Can death signify in its singularity or is it always entrenched in a political context? Toby Bull examines Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning film I, Daniel Blake in the light of its political setting and contrasts Blake’s death with Gianfranco Rosi’s Gold Bear winning Fire at Sea, a documentary about the mass death of European migrants.
Ken Loach made his name through socially conscious films about middle- and working-class life in Great Britain. He cut his teeth at the BBC in the sixties and although the politics of that institution are now very distant from Loach’s own, his films are still made with the kind of broad appeal that the BBC is known for. This struggle between the supposedly progressive politics of Loach’s films and their conservative form makes for an odd compromise or an irreconcilable split, which, like the Labour Party itself, wants, on the one hand, to represent a political position that has been increasingly marginalised over the past thirty years, and, on the other hand, to win over a centrist majority of exactly the kind of people who disdain such politics. This is particularly marked in I, Daniel Blake, the celebrated reception of which would border on being incomprehensible if one were unaware of the political context that surrounds it and the political purpose in which it is steeped. Some of its accomplishments are surely commendable: the film does offer Blake as a heroic figure for those who have otherwise only found public representation in the caricatures of reality tv shows like Benefits Street; it has facilitated wider discussion of the subject both nationally and internationally; the direction, acting, and cinematography do all collude in a film whose action often feels like that of a documentary. But amongst all this praise, little has been said about the film’s narrative failings, which are not merely cracks in its surface, but fault lines that run deep into its supposedly praiseworthy political aims.
As it was modelled on what were already well-publicised stories about the UK’s post-2008 welfare system, Blake’s story was well-heeled when the film was released in 2016: someone, who has been instructed by their GP to stop working temporarily, is judged fit for work during a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) assessment, has their disability support withdrawn, and dies after struggling to navigate a welfare system whose bureaucratic impersonality and purposefully labyrinthine complexity present major obstacles to securing the financial support they need.
The statistical impersonality of such stories is reflected into I, Daniel Blake negatively, for each character’s humanity is spread on in such liberal quantities as to indicate the intention in which this film originated: mere numbers are ineffective and must be perceived at a human scale, in a singular, personal narrative that shows the human beings behind the stats. Indeed, the film not only emphasises the humanity of each character but even makes Blake a proud, working-class liberal humanist in the politico-philosophical sense of the term, crystallised in his catchphrase: “My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. I demand my rights. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen.” This slippery, protean humanism is what holds the film together conceptually, even if it veers in its meaning from the vaguest essentialism to the most precise anti-institutionalism.
Precisely this conceptual struggle between humanism and its various antagonists is discernible in almost everything that is particular to the film’s narrative and its characters: Blake’s struggle with computers illustrates the transformation of human lives by the impersonal force of technological innovation; Blake’s work as a carpenter is not reducible to the money he receives as remuneration but also has human value for him, as he continues to practice it in his free time; this semi- or non-institutional work seeps into his misunderstanding of modern bureaucracies, as his confrontations with Jobcentre employees always involve an appeal to their humanity, as if this were an essential feature of persons, undetermined by the pressures they face within the institutions that employ them and pay them their daily bread. It is in relation to such alienated, institutionalised, non-cooperation that Blake’s involvement in the family life of Katie Morgan and her children makes sense, as the latter is meant to be a model of elective and unalienated cooperation between human beings. This, too, is the basis for Blake’s protest against Katie’s decision to undertake sex work, for he cannot bear what it implies about the exchange value of sexual and emotional labour, which remain for his antiquated humanism outside the domain of circulation, relics of unalienated human value. Almost reducible to a conceptual premise, Blake borders on allegory, and often risks collapsing into parody, as he embodies the humanist’s critique of capitalist society: the wish to solve its problems by rehumanising what it dehumanises.
