes in the homeless laws and the public launch of the charity ‘shelter’.  The Times film critic, Kate Muir, calls I DANIEL BLAKE another ice-pick.

Ken Loach, 

There were rumours that Jimmy’s Hall was going to be your last film. Was that ever the case, and if so what persuaded you to make I, Daniel Blake? 

That was a rash thing to have said.  There are so many stories to tell.  So many characters to present…

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.

Where did you start your research?

I’d always wanted to do something in my home town which is Nuneaton in the middle of the Midlands, and so Paul [Laverty, who wrote the film] and I went and met people there. I’m a little involved with a charity called Doorway, which is run by a friend Carol Gallagher. She introduced Paul and me to a whole range of people who were unable to find work for various reasons – not enough jobs being the obvious one. Some were working for agencies on insecure wages and had nowhere to live. One was a very nice young lad who took us to his room in a shared house helped by ‘Doorway’ and the room was Dickensian. There was a mattress on the floor, a fridge but pretty well nothing else. Paul asked him would it be rude to see what he’d got in the fridge. He said, “No” and he opened the door: there was nothing, there wasn’t milk, there wasn’t a biscuit, there wasn’t anything. We asked him when was the last time he went without food, he said that the week before he’d been without food for four days. This is just straight hunger and he was desperate. He’d got a friend who was working for an agency. His friend had been told by the agency at five o’clock one morning to get to a warehouse at six o’clock. He had no transport, but he got there somehow, he was told to wait, and at quarter past six he was told, ‘Well there’s no work for you today.” He was sent back so he got no money. This constant humiliation and insecurity is something we refer to in the film.

Out of all the material you gathered and the people you met, how did you settle on a narrative?

That’s probably the hardest decision to take because there are so many stories. We felt we’d done a lot about young people – Sweet Sixteen was one – and we saw the plight of older people and thought that it often goes unremarked. There’s a generation of people who were skilled manual workers who are now reaching the end of their working lives. They have health problems and they won’t work again because they’re not nimble enough to duck and dive between agency jobs, a bit of this and a bit of that. They are used to a more traditional structure for work and so they are just lost. They can’t deal with the technology and they have health problems anyway. Then they are confronted by assessments for Employment and Support Allowance where you can be deemed fit for work when you’re not. The whole bureaucratic, impenetrable structure defeats people. We heard so many stories about that. Paul wrote the character Daniel Blake and the project was under way.

And your argument is that the bureaucratic structure is impenetrable by design…

Yes. The Jobcentres now are not about helping people, they’re about setting obstacles in people’s way. There’s a job coach, as they’re called, who is not allowed now to tell people about the jobs available, whereas before they would help them to find work. There are expectations of the amount of number of people who will be sanctioned. If the interviewers don’t sanction enough people they themselves are put on ‘Personal Improvement Plans’.  Orwellian, isn’t it?  This all comes from research drawn from people who have worked at the DWP, they’ve worked in Jobcentres and have been active in the Trade Union, PCS – the evidence is there in abundance. With the sanctioning regime it means people won’t be able to live on the money they’ve got and therefore food banks have come into existence. And this is something the government seems quite content about – that there should be food banks. Now they’re even talking about putting job coaches into food banks, so the food banks are becoming absorbed in to the state as part of the mechanism of dealing with poverty. What kind of world have we created here?

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.

What was it like going to film in food banks? 

We went to a number of food banks together and Paul went to more on his own. The story of what we show in the food bank in the film was based on an incident that was described to Paul. Oh, food banks are awful; you see people in desperation. We were at a food bank in Glasgow and a man came to the door. He looked in and he hovered and then he walked away. One of the women working there went after him, because he was obviously in need, but he couldn’t face the humiliation of coming in and asking for food. I think that goes on all the time.

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