Sometimes I want to look up from whatever I’m doing (usually when I’m staring at a screen) and send up a prayer of thanks that at 81 years old, filmmaker Ken Loach continues to be who he is.
“I, Daniel Blake” (“Watashi wa, Daniel Blake”) is the latest in this brilliant and prolific British director’s list of titles, and when you consider that it grapples with many of Loach’s signature themes — joblessness, single motherhood, poverty, loneliness, the infuriating red tape of benefit systems — within a here-and-now context, it brings up an overwhelming sense of awe.
Loach’s outlook has remained fresh, untainted by cynicism, despite the frustrations he still harbors — and he still knows how to be funny. He has turned socialist realism into an art form and very few directors can match the power and persuasion of his craft. At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “I, Daniel Blake” won a triple crown: the Palme D’Or, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Palme DogManitarian Award. The last, which was awarded for his inclusion of a three-legged dog called Shae in the film, he tells me during a Skype interview, is something he was “especially happy about.”
True to Loach, “I, Daniel Blake” isn’t a “happy” or even “entertaining” movie — but — and here’s the incredible thing — you do come away feeling hopeful. Dave Johns stars as a 59-year-old unemployed carpenter living in Newcastle, England, who, after suffering a heart attack is told by a doctor that he shouldn’t return to work. It traces a few months in his life, during which time he discovers that, despite his condition, unless he looks for work at least 35 hours a week, he will not be eligible for the Jobseeker’s Allowance
He isn’t really well enough to do that, but if he doesn’t log in those 35 hours of job-seeking, he can’t eat. Nor can he take a job, even if he were to find one. It’s as infuriating for the viewer as it is the character. As he tumbles in this mudslide of bureaucratic hell, Daniel still manages to befriend and even help out Katie, a young single mother (played with studied excellence by Hayley Squires) who is trying to bring up two young children, and is in an even worse situation than he is.
“The ruling class will never provide a society where everyone can live with dignity, and it’s a lot worse now,” says Loach. “Though there are so many restrictions on what we can or can’t express about racial politics, gender equality and other issues in the political correctness field, there are absolutely no restrictions when it comes to business and economics.
“We can’t say a thing against rampantly free markets and business alienation, because the rich will get angry and no one can afford to anger the rich. This mentality has led us to an unprecedented mess. It has led us to the election of Trump.”
Loach adds that he is especially saddened by how much peoples’ options are now limited by economic circumstances.
“We’ve had five children and they’re all middle-aged now and I can see how their lives are so strongly dictated by economic circumstances; it’s all about whether you can or can’t pay for something,” he says. “I see it as a return to the 19th century, but in a different form. Workhouses have been replaced by sanctions. Now it’s fear of sanctions that have crushed trade unions, and it is crushing individual rights and international politics.”
For over half a century Loach has toiled (in his case there’s no other way to describe it) behind the camera. He has never wavered from his path or succumbed to the allure of Hollywood.
“I think it’s because I’ve always worked with writers who share the same views and ideas. When you do that, you have to constantly evaluate ourselves and keep each other on our toes,” he says, referring to Paul Laverty, his long-time collaborator since “Carla’s Song” in 1996.
“Paul and I have this agreement, to not respond to events in society and politics without first having a map and a compass,” he says. “We always ask ourselves where we’re heading first, before reacting to the news.”
News, however, now comes at a much more rapid rate, which Loach notes is related to advances in digital technology, something that has made it more difficult for him and Laverty to sort through the debris to unearth “what’s most important.”
In the film, Daniel, too, is overwhelmed by present technology, and is at first shunned, and then ignored, by the authorities because of his inability to handle a computer. The job-seeking process requires online procedures every step of the way, but Daniel is simply confused and frustrated when sat in front of a screen and told to use a mouse. He was a carpenter who has always worked with his bare hands to make objects, and there is little help offered for him to adjust.
“The digital revolution was supposed to ease everyone’s workloads but I think it’s just the opposite,” says Loach. “Workers are now exploited far more than they used to be and now people must work extraordinary hours just to keep their jobs.”
In Japan, people have taken their own lives because of work stress, I tell Loach, and he responds to this comment with sadness.
“People are dying from overwork in the U.K. too, and they’re not the ones making a lot of money,” he says. “I can’t fathom this society that punishes people for being poor. If you’re poor or you can’t work astronomical hours, it’s your own fault — that’s the way governments think these days. Obviously, we’ve come to a point where something must change.”
“I, Daniel Blake” opens nationwide on March 18.
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