In this respect, I, Daniel Blake resembles a tragedy, and Blake a tragic hero, neither in the sense that the story is sad nor that what he does is good, but in that Blake’s singularly intransigent characteristics—i.e. the proud humanism that he represents in both speech and deed—lead him into an open confrontation with a social order that finally crushes him. This requires a degree of singularity: Blake is led by his characteristics— proud, working-class humanism—to consolidate a common frustration at the hands of the DWP into his heroic opposition to their dehumanising practices. This singularity was also true of all Greek tragic heroes: Antigone fights the law of the state by representing the natural law of the family, but does so in part because of a dishonourable sexual love for her brother; Creon fights her claim with a legitimate political claim, but founders because a too excessive pride stops his ears to the advice of others. (Incidentally, the film goes quite far to emphasise that one possible cause of his death is Blake’s excessive pride, which stops him from accepting the various offers of support that are made to him by friends over the film’s course.) Yet, for the audiences of 4th century Athens, figures like Orestes or Antigone were also drawn from a time of great historical, metaphysical, and constitutional distance, as Blake is not, and these were figures of Nobility, whose deaths carried direct political consequences for the ongoing collective life of an entire city. Here lies the difference between the strict sense of Tragedy (that ends, as Nietzsche rightly asserted, with Euripides) and the sentimental sense in which it is commonly used today: the meaning of Antigone’s death or Agamemnon’s lies not in the life of the hero, nor in its affirmation through their death, but in the city’s collective life, represented throughout by the chorus. Blake’s death carries no such implication. Consequently, the funeral scene addresses a structural incoherency in the film’s form: as his particular death cannot find significance through the political whole, it must be left hanging or sought in the irreducible singularity of Blake’s life and death. Like the utopian, humanist critique of capitalist society, the film mistakes a part for the whole and becomes sequestered in it, unable to see the wood for a tree.
It is not that internal coherence is a condition for the political efficacy of artworks, as the fragmentation of dramatic action that Brecht’s theory of montage entailed was well-suited to his political aims. In fact, it is Loach’s unwillingness to leave the film suspended in its lack of internal coherence that consolidates the narrative’s political failings. Clearly, Blake’s death is supposed to disrupt the narrative’s movement towards resolution, which has been laid on thick beforehand: Blake has humbled himself before the offer of support from Katie’s child and is thereby reconciled with Katie; the state’s benign face is shown in the form of a lawyer who promises to win Blake’s appeal. Were it not for the funeral that follows, Blake’s surprise death—and it does come as a surprise—would have snatched away the happy resolution and left in its place a death whose meaning is unclear, and which lingers in the audience as a question whose remains must be carried out toward the sunlight and into the day.
As in life, the problem begins not with death itself but with the living’s attempt to attribute to it some meaning. Death signifies not for the dead one, for whom all significance becomes nothing, but for the community that receive this death by surviving it. In I, Daniel Blake this community is not only the film’s characters but also its audience and the civic body of which they are a part. The meaning that is settled upon by those who mourn loss is a decision in their ongoing collective life, and if they mourn someone whose death was caused directly or indirectly by a perceived injustice that remains unresolved, acceptance can run into the kind of compliance or collaboration that Ismene represents in Sophocles’s Antigone, just as the pursuit of justice can become distorted into the kind of furious refusal to mourn represented by Antigone herself.
The problem with I, Daniel Blake is that it answers the open question of death, and does so badly. In the film’s final scene, at Blake’s funeral, Katie’s speech installs a coherent, definitive value where an ongoing and irresolute political reality belongs: narrative resolution stands in for the actual irresolution of the problems the film addresses. Like a sentence, a human life, or that of a society, a film begins for a viewer with the the possibility of a meaning whose felicitous accomplishment is always satisfying, even if the result is negative. Yet a film such as this runs the risk of supplementing the irresolution of political reality with the narrative’s resolution; a form of satisfaction that is at best politically problematic and at worst positively regressive, for it liberates its audience from the conflict it initiates for them. By allowing Blake’s death to signify in this way—by determining its meaning so resolutely within the film—the collective political horizon that is meant to be the film’s purpose swiftly recedes, leaving only a singularly noble heroism, witnessed by his few friends and our modern day Schindler, the Jobcentre’s sole refuge of humanity, Sheila.
