“What’s wrong with you people?”
Anyone who’s made a trip to the DMV (and that would be nearly everyone) knows that bureaucracy can make you crazy. But what if you were dependent on the bureaucracy to get by day by day? I, Daniel Blake is Ken Loach’s most recent tale of an everyman who faces societal structures that are often at odds with what is right. Loach won his second Palme d’Or with this film. (His first was for The Wind that Shakes the Barley in 2006).
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a middle aged carpenter who is now out of work following a heart attack. He has been on disability pay. Now the bureaucracy has determined (despite what his doctor says) that he is fit for work, so he will no longer receive disability pay. He must apply for Job Seekers Assistance, which requires him to spend a good deal of time each week seeking a job. (Of course, even if someone wants to hire him, he can’t take the job because of his health.) To complicate matters, one can only apply online. He has never used a computer. As he tries to get someone to listen to him, he is confronted by an uncaring monolithic social services agency. The story has moments of humor, but it is also a very serious look at the way we dehumanize, frustrate, humiliate and shame those who ask for help.
He also meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother with two children also struggling with the social services. She had been homeless, but they have found a house for her. The problem is that she’s from London (where all her family and support are) and the house is far to the north. Daniel takes her under his wing. He is able to fix things in her house. Their friendship is important to them both, but its real focus is trying to figure out how to get the things that they should be entitled to.
We like to think that we have put a social safety net in place to help those in need. Disability payments, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. We often lump them together under the general term “welfare”, even though they are all vastly different. The idea behind them all is that as a society we know that there are some who are in need and that we have a certain common responsibility toward each other. (I could cite some specific Christian reasons, but those wouldn’t apply to society as a whole.) What always comes up is an idea of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Part of the reason for bureaucracies is to make sure people aren’t taking advantage of the system. That is, weeding out those we consider undeserving. But what of those who get caught in the Catch-22 world of bureaucratic rules? It’s not a matter of falling through the cracks. It is that the whole system seems rigged to make people feel miserable and ashamed.
The film is not, however, all about the uncaring people in the bureaucracy. In fact there are a few who do seem to care. But most of the caring people in the film are more of the everyman characters like Daniel and Katie. The dichotomy between the people who care about those in need and those who seem to want to break their spirits makes for a sharp contrast. As Daniel and Katie navigate the official and unofficial systems that could help them, they do find those who care about them, people who see them as inherently deserving of respect and help. Daniel is essentially this kind of person. For years he took care of his wife until her death. He takes care of Katie and her family even though he has no real connection to her. He simply sees that they need his help so he provides it. This stands in opposition to the way Daniel is treated by the system that has (for some unknown reason) deemed that he no longer qualifies for assistance.
If Loach is trying to shame anyone in this film it would be those who make the hard lives of those in need even harder. Those who can’t see beyond rules or even see that some rules just make it worse. Those who think that people in need are somehow less than anyone else. But he would also remind us all that those who touch the lives of others with care and kindness often reap rewards that go beyond what money can afford.
Photos courtesy IFC Films and Sundance Selects