Recently at the NZIFF I was fortunate enough to see Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, this year’s winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes. By the end of the film nearly everybody seemed to be in mourning and most of the people seated around me were sniffling and wiping their eyes.
I, Daniel Blake made me think about the ongoing WINZ reforms implemented in New Zealand, particularly since National’s 2008 election. It echoed my current experiences navigating the welfare state and, most of all, it reminded me of Liverpool—the city where I was born—and the hardships my family have faced particularly since the Thatcher era.
The film’s protagonist is Daniel Blake, a British widower suffering from a heart condition. He can no longer work and needs to access the state welfare system, however a ‘health professional’ declares him fit for work. From there Daniel enters a bureaucratic labyrinth of paperwork, struggling with technology and human indifference in order to eat and survive. In the course of his visits to the Job Centre (the British version of a WINZ office) Daniel befriends struggling single mother Katie and speaks with a handful of other characters, most of them being Job Centre officers, beneficiaries, or low-income workers.
Katie has had to move a long distance from London to Newcastle in order to access state housing—a detail reminiscent of New Zealand’s current housing crisis. Nearly 500km north of London, Newcastle is one of Northern England’s “low wage high welfare” towns. Loach takes particular interest in Northern England and the Midlands, areas that he describes to be “built on struggle and hardship.” His earlier films include Kes, about a young boy from a working class family who befriends a falcon, and Cathy Come Home, centered on a young mother’s struggle to find shelter during a housing crisis.
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I, Daniel Blake carries a tone of desperation and helplessness, but the characters remain resilient and determined. Their casual interactions and acts of mutual care feel strongly political against the backdrop of an increasingly neoliberal state. At the core of the British state is the Tory government, which, under austerity measures, is attempting to push people out of welfare without addressing the systemic issues that drive people to it in the first place. Some critics have called the film a “welfare state polemic” as Loach highlights the need for welfare in modern times. But he also sheds light on the need for community, support, and solidarity amongst those who bear the brunt of crisis capitalism and austerity measures.
On my last visit to Liverpool I sat around the television in my mother’s apartment and watched the popular British reality show Benefits Street with my extended family. Set on a street in Birmingham where 90% of residents are beneficiaries, Benefits Street has received plenty of backlash from conservative viewers. A recent article in The Mirror called one of the street’s residents, a bipolar unemployed woman, a “feckless thief” and “dole wallah,” rhetoric that is fairly common throughout British media.
My mother’s apartment in Liverpool overlooks rows of abandoned factories and warehouses along the Irish Sea. Occasionally ships arrive out of the winter fog and unload containers at the docks. Once Liverpool was described as the “New York of Europe” due to its transatlantic traffic (and, unfortunately, slave trade). It had booming industries during the Industrial Revolution and the local economy was relatively busy up until the 1970s and 80s when the ‘Iron Lady’ came about. Under Margaret Thatcher, my grandfather and his siblings were made redundant within a few years, along with hundreds of thousands of other working class people across the UK. The Tory strategy was to dismantle huge chunks of British industry, import cheaper resources and manufactured goods internationally, and gradually privatise what remained. In the late 80s my grandfather died. He died young, sick, and on benefits.
A short drive out of Liverpool is Kirkby, a small town where my father grew up. Established for Liverpool’s “overspill,” nearly 10,000 of Kirkby’s 40,000 residents claim benefits. Today the streets where my father’s family once lived are adorned with tall steel poles harbouring caged surveillance cameras. At least one camera is available for every five or six state homes. During my visit last year, a man at the end of the cul-de-sac noticed me taking photos and emerged to yell in a scouse accent: “What the fuchk are ya doing taking photies here lad?”
I apologised and we had a chat. The man was out of work and had recently returned from Afghanistan. He knows that Kirkby is in a dire state and he really doesn’t like the Tories. For many in this area, war is the only means of escape from life on the brim of poverty. During my father’s teenage years he (and many other young men) was sent to occupy Northern Ireland under the guise of “fighting terrorism’. In recent years, it has been Iraq or Afghanistan.
