Ken Loach was supposed to have retired. It was widely reported that the veteran British film-maker, known for his socially-conscious movies, had stopped making films in 2014.
Yet here he is, at the age of 80, back behind the camera with I, Daniel Blake, which won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes this year (his second win), and has its UAE premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival tonight.
The film has sparked a national debate in Britain about the treatment of the unemployed and disabled in an era of austerity politics, and the rise in the use of food banks.
It tells the story of 59-year-old Daniel Blake, a hard-working, happy-go-lucky do-gooder from Newcastle, whose life is turned upside down following a heart attack. He is played brilliantly by comedian Dave Johns, whose comic timing adds a few much-needed laughs that prevent the often tear-inducing scenes of hardship and cruelty from becoming too dour or melodramatic.
Declared unfit to work by his doctor, Blake has to claim benefits for the first time in his life. Soon, he discovers that the mythical British welfare state is just that – a myth – and instead of support, he is trapped within a nightmarish, Kafkaesque maze of bureaucracy where the main aim seems to be to disqualify as many people as possible from receiving financial help.
As part of the research for the project, Loach and his regular screenwriter, Paul Laverty, met struggling British citizens to hear their stories.
“It’s not hard to find them,” says Loach. “On our first day, we met a 19-year-old lad who was claiming housing benefit and had nothing in his fridge. He had not eaten for three days the week before.”
Blake befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two. She features in the film’s most talked-about scene, which shows her suffering from starvation and losing her dignity at a food bank.
Britain has in recent years experienced a dramatic rise in the number of food banks to help those trapped in poverty.
“The food banks are a comparatively recent phenomenon,” says Loach. “Five or six years ago, they were not anywhere near the scale that can be seen today.”
The film suggests that the welfare state, originally designed to help people in tough times, now humiliates the poor to force as many as possible out of the benefits system.
“I think what has changed is that the government knows what they are doing now,” says Loach. “They created a system designed to make the poor suffer and humiliate them and tell them that poverty is their fault. To demonstrate that, if you are not up to the mark, then you are sanctioned and your money stops.”
Sanctions are imposed if it is found that a jobless person is not spending at least 35 hours a week looking for work.
“They know the cruelty of it,” adds Loach. “I think that is what is different – they know the suffering that they are imposing on people.”
Theresa May replaced David Cameron as prime minister in July, in the aftermath of Britain’s Brexit vote, and her government recently announced a consultation on reforming Work Capability Assessments. These are the medical tests used to determine eligibility for sickness benefits, which in some well-publicised cases, have found people fit to work just days before they died. The announcement was hailed in some quarters as “the I, Daniel Blake effect”.
This impact on the political landscape shows that even without the prestigious prizes, I, Daniel Blake might well be one of the most important films of the year.