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“Dare them to censor you”: Ken Loach talks art and activism in I, Daniel Blake and beyond

“The idea that we would support each other rather than compete against each other has gone,” says Britain’s best-known political filmmaker.

Delegates Arrive At The 2016 Conservative Party Conference
Director Ken Loach speaking at the People’s Assembly’s People Conference in Birmingham, England in October.
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Ken Loach is one of Britain’s most prominent (and sometimes controversial) political filmmakers and activists. Since the 1960s, his films — such as Cathy Come Home (1966), Kes (1969), Hidden Agenda (1990), and Land and Freedom (1995) — have tackled social struggles, especially those faced by the working class, and sparked debate.

His latest film, I, Daniel Blake, won Loach his second Palme d’Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Written by Loach’s frequent collaborator Paul Laverty, the film is a tragedy of bureaucracy, equal parts Kafka and Dickens, in which Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old carpenter and widower, suffers a heart attack and is ordered not to work by his doctor. He quickly discovers, while trying to collect social benefits, that the layers of inscrutable procedures and forms are all but impossible to navigate. Along the way he befriends a young single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), who struggles to feed her children after her benefits are “sanctioned” because she was late to a meeting after getting lost.

Vox spoke with Ken Loach via phone about his work, the future of political filmmaking, and the innovative way I, Daniel Blake is pursuing a wider viewership beyond arthouse audiences.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

What attracted you to the project?

Ken Loach

Paul Laverty, the writer, and I were catching these extraordinary stories of how people were absolutely humiliated and degraded when they needed financial support to survive. The stories got more and more extreme and more and more grotesque, and so many of them weren't isolated.

We thought, “Well, maybe we should look into this.” I mean, it seems like a conscious decision by the government to humiliate and degrade people. At the same time, there's a massive rise in charities giving food and a massive rise in homelessness, so we thought we should just explore it. We did some research together, we went across different cities and towns in the country, and then Paul did a lot more research on his own. That's where it began.

'I, Daniel Blake' - 'The People's Premiere' - VIP Arrivals
Writer Paul Laverty, star Hayley Squires, and director Ken Loach attend the People’s Premiere of I, Daniel Blake.
Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage

Alissa Wilkinson

Are there any moments in I, Daniel Blake that are drawn from things you'd observed in your own life, or among people you know?

Ken Loach

I've never been in that situation. But we just met so many people like [Daniel and Katie]. I mean, the story of [Katie], when she's so hungry that she just has to consume some food while she’s still in the food bank — that was a story that happened to a woman in Glasgow.

There were so many stories of people who had been sanctioned. It’s happened to hundreds of thousands of people. It's not just a few. We heard far worse stories than the ones in the film, but we didn't want to take the most extreme stories. We wanted to show that this could happen to anybody. They say everybody's two paychecks away from a disaster. I think that for most people, that's true.

Alissa Wilkinson

Listening to these stories must be pretty emotionally difficult for you. How do you turn that into a film?

Ken Loach

It wasn't raw emotion that was the problem; the problem was the detail. With bureaucracy, of course, the rules are endless. The precise process is very complicated; there's all different headings you can be caught under. The process is very confusing.

We saw and heard so many different stories and different experiences. Disabled people — that's a whole other story. They've suffered far worse than anybody else, because in the austerity program, for example, their transport is cut, so they can't get out of the house. Or their support to go shopping is cut, or they can't get the money for a mobility scooter — in all kinds of ways, their resources are diminished, and it means they live as prisoners.

There's so many stories to tell. And, really, that was one of Paul's achievements: to find a way through that complexity so that you could just tell a story that anyone could understand, without having to get into the complex details of the bureaucracy itself.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’m an American, and the situation in the film felt familiar, even though we don't have the exact same system as Britain. That bureaucracy is familiar to everyone.

Ken Loach

I think that's the common denominator. We found that in Europe: The details are different, but the principle of a state bureaucracy is the same. It is there to trap you, not to help you, and puts obstacles in the path, and makes it difficult for you to get what you are entitled to. That seems common to everybody.

I, Daniel Blake - Projection Onto Houses Of Parliament
A line from a statement made by the title character of I, Daniel Blake is projected onto a wall near the Houses of Parliament in London.
Photo by Nicky J Sims/Getty Images for eOne

Alissa Wilkinson

You've been making movies with these themes for a long time. What’s different in 2016 than it might have been 30 years ago?

Ken Loach

I think the big division was 1979 or 1980, when Margaret Thatcher came to power — that’s 36 years ago. Before that, after the Second World War, people did feel they'd built a society in which people helped each other. You could talk about the common good. There was an expectation that life would get better.

