The Bafta nominated film I, Daniel Blake portrays the often brutal experiences of those attempting to navigate the British welfare system. Director Ken Loach has said of his film, however: “It’s for those people who are struggling against the cruelty of bureaucracy, whatever country.”
The film gives us insights into the ways in which today’s world can be particularly alienating for those without the specific skills it demands. Viewing the film through the lens of literacy, we see how letters, booklets and forms accrue as pillars of a system decried by Daniel Blake as a “monumental farce”.
Within a knowledge economy, literacy is bound up in a wider suite of policy based on an economic/financial model of human development and a narrow view of how people make use of literacy in their everyday lives. As is shown in the film, this both compounds the challenge for those in need of access to vital resources and renders their everyday experiences invisible.
Daniel Blake is not “illiterate” – he is resourceful, creative and willing to work, and we see him using his skills and sharing his knowledge. He is told that the benefit system he is forced to navigate is “digital by default”. Daniel’s riposte that he, as a craftsman, is “pencil by default” reflects one of his key challenges. The pencil is associated with versatility and being open to change. However, it can also be rubbed out and replaced, like the generations of workers Daniel represents in post-industrial society.
When he is asked to “run the mouse up the screen” of the computer in his local library, where he has sought help with his benefit form, he tries to do so physically. When he is told his screen is “frozen” he replies: “Can you defrost it?” The unfamiliarity of these processes place this man, who has never before needed state support, in an alien world.
A world moving on
New technologies may be moving on, meaning people like Daniel can be left behind, yet the film demonstrates how digital technology is a key resource for creative and collaborative responses to economic challenge. Daniel’s neighbour has been forced to use his initiative to supplement a meagre income from a zero-hours contract by ordering counterfeit trainers through a contact in China.
Daniel is left incredulous at the Skype conversation he witnesses – his disbelief at the fact that this conversation is taking place at two different ends of the globe emphasises how the world is moving on around him, leaving him without access to resources, recognition or the means to participate in society. It is this neighbour, China, who is finally able to complete the Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) form online for Daniel, after days of his thwarted attempts in more official institutions.
Despite the stranglehold placed on claimants by the bureaucracy depicted in the film, the two most powerful texts in Daniel’s story are his own. His spray-painted graffiti makes public the individual struggles that take place within a hidden maze of official texts. The note Daniel prepares to read at his appeal, handwritten in pencil, also challenges the system he has been forced to navigate. Announcing himself as “I, Daniel Blake” in both of these texts, Daniel is defiant in reclaiming his identity from those who have sought to define him.
The benefits system with which Daniel grapples is the result of the most significant reform of the British welfare state in half a century: that is, in the time since Loach directed Cathy Come Home. However, the challenge for those made vulnerable by poverty is even more acute today than it was five decades ago, and media-friendly epithets of “skivers” or “strivers” hark back across centuries to notions of the feckless and undeserving poor.
Researching for his Bafta nominated screenplay, screenwriter Paul Laverty heard stories across the UK of insecure housing, zero-hours employment contracts, inflexible fitness to work assessments and punitive sanctions. Katie’s desperation at the food bank is one of the film’s most powerful depictions of the impact of recent welfare reform on personal dignity, and it reflects the reality of an eight-fold increase in their use in the last five years.
A close focus on literacy in I, Daniel Blake highlights the impact of welfare policies which are based upon a narrow view of people’s lives. It also shows how this impact is compounded when such policies rely upon narrow ways of viewing literacy and the rich complexity of its role in everyday life. Literacy education and research can and should continue to challenge reductive models of what it means to be literate, and to critically explore the implications of this for social justice. This can provide valuable space for voices, such as that of Daniel Blake, to be heard.