WE all deserved our Christmas break. However you look at it, the world has been knocked sideways this year, and at times it has been hard to keep faith with humanity. Time with family and respite from the relentless pace of modern life will have been a balm for many of us.
But before putting on your Christmas present slippers and tucking up on the sofa with a stiff New Year’s drink, head to the cinema and watch Ken Loach’s latest offering, I, Daniel Blake. And then settle back in front of the fire and reflect upon how lucky you are.
I, Daniel Blake is one of those films that forces you to swallow your sobs so you don’t howl embarrassingly in the theatre. I shared tissues with the elderly woman next to me as the credits rolled and together we spontaneously applauded.
I’m not sure why. Iin praise of the believable performances, perhaps, or in solidarity with all those people dehumanised by our brutal benefits system. Maybe we were simply clapping away our own guilt. After all, if we do nothing, we are all responsible for this pitiful state of affairs that sees children queueing in the cold at food banks.
The premise of the film is well-documented, but for those who are unfamiliar, it centres on a North-East widower (played by Dave Johns) recovering from a serious heart-attack. Despite being told by his consultant he is too sick to work, he is found fit and able by the Department of Work and Pensions (three points short of being unfit, because these days we are all reduced to numbers) and so his struggle for benefits begins.
He is not computer-literate and so cannot easily access support or fill in the forms. In order to keep his head above water he is required to become a job seeker, despite knowing he cannot take any job he is offered due to the risk to his health. Along the way he meets a young single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires). Katie has been moved from London to Newcastle, is immediately sanctioned for not arriving at the job centre on time, and from then on struggles to find her feet.
The relationship between Daniel and Katie and her two young children provides essential warmth during the film’s bleaker moments. Katie’s resilience and the sacrifices she makes for her children are desperate to watch: you wonder how long it will be until she snaps under the pressure. When she does it is bleak and heartbreaking. She is a mum just like I am a mum, the difference is that I can afford to eat.
Daniel is funny, talented and kind. His only crime is to become ill. With his tidy flat and circle of friends he is a worrying reminder that any one of us could fall through the holes of the safety net at any time.
Spilling out onto the street outside the cinema later, volunteers sombrely dished out fliers for the local food bank. I could only hope that they were not preaching to the converted. Loach unashamedly speaks for the millions of people living in the UK who have been unfairly treated by their government, and there is no shame in asking for help from the state during times of hardship.
I hope that people who have never experienced financial worries, who don’t need to count the pennies each time they shop, will watch this film and understand better what is going on all over the country.
I, Daniel Blake reminds us that we are all born with dreams. Some of us live with these dreams floating around for many years, a few of us will be fortunate enough to realise them. But some people will have their bubbles burst very early on; the harsh reality of life will hit them before they’ve had a chance to reach for the stars. This is not fair. We are all born with potential, and each of us is responsible for ensuring that everyone gets a fair chance.
Enjoy the seasonal break. We all deserve it. Hold your loved ones close. Read stories together under a woolly blanket. Sing songs. Eat mince pies. Run along the beach. Make some memories. And as you skip into 2017, carry that warmth with you and share it around.
Look for the name, not the number.