So I hadn't seen much of the press around I, Daniel Blake. All I knew was people kept saying: 'You gotta see it'.
Having just published a book (I'm Ready) about the people I've met during my ten years running an employment project, Clean Slate, I figured the recommendations were right. It wasn't just a mawkish intrigue to see how true to life it seemed, I was conscious Ken Loach's work had already had a pretty big impact on my working life as Cathy Come Home had ultimately triggered the emergence of the homelessness industry that I was later a part of. In these blogs too, I've made no bones about some need for a social re-awakening, a re-connection of people to politics, and so I went as part campaigner and part practitioner.
I was asked to present on the realities of life for new and prospective Universal Credit claimants at a conference in early November. Someone in the audience at the conference asked why there wasn't more outrage about the crises UC is causing people? Because there isn't much appetite for protest about welfare these days, I said, but that maybe this would change in the wake of I, Daniel Blake like it did after Cathy Come Home. It was only slightly awkward as I was stood next to the manager for Job Centre Plus Bath and it's true, the film holds no punches in its depiction of JCP staff.
For some critics, the film is too much of a perfect storm, too rounded with a clear start and end, so cannot reflect true life. Its representation of JCP is, they say, too perfectly negative. Others claim it is kind of gentrified, choosing to ignore claimants usually seen on Benefits Street, and therefore woefully flawed with conveniently sympathetic characters.
Both critiques are wrong.
What I learned writing a book for an audience that would be hard to engage (jobseekers) was that it needs a compelling story. It can be fictional but must retain elements of truth, hooks that are authentic to the audience who know better than the storyteller how things are. It needs to bind notes of real life and stitch them together with a thread of a narrative. Anecdotes can hang together awkwardly and seem ham-fisted because rather than a couple of setbacks challenging each character they all seem to happen to one but that's true of all films and books outside the arthouse domain.
There's a scene where Daniel Blake complies with a directive to get his CV typed up and uploaded to Universal JobMatch. A skilled carpenter off work after a heart problem, (and trying to navigate a bewildering process of applying for ESA), he's at a loss with computers. He looks around the room for help and when he finally gets it, it turns out he doesn't even know what the mouse is for. He picks it up and places it against the screen. 'That!' I wanted to shout out. 'Yes, that. That's exactly what it's like for some of the people we see at Clean Slate.'
What's that phrase? 'You couldn't make it up!' People still think we do.