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Ken Loach provides eye-opening social commentaries of Britain

It’s easy to view politics through an abstract lens. When the main source of receiving information is through news organisations, certain snippets and phrases will always dominate the political discussion. Take welfare: if tabloid newspapers were representative of the truth, all individuals who claim welfare are fraudsters who can’t manage their finances and are more focused on watching TV than working. By taking money out of the government without contributing any through taxation, welfare claimants are presented as a waste and drain on public finances. The press, which often has a conservative disposition, aims to create a conflict between their readers and those who require the safety net of the state. This ignores the many complex nuances within the welfare system: the range of benefits, the methods of accessing those benefits and the many hardships people on low incomes face.

The same is true with regards to the future of work. Though it doesn’t feature heavily in the political discussion, not least because of Brexit, we have been made to regard the future of work in an optimistic manner, with policies like a four-day week and a guaranteed universal basic income speaking of opportunity. The rise of the gig economy – shown through growing companies like Uber and Deliveroo – suggests an end to the 9 to 5 office job and the growth of flexible work. Each of us may have the chance to become our own boss, decide our working hours and how we receive our income. Work in the future is presented as far less constraining, instead being based around choice and individual desires. The attraction of such work means it is extremely easy, therefore, to forget the exploitative practices that can come with this supposed freedom.

Through the cultural medium of cinema, Loach presents effective social commentaries that demonstrate the realities of political decisions on ordinary people, going far beyond traditional arguments used within the media

The opposite view to these perceived orthodoxies can be difficult to break through. We all lead busy lives, so it’s easy to accept the perceived orthodoxies that the media advocate. Many people simply don’t have the time, interest or intelligence to follow the complex work of government and select committees with regards to the future of employment and welfare reform.

Thank goodness, then, for the films of Ken Loach. Through the cultural medium of cinema, Loach presents effective social commentaries that demonstrate the realities of political decisions on ordinary people, going far beyond traditional arguments used within the media. Films are likely to reach, if not the readership levels of newspapers, far greater interest than any Parliamentary proceedings.

Although Loach’s works are fictional, they act as a representation for the difficulties people across the country, across the world even, face in their daily struggle of economic and social insecurity

In I, Daniel Blake, Loach exposes the dehumanising nature of the welfare system through Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a man declared fit to work by government despite suffering from health problems. Meanwhile, Sorry We Missed You follows Ricky Turner’s (Kris Hitchen) journey as a self-employed delivery driver, which, though positive at first, leads to brutal exploitation. Although Loach’s works are fictional, they act as a representation for the difficulties people across the country, across the world even, face in their daily struggle of economic and social insecurity.

It is admirable in both films how Loach adopts a raw authenticity of unfiltered honesty, for his primary aim is to reveal the social dysfunction individuals face. In I, Daniel Blake, Blake experiences the deprivation of his dignity by repeatedly applying for jobs he knows, due to health grounds, he can never accept. This is despite a Work Capability Assessment declaring him fit to work. Loach is able to expose the failure of communication between different state bodies like the NHS and welfare system. At its most extreme, Blake is forced to go without heating and descends into serious poverty. The situation is no better for the Turner family in Sorry We Missed You, despite the fact that both parents are in work. Loach critically highlights Ricky’s frustration at traffic wardens, irritating customers and time pressures that prevent him from effectively completing a service. This descends into financial and social havoc for all parties involved. There is an air of pessimism and discontent throughout both films, with Loach being unapologetic about presenting a harsh depiction of life – whether in or out of work – within the UK.

It is admirable in both films how Loach adopts a raw authenticity of unfiltered honesty, for his primary aim is to reveal the social dysfunction individuals face

There is a clear intention of wanting to reflect the lives of people who feel that society isn’t working for them. I wonder whether Loach wanted to exemplify this by not using blockbuster actors for his starring roles. I had never seen any of either cast before watching each film. This made the acting seem a realistic portrayal of an uncertain future and social marginalisation. I could genuinely believe both films were documentaries. There was no chance of typecasting taking place due to recognising the actors as famous celebrities, we knew them only for the individuals they were portraying who are so often forgotten. By choosing obscure actors at the expense of well-known individuals, Loach only made the production more harrowing.

Loach is a man of the left; his support for the Labour Party, especially under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, is well known. Yet it is a striking how neither film promotes a dependency on the state, which is normally seen as a left-wing characteristic. Indeed, all the characters in both films simply desire a sense of agency and control over their own lives. In I, Daniel Blake, