2016 was the year that... ken loach spoke out about britain's working class
As the year draws to a close, we're reflecting on the cultural landmarks that defined 2016. Ken Loach’s superb film I, Daniel Blake was the latest from the veteran auteur to capture the political reality and harrowing struggles of Britain’s working...
At the top of the winding, rickety staircase at Sixteen Films is an attic space under lock and key, which when opened looks like the perfect location for an interrogation scene. The Soho-based production company is where director Ken Loach hatches plans for his social realist assaults on cinema and today; the bare room is the setting for his interview with i-D.
It is an apt - if chilly - space, given how 80-year-old Loach has spent a lifetime behind the camera interrogating power and privilege in Britain. The Warwickshire born, Oxford educated son of an electrican, Loach made his name in the 60s with a series of docudramas on the BBC, such as Cathy Come Home, which offered a frank depiction of working-class life in Britain previously unseen on TV screens. His unflinching observations concerned themselves with homelessness, unemployment, back street abortions and living within the constraints of the class system. His famed feature film, Kes, demonstrated just how oppressed working-class kids were by the system.
Though Loach's career has since had its lows, the highs have been dizzying and his commitment to social injustice within cinema has never wavered. He won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for his Irish War of Independence film The Wind That Shakes The Barley in 2006 and again, this year, for I, Daniel Blake, a fierce indictment of the British welfare system. The film - drawn from real-life case studies - sees two people in the system unite under the weight of its inequalities and humiliations of sanctions, CV classes and food banks.
I, Daniel Blake has not been without its critics. It's been accused of being 'poverty porn', but audiences are voting with their behinds, turning I, Daniel Blake into Loach's second biggest UK and Irish box office success. Here, Loach explains his work's utter necessity in contemporary cinema.
Do you see your work as a corrective?
I'm working in a hostile environment so it can't be a corrective. A film is not a newspaper. A film can just give one view for 90 minutes in the cinema. Newspapers and broadcasters are interpreting the news on the hour, every hour, every day, telling you what's happening. Their version of what's happening is very skewed. A film can't compete with that.
In I, Daniel Blake the working class characters are flawless. Is that not a corrective?
They're just people. We're used to seeing them as crooks, gangsters, addicts in films. We're used to seeing all this abhorrent behaviour. How many neighbours have you got that are like the crooks and villains that you see in cinema? Daniel is just an ordinary bloke. He doesn't have any of the abhorrent behaviour that cinema so often presents.
Is your point to provide an alternative to the scrounger stereotype?
We shouldn't be talking about that because it's 0.7% [who falsely claim benefits]. So for every story where someone has claimed wrongly, why not have ten stories about somebody who's isn't? The point is that people are being knowingly treated cruelly, in a way to degrade and humiliate them.
The food bank scene is particularly hard to watch. Yet we accept them as part of the welfare landscape in 2016. Why?
It's suddenly become an accepted part of life. They have risen spectacularly fast. Six years ago there were about 25,000 food parcels handed out. Last year, out of just one group of food banks there were 1,100,000 food parcels handed over. Over 400,000 of them were for children who wouldn't have had food otherwise. The fact that we accept that is a measure of how far we have been manipulated. You can't turn up and get food. You have to be referred by a social worker, doctor or a job centre worker, and you can go once for three or four days' support and then you can't go again for one or two months in some cases. So it's a temporary, inadequate way of dealing with hunger.
How have we been manipulated?
The language of the politicians. Their actions. It's about getting people off benefits by making them give up, by treating them with bureaucracy that is consciously inefficient so they get fed up of trying to get justice out of the system. We are manipulated by the press, which peddles the idea of the 'benefit scroungers', by the TV programmes presenting people as lumpen, stupid, greedy and feckless. That's 0.7% of people, when most are in desperate need but people's perception is that it's all of the claimants. There's a massive propaganda exercise going on to demonise the poor.
Why did you decide to focus on this particular story for I, Daniel Blake?
We just kept hearing stories and it's a story we are just not talking about. We found we were increasingly sharing stories about people being sanctioned for the most bizarre reasons. A woman went into labour prematurely so her husband took her to hospital. He was sanctioned because he missed his appointment [at the job centre]. A man had a heart attack and was on Employment and Support Allowance. His doctor said he couldn't work. The state insisted on assessing him again. In the course of the interview, he had another heart attack, he couldn't complete the interview. He was sanctioned. We spoke to whistle blowers in job centres who said they were under enormous pressure to sanction people. They say there are no targets but there are expectations.
What are the most pressing political issues in the UK?
The whole business of work. We should have a society in which everyone can contribute. That means planning employment [and] public investment particularly in areas where they have been hardest hit like the North-East. We should look into Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell's plan for a public investment bank that can invest in new technologies and a sustainable green infrastructure. We need to restore the NHS from the private contractors and strengthen the transport system.
Do you think that cinema can affect change?
The most cinema can do is give people another perspective. A film isn't a political movement. It can just be a bit of agitation. To say, hang on, there's something to talk about here.
Someone sees your film and wants to do something. What advice do you give them?
People can help charities and people will be helped by that. There's no doubt of that, but charity isn't the answer. Justice is the answer. So it means joining the campaigns. Definitely join a union. For me, I would join a political party and at the moment - though I'm not a member - I think the Jeremy Corbyn/ John McDonnell leadership of the Labour party will deal with [the issues].
Are you heartened by the political climate now?
I am. It depends, it's very volatile. The election of Corbyn and McDonnell has been an extraordinary development that no one saw coming. The Labour party was in the doldrums, it had lost two elections, it had a very low membership. Corbyn is allowed on to the ballot page because they think he has no chance and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people vote for him. Now it's the biggest political party in Western Europe while having no representation in the press or broadcasters here. That's an extraordinary phenomenon and the task is to keep that energy going and to really regenerate the membership and really give it political strength.
Why is there currently a strong leftist movement among young people?
It's our default position. Why do we have to live so that some people are desperately poor? That's what the right wing will never understand. There's an innate sense of fair play, being a good neighbour, supporting each other. Translate that to politics and it's about social justice.
When did you realise that politics was so crucial in affecting change?
What defines people, determines their relationships and how they relate to each other is economics and the kind of work they do. It's where they live, what their choices are, what they can and can't afford. That social context is determined by our political decisions and the political settlement of the time. The political settlement under Thatcher, and the consequences of which we are now living through, are such that we don't do that. Everybody fights for themselves. Everything is for profit and labour becomes cheaper and cheaper until you have no security: zero hour contracts, agency work. Everything is dispensable.
How do you change that climate?
People will fight on local issues. If you need somewhere to go when you have an accident and they say, 'we're shutting this hospital down, you've got to go another 20 miles away', people will fight on that. You fight on the local issues and out of that you draw the common denominators. This is how it was when trade unions started. The idea of trade unions didn't arise because there was education about them; they arose because they knew they were being exploited and cheated so came together. That sense of collective strength we see now comes from being cheated.
Text Colin Crummy