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Arts & Life

Ken Loach Gives The Real 'Daniel Blakes' A Voice Denied By The U.K. Benefit System

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two people struggling to make ends meet, looking for work and battling an unwieldy and seemingly uncaring welfare system. This is not the story of middle America, but of northeast England as portrayed in a gut-wrenching new film opening in theaters in this country this Friday. It's called "I, Daniel Blake," and it won the top prize at this year's Cannes International Film Festival. Howie Movshovitz of member station KUNC reports it's the latest from one of Britain's greatest living filmmakers, Ken Loach.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: The screen is black, then a pleasant voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

NATALIE ANN JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) Good morning, Mr. Blake. My name's Amanda.

MOVSHOVITZ: Daniel Blake is being assessed as to whether he can go back to work after a heart attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) Can you raise either arm to the top of your head as if you were putting on a hat?

DAVE JOHNS: (As Daniel) I've told you, there's nothing wrong with me arms and legs.

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) Could you just answer the question, please?

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Well, you've got me medical records. Can we just talk about me heart?

MOVSHOVITZ: She works for a private company contracted by the government to manage benefits for those out of work.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) Do you ever experience any loss of control leading to extensive evacuation of the bowel?

JOHNS: (As Daniel) No, but I can't guarantee there won't be a first if we'd even get to the point.

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) Can you complete a simple task as setting an alarm clock?

KEN LOACH: They are expected to sanction a certain number of people each week.

MOVSHOVITZ: Filmmaker Ken Loach is using the polite language of the bureaucracy. Sanction here means punish or cut from the rolls.

LOACH: We saw a letter where all the people - they're called job coaches - who are supposed to check whether people are really looking for work or not. The job coaches were listed with the number of sanctions they'd given out each week. The top three were highlighted. And the accompanying letter was to the effect that these three are satisfactory, the rest of you got to buck up.

MOVSHOVITZ: Loach and his crew visited job centers and hostels to interview Britons living on the edge and also those whose job it is to help them. Loach's characters face 52-page forms and robotic bureaucrats with a mix of pathos and humor.

LOACH: There is a grim comedy about this. It's absurd, it's comic and it is really dark. But I think that people do respond with humor - gallows humor, call it, or it's the humor of the soldiers in the trenches.

PAMELA HUTCHINSON: What is funny at first becomes horribly unfunny when you see the consequences.

MOVSHOVITZ: Pamela Hutchinson is a freelance film critic who's written for The Guardian and Sight and Sound. She points to a scene at a food bank where Daniel Blake's friend rips into a can of nuts she's been given because she's been starving herself to feed her two children.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

HAYLEY SQUIRES: (As Katie) I'm going under. I feel like I'm going under.

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Look, you'll get through this, darling. You'll get through this.

SQUIRES: (As Katie) I can't.

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Kate, listen to me. This isn't your fault.

HUTCHINSON: It's almost too unbearable to watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

JOHNS: (As Daniel) You've done nothing to be ashamed of.

HUTCHINSON: It came straight out of the research that the writer and the director did into who was using food banks and who was having difficulties with these benefits. And to see that onscreen and to know that it will remain there and people can always see that and they'll know what's going on in U.K. in 2016, I think that's very powerful.

MOVSHOVITZ: What's happened, says Ken Loach, is a deliberate attempt by the government to force the poor to carry the burden of austerity programs.

LOACH: There's a knowingness into this cruelty. That's what's shocking. You know, we're all used to inefficiency. This is using inefficiency as a political weapon.

MOVSHOVITZ: "I, Daniel Blake" is overtly political. It's been criticized by the British government as an unrealistic portrayal of the problems. But British newspapers have run articles profiling what they've called real Daniel Blakes. Loach says he wanted to use his camera to give his characters the kind of dignity the benefits system denies them.

LOACH: You just stand back and observe in a quiet, maybe sympathetic way through the framing, through the lighting, through the lens you use. You can encourage the viewer to see them as another person of equal value, of equal importance and to relate to them and to have a solidarity with them.

MOVSHOVITZ: The star of the film, Dave Johns, has said Loach helped him relate to a problem he hadn't thought much about. Film critic Pamela Hutchinson says "I, Daniel Blake" is the latest work in the director's long career of socially-engaged filmmaking.

HUTCHINSON: Without a shadow of a doubt, Ken Loach is one of Britain's greatest working filmmakers. And a few years ago, he had retired. And he basically said - when the Conservative government won the general election spring 2015, he decided to get back on it and make another film because he realized there's going to be something there for him to protest against.

MOVSHOVITZ: Loach himself is a realist. He doesn't expect one film to change government policy.

LOACH: Film is one small voice in a great cacophony of noise from newspapers, from the television, from social media, so it can have a little dent, you know? It can help to create a climate of opinion. It can maybe trigger a question or two. But it can't do more than that unless when people leave the cinema they carry it further.

MOVSHOVITZ: They seem to be doing just that. "I, Daniel Blake" has sparked public debate about the welfare system in the press and on the floor of Parliament, and it's been seen by more moviegoers in Britain than any of Ken Loach's previous films.

For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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