When Thatcher came to power — and obviously Reagan, in your case — that changed. It wasn't about making life better for everyone; it was about imposing a harsh system of competition, trade, entrepreneurship, and business so that everyone was out to screw the other. You didn't work for the common good; you worked for private greed. Corporate power took the place of the power of the people.

Since then, it's been the story of harsh competition. The poor must look after themselves. The idea that we would support each other rather than compete against each other has gone.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you see the role of art, especially movies, having shifted over that time?

Ken Loach

I think people do political films in different ways, don't they? I mean, there's been some good films about the environment. There's been good films about poverty.

But I'm not sure there's been many films made that are really about class struggle — which, I suppose, is what [Laverty and I] have always tried to make films about: to see things in class terms. The right-wing view is that there are poor people who should be helped, and you put some money in the collecting plate when you're in church or in the streets, and that that's the answer.

I suppose a political film would say there is an alternative way of living, and it depends on the idea that society is split on the basis of class, with different class interests, and will remain so until this whole system is changed. I'd say that's the political filmmaking you look for and don't see very often.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you see narrative or “fiction” film having a different kind of strength than, say, documentary filmmaking, which often is also political in nature?

Ken Loach

I think all sorts of filmmaking is good. But certainly, there's a huge place for documentary, and all kinds of documentary, whether they're simply observational films or whether they're led by a presenter — that's the choice of the filmmaker. I think all kinds of filmmaking are equally valid. It depends on the film.

Alissa Wilkinson

Is there some kind of risk inherent in making those kinds of films — even danger? We're thinking about this in the US now with the recent election, wondering what the effects will be on artists. Do you see riskiness coming for artists?

Ken Loach

It's not with us at the moment. And I think you've got to fight really hard to keep that space open. The best way to do that is to keep making the films. Just keep the films coming, and theater, and writing, and art, and cartoons, and every form of expression. Just keep them coming. Just keep up the attack. Dare them to censor you.

The problem with people like Trump and the far right in Europe is we know they're there — how do we respond? The response of the left is the critical question now. Will we respond with a convincing analysis, with a program that offers real hope, and use the power of the working class? Will the left respond that way, or will they compromise? That's the big question.

Portrait Sessions At Locarno Film Festival 2016
Loach at the Locarno Film Festival in August 2016.
Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

Are there any artists or filmmakers who you think are good examples of how to work in that condition?

Ken Loach

Oh, I think there's lots. I'd hate to mention names because I could miss out on the most important ones, and that wouldn't do. I cheer when I see someone else coming forward with a strong, good film that helps us to understand. I think we've all got to keep pushing. Journalists particularly. No pressure there, Alissa.

Alissa Wilkinson

It's all right, I'm just a movie journalist.

Ken Loach

That's what they all say.

Alissa Wilkinson

If a young filmmaker then came to you kind of asking for advice, where would you tell them to start?

Ken Loach

Read the books and then try and understand what's going on in the world first. You've got to understand it. Join in, be politically involved, listen to the arguments, meet people, see what they're experiencing, test their arguments, ask the big questions, go to the very root of what's happening.

In terms of understanding, read history. We only know where we are if we know how we got here, and that's history. So you've got to have a sense of history. You've got to have a sense of political engagement; you've got to have some sense of why the far right emerges. What are the economic circumstances? How did they arise the last time? All this stuff, you've got to dig into.

Then look at other films and say, “Well, I like what they've done. I like what that person's done, how they've done it.” That's what I did. I looked at other stuff and tried to absorb their process. Then after that you find a process of your own.

Alissa Wilkinson

What are you up to next?

Ken Loach

I don't know yet. I'm just going to get through the winter.

It's been quite busy. We're doing a lot of screenings just in communities. Not in cinemas. The [British] distributor's been very good and has got someone especially for putting on community screenings where for a very low price, they'll send out a DVD or a Blu-ray. People are showing the film, not in cinemas, but in community centers and sports bars, anywhere where you can gather a few people and watch it, in the areas where people wouldn't go to arthouse cinemas.

That’s been fantastic because usually you only show the films to people who agree with you. The distributor's been very good in finding other ways of showing the films so that we're not doing that. They're getting the film into communities which are poor, which have no arthouse cinema for miles away and [people] couldn't afford to go if there were one. Just for the price of one pound or one dollar, they can see it and take part in a discussion, and it makes connections.

We've done lots of screenings like that already, and the conversations are brilliant. It's really brilliant because it's with the people who are going through that very experience.

The audience isn't talking about “them.” The audience is talking about “us.” That's been extraordinary. It's been really unique to this film.

I, Daniel Blake opened in limited release on December 23.

Watch the trailer for I, Daniel Blake:

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