Whatever happened to compassion and the human touch?

There has been a lot of coverage in the media concerning Ken Loach’s new film I Daniel Blake  and so I was keen to see it. I have worked for many years in environments where people struggle to make ends meet and  I’m also more than aware of the frustrations people feel when faced with an inflexible and punishing welfare bureaucracy. So I thought that I was reasonably well prepared to watch it, but I wasn’t and came away feeling a mixture of despair and rage.

His earlier ground-breaking film Cathy Come Home revealed a harsh society in the 1960s where the hopes and dreams of a young family are systematically broken by an uncaring and underfunded system that includes a disgraceful lack of affordable housing. I was still a very young teenager when it was shown on TV but was so affected even then that I persuaded my school to let me lead an assembly promoting the charity ‘ Shelter’ that emerged as a result of the powerful portrayal. I watched the film again fairly recently and was horrified at the familiarity of the stories – yes the fashions were different and there were no computers and mobile phones but the human misery written on the faces of Cathy and others was timeless. In the 1980s we had Boys From The Blackstuff  that dramatised the slow erosion of individuals dignity as different families faced the reality of no prospect of work and the fracturing of services. I also watched this series again recently, having bought the box set and settled down to an evening of nostalgia. This was a terrible idea: how could I have thought that this powerful indictment of Thatcherism could be a cosy evening’s entertainment? How had I misremembered it so badly? Perhaps my memories been shaped by the sharpness of the Liverpudlian gallows-humour that in the end was all that saved most of the  characters from complete despair?

So back to I Daniel Blake and England in 2016. The performances were outstanding, particularly from the two central characters. The story opened with Daniel’s frustration at the absurdity of the assessment test after his heart attack which results in him not scoring enough points to qualify for disability benefit. Contrary to medical advice he is then caught up in the surreal loop of applying for JobSeekers Allowance with its own special set of nonsensical rules and cruel sanctions. Most of the process requires completing an on- line application and providing evidence of looking for jobs – taking pictures on a mobile phone of your distribution of c.v.s to present at the job centre. His complete bafflement at how technology he has never owned works and the logistical impossibility of completing a form before he is logged out is one that many of us have experienced.

I had been forewarned about the tragic scene in the food bank where the young single mother, Katie shows us her desperation – but it was still heart-breaking to watch. There was plenty more to make the audience gasp aloud as the story unfolded and I need to warn you that there is no happy ending. But there were plenty of positive touches thank goodness where we could recognise the mutual kindness between Daniel and Katie, the generosity of the young lads living next door, the supermarket manager who chooses to turns a blind eye to Katie’s shoplifting a pack of sanitary towels and other sundry items and the Job Centre employee who breaks the rules in a small but daring way. We needed all these to give us a glimmer of hope and some belief that communities can be more humane and compassionate than we’re led to believe.

And so we have another seminal film to prick at our consciences but this time it’s not on TV so it will unfortunately have a much smaller, niche audience. It has been strongly endorsed by Jeremy Corbyn and those of like mind but this isn’t necessarily going to give it a fair wind against the reactionary views of the media and vested establishment interests. Yes, it is unashamedly a campaigning film but it is firmly grounded in real life stories where poor, often vulnerable people are increasingly blamed for their lack of effort and expected to be independent and find work that pays. The housing situation is still in major crisis. We now have food banks operating in most communities where many ordinary people have to swallow their pride and go for handouts because state benefits are insufficient. And just to remind ourselves that things are in many ways even worse than the 1960s because just today we have had a new reduced benefit cap announced – I feel thoroughly ashamed.

Karen Argent

November 2016

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