Cinema commands a powerful ability to influence how we perceive the world around us. It offers lessons in empathy and tolerance, as we glimpse experiences separate from our own. This can revolutionise our perspective on the struggles of others. A social realist approach to film-making strives for such an impact, focusing awareness and debate to the country’s failures. In a society still reeling from the trauma of austerity, cinema is fundamental to refuting stereotypes about those who receive state welfare – demonised as ‘scroungers’ by the media, and abandoned by a faceless bureaucracy.
This is what makes Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or win for I, Daniel Blake so important. A grandee of social realism, Loach’s new feature explores the struggle between the elderly, unemployed Daniel and what he calls the ‘conscious cruelty’ of austerity Britain’s bureaucracy. As part of a small but growing European trend of the screen, the likes of Peaky Blinders or Measure of a Man, we are witnessing the slow re-emergence of working-class stories.
And quite frankly it’s long overdue. In recent years, public representations of our state welfare have become politically charged. The Murdoch empire vanguards our ugly national discourse, which attacks ‘scroungers’ and ‘slackers’. These mythical categories act as pantomime villains, only serving to divide the working-class. But this sentiment contradicts concrete facts. Just 0.8 per cent of welfare is claimed fraudulently in the UK – a figure people perceive is as high as 30 per cent. But in our era of media saturation, perception is more important than reality.
I, Daniel Blake must take credit for rising above political digs. Rather than fall victim to the polemical, it listens and engages with those in poverty. The narrative is structured around honest, human stories of hardship. It casts real people, non-actors from Newcastle who imbue the film with realism. Into the abstract rhetorical categories of ‘shirkers’ versus ‘strivers’, Ken injects humanity. He emphasises complex human emotion, with humour being just important as frustration and despair to social realism’s impact.
Can Loach’s new film make a difference? I must admit I’m pessimistic about art’s ability to change government policy directly. But this doesn’t mean there’s no hope for modern social realism. If I, Daniel Blake can help change hearts and minds – about how we think about poverty, how we empathise with those who need food banks, how we perceive those who receive welfare – then we’re one step closer to a more just and harmonious society.