"I, Daniel Blake" is a well-made, touching, socially conscious, and multi-layered film. I give it 9 out of 10, a point short of a masterpiece, only because its social criticism is sometimes "too direct". I tend to prefer more articulated and subtle forms of critique.
Daniel is the lead character of the story. He is in his early 60s, an experienced carpenter who cannot work anymore due to his recent heart attack. Halfheartedly, he has applied to receive social support (aka Employment and Support Allowance), but has encountered a dysfunctional and inhumane institution. Another main character is Katie, a single mother with two young kids. She, also, has unsuccessfully turned to the UK's social support system, and same as Daniel, has been disappointed. In her ultimate despair, she turns into prostitution. Daniel and Katie meet each other early in the film and become good friends. They help each other, presumably, without any earthly demands or expectations. The film ends with a speech by Katie who narrates a letter on behalf of Daniel, posthumous.
As far as I can see, the main elements and symbols of the story are as follows:
- Neighbor: China is Daniel's neighbor. He is a lively and energetic boy in his 20s and makes a living semi-illegally. He has a warm and frank relationship with Daniel. In addition to China, the theme of neighbor has a wider presence in the film. In the speech by Katie, Daniel refers to "I look into my neighbors' eyes". Here by "neighbors", Daniel mean "fellow citizens". He is not ashamed of them, because he has paid all his duties. In addition, we know from the film that he usually has a simple and good relationship with people of his neighborhood and wider society. Therefore, we can conclude that all the members of society are, somewhat symbolically, his distributed neighbors.
- Carpenter: Daniel is a carpenter. He cannot work, due to his medical conditions, but he is always available for useful activities. His background as a carpenter is quite pronounced in the film. He seems to constantly engage in making wooden objects in his leisure time at home. When Daisy, Katie's daughter, asks Daniel "Are you a soldier?", he replies "No. I am more dangerous than that. I am a carpenter!"
- Prostitute: Katie who is rejected by the UK's social system is forced into prostitution. Daniel is her main, and apparently only, friend.
- Fish: Daniel carves wooden fish and use them in decorative objects. Fish is his main icon. He gives one of his handmade objects to Daisy. Later, when he has to sell his furniture to a second hand dealer, he refuses to sell his hand-tools and the decorative thing which he has built with wooden fish. "They are not for sale", Daniel says.
- Privatization, dysfunctional institutions, and the authoritarian state: In the social support offices, there are many references to the fact that social services have become increasingly privatized, and run for private profit, rather than the public good. If I am not wrong (English is not my mother tongue), I think I heard a short reference to privatization of police. The state is presented as a cold, distant, techno-centric, and rather brutal institution. The fact that some groups of society, like Daniel or Katie, are excluded from its support is presented as a rule, rather than an exception. In many shots, we see warning signs which inform the coverage of the area by security cameras. Security guards are present, vocal, and confident, more than the employees who are supposed to help the underprivileged citizens. The dysfunctional institution in not delivering what it is supposed to deliver, but this does not stop it to call the police when there is a small dissidence, and the police arrives within minutes, ready to impose the cold rule of law on the voiceless protester.
- Change: Daniel has trained hands and knows how to make and fix things. But he is computer illiterate and runs into problem when he is forced by an increasingly computerized public services. The younger generation are computer literate. But this generational gaps is not one directional. It goes both ways. When Daniel wants to play a cassette for Daisy, she has no clue what a cassette is and how it can be played in a player.
I think many of these symbols are there to construct a parallel with the story of the Christ. Jesus, too, was a carpenter by profession. He also emphasized on the importance of neighbors, in a very special and universal way (the story of the good Samaritan). He and Mary Magdalene, a prostitute woman, became good friends. He belonged to the underprivileged parts of society, and focused on the poor and the marginalized. Eventually, he was murdered by the state. Perhaps, Ken Loach and Paul Laverty (the writer) are trying to tell us something by embedding these symbols in the story.
Christ was a peaceful but radically revolutionary figure. He was killed by the state, but ultimately transformed an empire. Are the film makers telling us that the likes of Daniel Blake are modern Christ-like figures in disguise?
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