Gianfranco Rosi’s Fucuoammare (Fire at Sea), which shared a very similar trajectory of reception with I, Daniel Blake in 2016, makes no such concession towards structural coherency, and you can see many of I, Daniel Blake’s failings in Fucoammare’s successes. The latter bears witness to boatloads of suffering migrants without (falsely) assimilating their experiences to the narrative and emotional norms of the viewing public. Where Loach names his victim, emphasises the singularity of his character, and ennobles his death, Rosi presents an anonymous mass of migrants, often voiceless, whose deaths are presented in the stark absence of any determinate judgment. Loach familiarises all of his characters, making them relatable and friendly, and provides the white, well-to-do members of his audience with a proxy like Sheila, who satisfies each of their wishful fantasies about how they would behave when subject to historical conditions that drive most people (her colleagues) to barbarism. Rosi carefully delineates between what is familiar and what is not: whilst the audience can identify with the faces of islanders like the young boy Samuele Caruana, those who handle the migrants are representatives of impersonal institutions and wear masks that disturb such sympathetic identification. No correlation is asserted between these two domains of experience because to assume such a correlation would be an imposture, just as there is most likely little to no correlation between your experience and the experiences of those who have ridden boats full of dead bodies across the Mediterranean. Pietro, a doctor born on the island who now treats villagers and immigrants, bridges these unreconciled domains of experience. Like Sheila, he does provide a largely white, middle class audience with an on-screen proxy, but his symbolic position between the impersonality of institutional power and the familiarity of a child’s life in Lampedusa denies Rosi’s audience the kind of simplistic, sentimental, self-affirming identification that plagues Loach’s film.
A particularly revealing element of Fucuoammare is the frank absence of argument. There is a wilful, structural senselessness to the film’s footage of a boat’s hull full of migrants who died travelling illegally to Europe. This contrasts drastically with I, Daniel Blake, in which the value of Blake’s death is not only reaffirmed after the event but is argued for throughout the film’s narrative by designing Blake’s character in such a way—perfect, inviolable, hard-working, kind, and innocent—as to make his death an incontestable case of the state’s fault. The film deploys Blake’s excessively perfect humanity as the incontestable counter-argument to the DWP’s dehumanizing structure. This sort of argument—clearly aimed at the kinds of people who were only convinced of the truth and severity of the migrant crisis when they saw an image of a blameless, dead infant face down on the sand—is clearly well-intentioned, but it’s actual content is thoroughly reactionary.
Insofar as it fails to perceive the political whole in Blake’s singularity, I, Daniel Blake implies that the DWP should be reformed not because it represents an unconditional injustice to which many are subject but because it kills innocent people. Such people are few and far between in a society such as ours, yet there is no space in the jovial, sympathetic, warmth of Loach’s film for the compromised, furious, antisocial people who express the indirect violence they have suffered at the hands of the state in a derangement that is not friendly, nor funny, nor particularly relatable, unlike every one of Loach’s characters. Even if the old guard left-wing Jeremy-Corbyn-Supporter Ken Loach were going to convince swing voters and Telegraph readers that the DWP is broken, and even if they were to bother seeing the film—and both are big ifs—this film corroborates the very ideological distinction that publicly justified the DWP’s reform: that between the deserving and undeserving poor. It asserts the liberal standard of universal human rights, but then argues for a vicious division of actual humans based upon the degree to which they conform to a given standard, whether that be innocence, industriousness, or ethnicity. Thus, as in Blake’s catchphrase, and as in the case of many socialist governments once they assume state power and the requirement to reconcile the demands of capital with those of their electorate, human rights quickly become a citizen’s rights, which quickly become whittled down to a good citizen’s rights. In a time when vicious distinctions—like those between good refugees who flee the direct violence of weapons and bad migrants who flee the indirect violence of history, or between citizens who belong to a state and the stateless—are becoming more and more commonplace, a film such as Loach’s does not fight division, but corroborates exactly those ruthless divisions of people that he purports to oppose. In his attempt to maneuver the irrational mass increasingly taking center stage in our political life, Loach stokes the fires of division, rather than asserting some universal good that knows no borders. In Gillian Rose’s words, ‘politics does not happen when you act on behalf of your own damaged good, but when you act, without guarantees, for the good of all – this is to take the risk of the universal interest.’ Socialism or Barbarism, as the old saying goes: in I, Daniel Blake Loach advances towards the former with good intentions, but, like Oedipus heading home, he heads the wrong way, unknowing.
Toby Bull, who lives and writes in London, is currently working on a documentary about three villages in suburban southwest London and the ways people try to live when their lives are transformed by the state.