The madness of Brexit and Trump is a symptom of both the failure of neo-liberal politics and the left’s ability to fight it, according to renowned British filmmaker Ken Loach.
“People are feeling angry and cheated and they don’t know necessarily how they are being cheated, but they know that things aren’t right,” he says.
The roots run deep, with Loach, his disdain clear despite his faultlessly polite demeanour, pointing to the political process begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the ‘80s. “That spread throughout the world catastrophically, where essential services get stripped out, the government withdraws itself and big business takes over. The way work has gone from a secure job that would last a lifetime with a wage you could bring a family up on, to now people are insecure.”
“People are feeling angry and cheated and they don’t know necessarily how they are being cheated, but they know that things aren’t right.”
Loach says people have had enough, but where do they turn? “Of course the right wing don’t want you to blame their system, because they’re doing very well out of it, so they say, ‘it’s the immigrants who are to blame,’ or ‘it’s the poorest people of all, because they are too lazy to work.’ It’s how the fascists came to power, isn’t it?
“There’s been a failure of the serious left, not the social democrat left, to have a narrative. And so, promoted by the press, and I have to say the BBC has not covered itself in glory, have allowed the far right to get all the attention. Trump has never been off the television. Nigel Farage was never off the television. I mean, they promote them, then they are surprised when they win?”
Watch I, Daniel Blake trailer
His latest bristling social commentary, I, Daniel Blake illustrates the effects of decades of these policies. Set in an austerity-wracked Newcastle, great swathes are caught in the pedantic and unforgiving cycle of an unbending social net fit to burst, where food banks are part of the fabric of everyday life.
Stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings a quiet stoicism to the title role, a hard grafter who’s been forced to take time off from his woodwork job after a near-fatal heart attack. While his doctor insists he cannot go back to work, faceless Decision Makers quoted by job centre employees deem him not unwell enough, and so he’s forced to jump through demeaning hoops to receive Job Seeker’s allowance, a task made all the harder by their insistence on online applications, a skillset far beyond him.
“I’ve always found comics make brilliant actors,” Loach says. “There’s an authenticity, I mean, most are working class and their humour comes from their language and their dialect, the rhythm of their words and the shared observations of things we all do and know.”
Loach’s particular brand of social realism is sometimes described as ‘miserabilism’, but it’s not a term he identifies with particularly. “It’s a middle class view of the working class that because they haven’t got so much money, they must be miserable. That says more about rich people thinking their happiness is tied to money.”
Indeed, there’s dry humour laced throughout I, Daniel Blake in spite of the ignominies endured. Though long-time writer Paul Laverty encountered many horror stories during his extensive research, including a man too scared to get in an ambulance after a bad fall in case he missed his job centre appointment in the morning and had his money cut off, or a jaw-dropping moment in a Glasgow food bank that becomes the film’s most heart-wrenching scene, they also met many a character with a snappy tongue. “There’s always a kind of humour and it would be quite unrealistic to take it out,” Loach says. “That’s how people are.”
Johns, incredible, is arguably surpassed by the harrowing performance of Hayley Squires as single mother Katie, dislocated from family down south in London due to a shortage of suitable housing and struggling to pay bills, forgoing food in favour of feeding her young children.
“Hayley understands from her own family how close people can be to that situation,” Loach says. “She was dead true, absolutely authentic and very touching. There’s a complexity to her. You’ve got to believe that Katie has the intelligence to pursue Open University as well as having a sense of the harsh choices open to her.”
There are clear shadows here of Carol White’s staggering performance in Loach’s seminal Cathy Come Home, a 1969 telemovie made for the BBC's Wednesday Play that relays the hurdles faced by a woman who, through no fault of her own, falls through the social security network cracks, becoming homeless. It was a game changer in its day, helping to establish homelessness charity Shelter in the UK.
Does Loach think I, Daniel Blake has the same power to influence public discourse and the political will of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government?
“I don’t think they will change, they have to be replaced,” he insists. “Whatever happens, they get more and more like themselves, more and more dug into their politics and their analysis. I mean, housing is a bigger disaster now than it was 50 years ago because the market has been left to its own devices. Speculators build where they can make most money and they’ve now got tower blocks of luxury flats in London, many of them empty. At the same time, teachers, fire fighters and essential workers can’t live anywhere near where they work because they can’t afford the rent and it’s going up into the middle class now where families are thinking, where are my kids going to live? It’s absolutely failing.”
Composer George Fenton, another regular collaborator, demonstrates the lightest of touches, with music largely absent from the score. “I thought from the beginning this film would have to be very economical, very austere and simple, because you need people to believe the story, and if you underline it with music, it can seem as though you’re cheating,’” Loach says. “Making someone feel sad because the violins are playing is the obvious cliché.”
While the score is sparse, when it does arrive late in the game, it’s delivered with precision. “George worked longer on finding those two or three fragments of music than he usually does for the whole film,” Loach reveals. “When you’ve only got a tiny bit, when it appears, it’s got to be so underplayed that people don’t think ‘oh my god, where’s the music coming from?’ It has to be very subtle.”
Winner of the 2016 Palme d'Or, I, Daniel Blake opens in Australian cinemas on November 17, 2016.
Watch 'I, Daniel Blake'
Saturday 5 December, 10:35pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Director: Ken Loach
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy