Loach back on the barricades

Director’s Cannes return blasts welfare system and says we must fight from within Europe.

by Richard Mowe

I, Daniel Blake team line-up at the media gathering, from left: Dave Johns, Ken Loach and Hayley Squires
I, Daniel Blake team line-up at the media gathering, from left: Dave Johns, Ken Loach and Hayley Squires Photo: Richard Mowe
A veteran of no fewer than 16 Cannes Film Festivals, Ken Loach has returned to the Croisette with I, Daniel Blake – a film that slams Britain’s welfare system – despite the fact he had announced his intention to retire at a previoius festival.

As you would expect from Britain’s most politically and socially engaged director, Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty along with stars Hayley Squires and Dave Johns plus producer Rebecca O’Brien and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, his encounter with a media gathering was suitably highly charged and critical of the benefits systems. He also touched on teh upcoming Referendum on EU membership and the prospects of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

More than 50 years after Cathy Come Home looked at the plight of the homeless, Loach says he is alarmed that things have changed so little.

Ken Loach says he is alarmed that things have changed so little since Cathy Come Home
Ken Loach says he is alarmed that things have changed so little since Cathy Come Home Photo: Richard Mowe
“It is shocking because it is not an issue just for people in our country but it is throughout Europe,” says Loach. "There is conscious cruelty in the way we are organising our lives. The vulnerable are told poverty is their fault. If you have no job, that is your fault. There are more than two million known unemployed but in reality it is more likely there are four million.”

He noted that an increase in suicides was a reflection of the situation, with welfare workers in assessment centres being given instructions on how to deal with potential suicides. “It draws out all the human emotions, but the heart of it is a shocking, shocking policy,” he adds.

Finding the right tone for the film was the most important aspect of the creative process. “We felt the story was so strong we had to be very simple, clear and economical and it did not need any embellishment. There had to be nothing to distract the audience from the essence of the people in front of the camera.”

Laverty, as part of his research, travelled the country talking to people at food banks and listening to their stories. “Many of the most vulnerable were those who bore the brunt of it. I also talked to whistleblowers in the Department for Work and Pensions. Many spoke to us anonymously to suggest they were humiliated by the way they were forced to deal with the public,” he says.

Paul Laverty: 'Many of the most vulnerable were those who bore the brunt' of the crisis
Paul Laverty: 'Many of the most vulnerable were those who bore the brunt' of the crisis Photo: Richard Mowe
Loach finds it easy to work with actors because they are full of imagination and vulnerability. He adds: “What we tried to do was start at the beginning and go through the story to shoot it in order. The actors get the script bit by bit. It should have a sense of being improvised but the script is very precisely written.

“The people in food banks were the people who worked in food banks in the old Italian neo-realist tradition. They knew the job. The people who were working in the office where they went to sign on were people who had worked in that office. We tried to create sense of reality, but the actors have a great capacity to make the moment live and in way that you will care about or be amused by or whatever.”

The actors concurred. Johns, previously a Geordie stand-up comic, said that when you receive the script a little bit at a time. “You live the life of the person because, in life, you do not know what is going to happen the next day. I did not feel intimidated by the process at all,” he said.

Squires found there was a calmness on the set of a Ken Loach film. “That is because prior to shooting you spend time together in research or conversation or having lunch together before you start work on the set. What we found was that when we stepped on set, because of the time we had spent together before working with each other, you found there was a family element to it. It is like stepping on to platform you know is completely safe and is never going to collapse,” she says.

Hayley Squires: 'It is like stepping on to platform you know is completely safe'
Hayley Squires: 'It is like stepping on to platform you know is completely safe' Photo: Richard Mowe
Loach had been critical of Corbyn last year because of his inaction on the issues raised in the film.

Corbyn, he says, is the best news to have happened to the Labour party since Clement Attlee at the end of the Second World War. “Corbyn and one or two of his allies understand the needs and interests of working people whereas under Blair and Brown they understood only the needs of business. The problem is the rest of the party in Parliament want him out.

"There are people who understand what is happening but the structures are not good at allowing them to be heard. Corbyn and his friends could do a great job but we really have got to allow them to be heard. We need a real left in Europe that understands what is happening, does not put the interests of big business first and rejects the EU when it sets about privatising everything or doing deals with America. We need a European-wide movement that will rescue people like Dan and Katie [the characters in the film] from the situation they are in.

“The European Union is a neo-liberal project, with a drive towards privatisation and deregulation. The safeguards that are there for workers and the environment are constantly under attack. It is not doing us any favours at the moment but we know that if we leave the individual governments will move to the right as far as possible.

“We will be faced with a far-right government if we leave. How do we fight that best? Do we fight it best from within with other European left-leaning groups or do we fight it better from without? It is almost a tactical question. On balance, we fight it better from within and we make alliances with other left European movements”.

O’Brien believes strongly that the film community is a good example of how Europe can work together in terms of co-productions and building films together.

“Fighting from within is possibly the best way to change things,” she says. “There is a British tendency to look across the Atlantic to make films and that is money driven whereas staying in Europe means that cultural stories can be told. To lose that would be a tragedy.”

Loach was asked if he had now reached the end of the road and that this could definitively be his last film. Bearing in mind that the last time he pronounced on the subject he proved himself wrong, he declined to be drawn.

I, Daniel Blake will be released later in the year.

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