Of Coconuts and Sharks: I, Daniel Blake

Please note that this article contains spoilers.

Cathy, Eric, Jack, Joe, Carla, Jimmy: to date, the eponymous protagonists of the films of Ken Loach have all been on a first-name basis.  Even his directorial debut, an episode of the BBC's Teletale anthology series, was simply titled Catherine (dir Ken Loach, 1964).  In over half a century of filmmaking, there was nary a prominent surname to be found - well, not unless you counted that commercial for, erm... McDonald's.

It isn't solely a climactic act of resistance which puts Daniel Blake's Sunday name on show here.  One of the reasons why Dan - as he really is - is singled out for not-angry-just-disappointed parent treatment is to be found in the film's opening dialogue.  As in Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty's early collaboration, My Name Is Joe (dir Ken Loach, 1998), this plays out over a blank screen.  But instead of Peter Mullan's character naming himself as part of a personal testimony of alcoholism, Daniel Blake's name is first spoken by a complete stranger: a self-styled 'health care professional' who is subjecting him to an infantilising telephone questionnaire

Though we don't yet realise it, this phone call sets up the opposing tensions at play throughout the rest of the film, as Dan comes up for the first time against the immovable object which is the Department for Work and Pensions.  Yet Dan is no unstoppable force; likely he once was, but he is also the first Loach protagonist to be pushing 60.  It's not just his age or his precarious health (recovering as he is from a recent heart attack) which render him all too human, though; his need for genuine contact with people is apparent even from these initial moments, as we hear him try desperately to claw through to the personality behind the health care professionalism.

Thus the film sets up its two camps: the Mr Blakeians and the Danites.  The former refer to 'Mr Blake' not as a mark of respect, but as a technique of dehumanisation - a way of sticking to the script and subtly coercing the likes of Dan into doing the same.  As they do, Dan increasingly resembles the owner of another of 21st-century cinema's great surnames: Mr Lăzărescu, who shares with him a similarly Kafkan journey into an ever-decreasing spiral of bureaucracy.  In the same way Lăzărescu is passed along a seemingly endless chain of health care professionals, none of whom are willing to let his death be on their hands, so Dan is shunted from one invisible DWP 'decision maker' to another, all of whom fail to acknowledge the undeniable truth that looking for work is a hell of a lot of work - not least of all in having to endure the strains of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, sometimes for hours on end.

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What Loach and Laverty make abundantly clear, however, is that Dan's real enemies are not the individual employees of the DWP, but rather the Mr Blakeian regulations which govern their behaviour.  'Digital by default' and designed for the majority, their top-down, state-knows-best strictures instinctively reward employees who treat claimants like cattle, who allow troublesome individuals to slip silently from sight as so much collateral damage.  These regulations are directed not only outwardly, but upon those like Jobcentre Plus employee Ann, who appears to have been censured several times for acts such as assisting the computer-illiterate Dan with filling in his Jobseeker's Allowance form online.  Portrayals of incidents like these seem to point directly to an end credit thanking DWP insiders for their assistance - given, unsurprisingly, under conditions of strict anonymity

Time and time again, it is the Danite bending of regulations to suit individual needs which is seen to be in the moral right.  It would require a frankly inhuman adherence to the letter of the law, for instance, to side against the grocery store manager who refuses to punish the film's second protagonist, Katie, for shoplifting sanitary towels she can't afford, and which her foodbank has run out of [1].  And yet, so much cinema time is spent following Dan and Katie through their endless Jobcentre labyrinths that one almost forgets that not all welfare organisations have to operate with their chilling formality.  When Katie visits the foodbank, its volunteers treat her with a degree of kindness which she's been left almost unable to process; we feel nearly as shocked and grateful as she is to find herself finally dignified as a human being.

But this moment of tenderness is undercut by the tragedy that such a foodbank should even exist in the present day.  The shot of its seemingly-endless queue - composed entirely of genuine claimants - induces as much rage as when an appeals advocate tells Dan and Katie that he takes on cases like theirs every week.  He means it reassuringly, but how comforting can it be to know that there is such regular work for those who must protect people against the actions of their own state?

At one point, Dan asks Dylan, Katie's young son, what kills more people: coconuts or sharks?  In some ways, the question says much about the dangers which Dan himself faces throughout the film.  Up against the sharks of this world, he would be well-equipped; they give what he would consider a fair fight.  But the DWP is not a shark - it is something which falls on him, unthinkingly, unpredictably, as if from a great height.  It isn't inherently malevolent: until it's set in motion, it's just there, doing whatever coconuts and quangos do.  The law of gravity which turns it into an object of destruction isn't culpable for any damage done either.  So when the result is death by coconut, what recourse is there?  At least sharks can be shot (or, on occasion, blown up).

The real tragedy of I, Daniel Blake is that there isn't any single moment where Dan's fate could change, once the wheels of his
benefits decision have been set in motion.  He doesn't make any fatal error based on hubris, or get caught cheating the system: his only mistake is to stand under the wrong coconut.  Everyone who has spent months in and out of Jobcentres knows the fear of sanctions, many, the hopelessness of appealing them.  For those who don't, it's a feeling very similar to walking through a forest full of coconut trees.  Actor Dave Johns portrays the wear and tear of these anxieties perfectly, along with Dan's growing urge to take whatever stand against them that he can.  He knows he won't win, but he at least manages what so many of us in his situation would have liked to have done: he gives the DWP a kicking where it hurts the most.  Right in the Vivaldi.

Marc David Jacobs, freelance arts worker

October 2016

[1] For information on donating sanitary towels or tampons to your nearest homeless shelter or foodbank, visit http://thehomelessperiod.com.

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