Saturday, 10 December 2016

'Always Look On The Sour Side of Life'

How Ken Loach Renders Reality on Film

Reviewing  'I, Daniel Blake' & the impact of 'Social Realism'

by Brian Bamford

Reverend David Grey, a former friar, at Ashton Jobcentre

THE film Ken Loach's 'I, Daniel Blake' had the biggest domestic opening of its director's career with receipts of more than £2 million after its first three weeks.  Audiences predictably have been massive in Newcastle where the film is staged.  But also on social media, where the hashtag #iamdanielblake took off.   It is to be released in the USA on December 23rd.

The Euro-septic MP, Iain Duncan Smith at one point complained that the film was unkind to the staff at the job-centres and benefit offices, who were enforcing the sanctions which is central to the film's message.

As things turned out audiences in this country have been flocking to see the film, which portrays the difficulties experienced by a Newcastle joiner with an heart condition trying to make sense of the British benefit's system. 

Working class culture has a rich tradition in many post-war British films.  In 1996 I interviewed Jim Allen, one of Ken Loach's screen-writers and a former building site worker, who had just collaborated with Loach on the film 'Land & Freedom' about the Spanish Civil War, and had previously worked with him on 'Raining Stones' (1993). 

At that time in an essay entitled 'Rendering Reality on Film: art and the emotion racket' (The Raven, Spring 1996), I wrote:   

'... in Raining Stones in 1993 (based on a council estate in Middleton, Greater Manchester), they are  concerned with the problems of survival on the dole in Britain today.  How to get by on a council estate amid the loan sharks and drug pushers.  Making out and leading a decent family life, in the aftermath of an era of social blight and desperation for the poor that shows  no sign of ending in the near future.'

Loach himself is uneasy about being identified with 'social realism' because he thinks it pigeon-holes his films puts off the public, he has said:  'It's a way for critics to isolate someone's work... As a film-maker you just want people to come with an open mind.'

Some doubt the accuracy and truth of the events in the film, although Mr Iain Duncan Smith has given a radio interview in which he said:that the film showed 'the very worst of anything that could happen'.

The benefit agencies and jobcentres have long been held responsible for inflicting suffering upon people at the bottom of society's pile.  Only last week the National Audit Office which found that  the Government spent £147 million more on administering the system than was saved through sanctions.  In my capacity as a Trade Union Council Secretary in Tameside, Manchester, I recently wrote to Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS union that represents jobcentre workers:

'...  the protests at Ashton Jobcentre are now in their second year...  During the last two-years, staff working at Ashton Jobcentre, have made numerous complaints that they have felt threatened by protests taking place outside Ashton Jobcentre.  While this has often led to police intervention, no protestor has ever been arrested, cautioned, or rebuked in anyway.  The police have often considered these complaints, as time-wasting or baseless...  You may be interested to know that on one occasion, the Reverend David Grey, a former friar from Gorton Monastery, entered Ashton Jobcentre dressed in clerical vestments (see picture) to offer staff spiritual guidance and counselling..  We were later told that the Jobcentre had summoned the police on the pretext that staff felt threatened and intimidated by this man of God.'

This kind of corny confrontation between the British benefit bureaucracy and the claimants has been going on for as long as I can remember.  It's an authentic long-running farce played out daily up and down the country.  Towards the end of the film, Daniel Blake asks to sign-off as a claimant saying that applying for work with a heart condition like his was just wasting everyone's time and only served to humiliate him as a claimant.   The film critic Antonia Quirke has written:  'Very few people can hit you in the thoracic cavity like Loach.  Of course I cried, as I always do...'.

This is what my mother would have called a 'tear jerker' or Bertold Brecht the 'emotion racket', but while social realism may scare some off the cinema Danny Leigh in the Financial Times suggests:

'That is the essence of modern social realism – a place on the screen for people often seen as statistics'.

The film has already won the Palm d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and has scored as  a hit at the British box office. 

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