Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Firmer than the Berlin Wall

Samir Farid on second-time Palme d’Or winner Ken Loach

Firmer than the Berlin Wall
Firmer than the Berlin Wall
Al-Ahram Weekly

The English director Ken Loach, who turns 80 this Saturday (17 June), is perhaps Britain’s best-known auteur. Loach studied law at Oxford University before directing 28 films of various lengths for the BBC, both fictional and documentarym starting in 1964. His first fiction film for the cinema was released in 1967. He would go on to make 19 others, including one documentary. This week his 20th fiction film, the 100 min I, Daniel Blake, won Loach his second Palme d’Or after The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006.

Loach is the eighth director in the history of Cannes and the first from Britain to become a multiple Palme d’Or winner, after a Swede Alf Sjöberg (1946, 1951), an American Francis Ford Coppola (1974, 1979), a Dane Bille August (1988, 1992), a Yugoslav Emir Kusturica (1985, 1995), a Japanese Shohei Imamura (1983, 1997), two Belgians, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (1999, 2005) and an Austrian. Michael Haneke (2009, 2012). Though his work has appeared regularly at Venice and Berlin, Loach has maintained a special relation with the third of the major festivals, Cannes, since his third film, Family Life, was screened in the Directors Fortnight programme in 1971: Loach’s first participation in Cannes. I, Daniel Blake is the 13th Loach film to be screened in Cannes’s official competition. Through the years Loach’s work won the jury prize three times – for Hidden Agenda (1990), Raining Stones (1993) and The Angels’ Share (2012) – as well as the best actor and best screenplay awards; respectively: Peter Mullan for My Name is Joe (1998) and Paul Laverty for Sweet Sixteen (2002). I have personally seen Loach’s films at Cannes every year since 1971, Cannes’s silver jubilee, having started attending in 1967, the 20th round. Loach was among the greatest discoveries of the jublilee.

The socialist left throughout the world was shaken when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, but Loach’s vision – always an expression of that standpoint but less dependent on regimes than on human reality – remains unaffected. This cannot in itself be a critical assessment of Loach’s work, but in this new condemnation of global neoliberalism as elsewhere in Loach’s work the director achieves a rare integrity, balancing the political with the aesthetic. On receiving his prize at Cannes Loach gave a speech in which he cited the economic crisis in Greece and pointed out that people were despairing of change, but as he said in French as well as English, “A new world is possible and necessary.” The next day, indeed, Loach opened a programme of Palestinian films at the Institut du Monde Arab in Paris, where he once again announced his commitment to the BDS movement and called for boycotting Israeli products. Despite his old-school brand of social realism, together with the screenwriter he has worked with since the Carla’s Song (1996), Paul Laverty, Ken Loach offers something fresh, timely and compelling. Using the Avid electronic editing system for the first time with editor Jonathan Morris, but sticking with 35 mm colour film, in his new film Loach works with his usual crew: cinematographer Robbie Ryan, sound editor Kevin Brazier and composer George Fenton.

One of the earliest landmarks in Loach’s career, the 1969 television film Cathy Come Home, was about homelessness. Nearly 50 years on, the auteur returns to the same theme with the story of a 30-something single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), who chooses to move some 480 km, all the way from London to Newcastle, with her two children Dylan (Dylan McKiernan) – seven and Daisy (Briana Shann) – ten, in order to escape life in a homeless people’s hostel. Like Oliver Stone’s 1991 JFK, the subject of I, Daniel Blake is in its title; but unlike the American president, Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is the 59-year-old joiner with heart disease who meets Katie while dealing with the red tape involved in obtaining his sickness benefit in Newcastle. She later becomes his neighbour in the council building, where their black friend “China”, a Chinese-made trainers dealer representing a different side of the global system, also lives. On the film poster Daniel and Katie look like family, but they are no more than fellow victims of heartless bureaucracy and global capital in 2016 Britain. Dan – the latest incarnation of the salt of the earth in a Loach film – is a widower whose wife suffered mental problems before she died, and he has never had any children. Katie and her children save him from loneliness while he tries to help her out as best as he can. Unable to deal with the newly brave new world of computerised bureaucracy, and frequently suffering from the newly introduced punishments as a result, Dan and Katie are both barely able to survive. Dan ends up selling everything he owns of any value while Katie sells her own body... 

Robbie Ryan captures the Kafkaesque, depressing space of the government bureau brilliantly in white and blue, to match Loach’s excellent management of the actors who play clerks and security personnel; they are no less miserable than their victims and, as in the case of Anne the appeals receptionist (Harriet Ghost), are not without empathy. Even though the film is entirely fictional, Loach’s approach borders on the documentary as he chooses a cast more or less unknown to the audience. The melodramatic scenes – Dan’s confrontation with Katie at the brothel, Daisy complaininig of her schoolmates making fun of her old shoes or Katie unable to control her hunger at the food bank – are ameliorated and smoothed out by the semi-documentary technique, allowing the viewer to believe what is going on. The film opens with the sound of Daniel Blake’s interrogation at the bureau where we are introduced to him while we see black. It reaches a climax with Daniel Blake being briefly arrested after crying out on the sreeet, writing his complaints on the wall and starting a spontaneous protest. At the end, however, Daniel dies of a heart attack in the pub bathroom while he is there with Katie and the children. And Katie must apologise for holding his funeral too early in the morning: the only affordable slot available at the church. 

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