I, Daniel Blake

By Sharlene Gandhi

Sixteen-year-old, bright-eyed me went through a period of profusely loving indie cinema. I’d go out of my way to watch films that none of my friends had ever seen before, just so that I could then smugly recommend them to everybody, whether or not I really thought they were worth a watch. My goal in life was to produce / direct a super-successful indie film, which I now see is basically an oxymoron in itself. My pals and I even made the opening of a film that has all the characteristics of being a successful indie film, including a few too many sunrise shots, a pensive protagonist and a storyline that we thought, at the time, would compel all of our viewers to reevaluate their lives. Then suddenly it became indie to not be indie, so I got confused, went to uni, forgot about indie cinema and decided that management was a more stable career choice.

Yesterday, I watched I, Daniel Blake (2016), and the fact that I don’t quite know how I felt about this particular indie film sums up exactly why sixteen-year-old me loved indie cinema so much. You’re not supposed to know how you feel about it, nor are you supposed to like it. In fact, you’re probably supposed to dislike it, because at least not liking something will force you to evaluate why you didn’t like it. As sixteen-year-old me started to find out about all the injustices of the world, all the corruption and inequality and war and famine that had been rosily hidden away by my very mainstream, grammar school education, indie cinema let me deviate from this mainstream that, in my innocent eyes, was all a massive farce. Going to the cinema was no longer a social activity – it was consciously an antisocial activity, because #yolo, or whatever was cool in 2012.

What was more, indie cinema actually let me educate myself about all the corruption and inequality and war and famine. It let me be comfortable with the concept of being uncomfortable, and yet not actually be uncomfortable at all (think about it.) This was the half-nice, half-disturbing realisation I came to when watching I, Daniel Blake last night. Without giving away too much of the plotline, there I was, a very middle-class Southern British girl, sat in a cinema in central London, cocktail in hand, ‘learning’ about unemployment and disenfranchisement in Northern England.

I have never been particularly skilled at reviewing films, so here is my rather shitty attempt at explaining I, Daniel Blake: a 60-something-year-old skilled carpenter is put out of work after a life-threatening malady, and is forced to deal with a bureaucratic system which deems him either fit for work or for employment and support allowance. Along the way, he meets a young mother-of-two who is also seeking financial support. They form an unlikely friendship and the film goes along it’s not-so-merry way.

The film has had bundles of critical acclaim, including the illustrious Palme D’Or award from the Cannes Film Festival. It is truly deserving of these awards, in that it makes a political statement on behalf of an entire subset of the British population that is often left unheard. The first thought that went through my head as the credits were rolling was ‘Ah, now I see why everybody apart from London voted to leave the EU.’ And perhaps that was the point of the film: to compel us whinging, leftie students to actually come to terms with a perfectly sensical political decision, and with our own privilege as we sip on the aforementioned cocktails.

But then again, there is something that feels very wrong about making art and entertainment of very real, very pressing situations. I am a big fan of art and film and all of the above, and I do truly believe that all art can be and should be political. But yesterday, for the first time, I felt uncomfortable at the concept of being uncomfortable. For the first time, it felt as though I was partaking in some new form of slacktivism, with my pitiful umming and ahhing and ‘oh yeah that’s sad’-ing. It’s not like we, the audience, didn’t know this was reality for many people in the UK. In that way, the film isn’t eye-opening at all. All it does it put it right in front of us so we can’t ignore it anymore… or does it?

What are we doing about it all? What are we doing to help communities in the North who have been left behind after manufacturing has moved abroad and coal mines have been closed? What are we doing to help young mothers who are torn between work and childcare responsibilities?

For a brief, brief second, a slightly dangerous thought crossed my head. In the UK, we are lucky enough to have funding for the arts, even if it is being cut under the Conservative government (story for another day). Arts funding is crucial for advancing culture, economy, diversity and letting people’s voices be heard in alternative ways. As a former arts student myself, and as somebody who still has a faraway dream of producing / directing a super successful indie film, I could not be more thankful for this.

Here is the potentially dangerous thought: is it absolutely terrible of me to suggest that in the hypothetical situation that arts funding was not being cut by the Tory government, some of that funding should be reshuffled, and moved towards more ‘pressing’ issues instead, such as the issues highlighted in I, Daniel Blake? I almost feel like a fool for suggesting it, but more because I know I will get backlash than because I do not believe in what I am suggesting.

This is not intended as a critique of an otherwise fantastic film, nor a jab at a world-class arts scene that we have here in the UK. It is me trying to put a cathartic / confusing thought-process into words and blurt it out to see what you all think. I, Daniel Blake is in its final week in the cinemas, and I would highly recommend going to see it in the next few days if you can. Perhaps that is the only way that I can show you the origins of my maybe-dangerous thought process.

*I would love for somebody to write a response piece and tell me why some of the funding for the arts should not be reallocated elsewhere. Please.