Austerity kills real people

Terry Conway reviews Ken Loach’s new film I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake’s first showing in Britain was as part of the World Transformed organised by Momentum,  on the same day as Jeremy Corbyn’s momentous second victory in the labour leadership contest. I can’t think of a more fitting way to remind people still glowing from that success of why the unstinting fight against austerity Britain is more essential than ever.  And it was trailed at Labour conference by shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions, Debbie Abrahams, before she pledged to abolish the Work Capability Assessment in a graphic illustration of how Labour under Corbyn is changing.

I’ve been a fan of Loach’s work for years and I’m not sure if I’ve missed any of his films but this I think is his most powerful yet. It’s a damning indictment of the way the benefits system metes out both poverty and equally devastating humiliation.

I knew I would be biased when I first heard that this  was set in Newcastle – the place of my birth in the 1950, when long term unemployment and poverty already cut deep scars into the consciousness of working class communities which felt even then like we had been left behind by history.  In that sense it was an accident of birth that gave me a ‘socialism of the heart’ (to misquote Billy Bragg). The accents (and yes there are a range determined by precise geography but also class) of the wind and sea-swept North East make my spine tingle, while the glimpses of familiar scenery give me pause to remember my own engagement with those places.

But the infrastructure of the film – the powerful human connections so magnificently made manifest through Lavery’s beautiful script and the wonderful camera work of Loach and of course the illuminating insights of the actors, could have been in any working class community not only in Britain but across the world.

The way that people who have nothing so often reach out to each other across their pain, breaking through their sense of isolation with the smiles and laughter of companionship is made real on the screen is what gives it is power and its universal appeal. This film is special in showing those moments between people who have a lot to separate them – age, gender, race and place of birth but who share love and solidarity.

I think my favourite moments were between Daniel , who I suppose is a pushing 60 year old male Geordie and Daisy who I maybe 9, mixed race and been in the North East for a few days when they first connected, when he made a mobile for her new but threadbare room. What a smile. But her insight and persistence a few weeks later when, austerity had driven the cold steel of division between her Mum Katie and Daniel still has a sob catching in my throat when I think about it days later. I’m not going to say any more about what happens because everyone should watch it for themselves.

And don’t let me paint only part of the story. I can’t imagine anyone reading this review who won’t rage when they see I Daniel Blake, who won’t be motivated to be more vigorous in insisting that the world of benefit sanctions kills people. The long queue going into the food bank serves to remind us of the myriad different lives that Loach and Lavery could have followed instead – all so similar, all completely different.

So yes I struggled to hold back my tears, I went through moments of feeling it was too much to bear because the stories we were watching unfold were so close to those of people I know, people I care about in the real world.  I also laughed and smiled – and I can’t wait for the opportunity to see it again


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