Destitute areas such as Kirkby are scattered across Northern England, with people living under state surveillance, on state money, inside of state housing. Abandoned factories border subdivisions in Kirkby as they border the sea in Liverpool. Tories and their conservative mates are quick to label these people useless criminals, up until they need their bodies to engage in state-sanctioned imperial warfare.
In recent years the Tories have implemented numerous benefit reforms under austerity programmes. The Tory government’s goal is to cut welfare and public spending by over £12 billion annually. Their reforms include: cuts for people whose homes aren’t small enough—children are required to share rooms;* greater caps on benefits; higher risk of incarceration for beneficiaries who commit fraud or error; the exclusion of 18-21 year olds from housing benefits; more rigorous “working ability” tests for disabled persons. In the film, Daniel Blake is subjected to such a test and is sent to find work despite his heart condition.
“I’m looking for non-existent jobs, and all it does is humiliate me.”
The Job Centre orders Daniel to attend an employment workshop. The camera fades into a classroom setting where 10-20 beneficiaries are seated before a whiteboard. A confident and sterile looking ‘job-coach’ is teaching them the importance of a fancy-looking CV. He tells them that they must make their CV stand out amongst the crowd, citing that a Costa Coffee café recently had eight job positions available for which 1700 people applied. As baffling as it sounds, this actually happened in Nottingham three years ago. Daniel cannot use a computer, all of his CVs are handwritten, and his potential for employment is beginning to look increasingly slim.
Here in New Zealand the unemployment rate has fluctuated in recent years, and it currently sits just over five per cent, with ~35% of beneficiaries being Māori and ~38% Pākehā. This may not seem very high, yet the current underutilisation rate is around 12.8%. The underutilisation rate represents the unemployed along with the underemployed; i.e. those who are in part-time and / or precarious, casual employment. Over the past few years, our own Tories, the New Zealand National government has enacted a series of similar welfare reforms. In 2014 the dole became “Jobseeker Support,” requiring 48 pages of paperwork to be filled in and resulting in what Labour has deemed a “paper war.” Harsher drug testing has been required for beneficiaries, widows and solo-parents with children over 14 must actively seek full-time employment, and beneficiaries with outstanding debt or fines now receive harsher punishments. In March 2015, 11,693 people on Jobseeker support had their assistance cancelled. Of these people, less than one third had found work and nearly 5000 had dropped out due to the huge amount of paperwork.
“A movie isn’t a political movement, a party or even an article. It’s just a film. At best it can add its voice to public outrage.”
One the most poignant moments in I, Daniel Blake comes when Katie, her two young children, and Daniel visit the local food bank, lining up amongst rows of hungry people. By the time they get in Katie is so starved that she hastily cracks open a can of baked beans and eats them cold with her fingers. The volunteers approach her and she begins to cry.
Another memorable scene is when Daniel stages a political protest outside the Job Centre, spray-painting the following upon a nearby building:
I, Daniel Blake demand my appeal date before I starve—and change the shite music on the phones!
Local people stop to cheer, take pictures, and express their support for Daniel Blake—a key moment of solidarity in the film. Such solidarity is what Loach is trying to encourage and facilitate, urging the economically disadvantaged to unite and revolt. For the lower classes of British society, the state controls and regulates so many aspects of their lives, yet consistently ignores and detracts from the systemic nature of poverty. Granting ongoing tax cuts to the wealthy, whilst pulling welfare from the poor.
Through filmmaking Loach adds his voice to public outrage. In an interview at Cannes this year he stressed the importance of stories that are informative; stories that resonate and serve as microcosms. Although I, Daniel Blake focusses only on a few characters, their daily visits to the Job Centre and the food bank, their hunger and rage, and their ongoing struggle for necessities are microcosmic. They allude to class struggle, structural injustice, and the state’s ongoing attacks upon the poor. In a time of huge wealth inequality and a neoliberal induced crisis, I, Daniel Blake testifies to the necessity of the welfare state.
I, Daniel Blake will be released in New Zealand cinemas in October.
* Children under the age of 14 or over 14 and of the same gender.