‘Devastating’ welfare drama hits screens

Welfare and square: stand-up comedian Dave Johns plays Daniel Blake in Ken Loach’s latest film.

Today, I, Daniel Blake reaches British cinemas on a wave of hype. The drama about a man mistreated by the welfare state has wowed the film world. But can it have the same impact on society?

Daniel Blake has had a heart attack. His doctor warns him that he is too ill to work. The government tells him that he is not ill enough to receive benefits. Stuck in the middle, Blake slides into poverty.

Such is the story of I, Daniel Blake, which opens in UK cinemas today. Made by veteran left-wing director Ken Loach, the film is a powerful critique of Britain’s welfare state. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes – the film world’s top honour – and praise from critics. The Times called it ‘devastating’.

Loach is not new to hard-hitting social dramas. Next month marks the 50th anniversary of his television play Cathy Come Home, about a woman who loses her home. At the time, it was watched by 12m people – a quarter of the UK’s population. The film was mentioned in Parliament, led to a change in the law, and inspired the creation of the charity Crisis.

Critics of the welfare state will hope that I, Daniel Blake can do the same. But Loach is sceptical. Speaking to The Guardian, he predicted that audiences would accept Blake’s predicament as ‘normal’.

For as long as movies have existed, people have debated their power to change society. Governments have always recognised their potential for propaganda: as Lenin put it, ‘of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.’ Schools use films to teach values; advertisers use them to sell products.

Recently, the rise of the documentary has placed social issues at the heart of moviemaking. Some docs have had direct consequences: The Thin Blue Line overturned a man’s conviction for murder. Others have less visible effects: climate change film An Inconvenient Truth inspired three out of four viewers to change their lifestyle.

The trouble is that a film’s overall impact is very hard to measure. This raises tough questions about cinema’s relationship to its audience. Does a film affect a society, or merely reflect it? And do people tend only to watch movies whose message they already agree with?

In short: is Loach right to be sceptical?

Plus ça change

Films that trigger change are rare exceptions, say some. A powerful movie can move an audience, but it is unlikely to rouse them to action. If anything, the influence of cinema has waned since the time of Cathy Come Home: with the decline of public service broadcasting, such an uncommercial film would never reach 12m people today.

‘Change’ is not just about immediate action, reply others. Great films get under people’s skin and subtly affect their worldview in a way news reports cannot. This can lead to a public debate, and then concrete changes. In fact, with the internet, films now have a longer life and broader audience – and thus a greater impact – than ever before.

You Decide

  1. Watch the trailer for I, Daniel Blake in Become An Expert. Do you want to see the film? Why (not)?
  2. What is the main purpose of cinema?

Activities

  1. Pick a film that changed the way you think. Write a short review of it.
  2. Choose a social issue that you think deserves more coverage. Write the script for a short film about that issue.

Some People Say...

“Poetry makes nothing happen.”

W. B. Yeats

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is this film important?
Since 2010, the British government has shrunk and reorganised the welfare state. Some argue that this saves costs and encourages people to work. Others blame these policies for a rise in poverty: for example, the use of food banks (charities that hand out food) is at record levels. I, Daniel Blake examines the subject at a critical moment.
But I’m not British.
Doesn’t matter. The themes of poverty and an uncaring government are universal. As the Cannes jury put it, the movie ‘resonates in your heart and soul’.
Who is Ken Loach?
Arguably Britain’s most important living filmmaker. Now aged 80, he has spent his career examining a range of social causes, from abortion rights to the Spanish civil war. His films often denounce capitalism and government abuse.

Word Watch

Welfare state
A system whereby the government sees to the needs of the poor and unwell by providing services, grants and other benefits.
Cannes
Held every May in the south of France, Cannes is the world’s most prestigious film festival.
Change in the law
Thereafter, housing had to be provided to homeless fathers as well as mothers and children.
Crisis
The UK’s national homelessness charity. It helps find housing and employment for the homeless, and lobbies the government for policy changes.
Lenin
Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) was the first leader of the Soviet Union. Under his regime, Russia’s film industry was nationalised and filmmakers sympathetic to Communism were given plenty of support.
The Thin Blue Line
This classic 1988 documentary revisited the murder of a policeman in 1976. Through interviews with those involved, and elaborate reconstructions of the crime, it argued that the convicted man was not guilty.
Three out of four viewers
According to a 47-country survey conducted by The Nielsen Company and Oxford University.

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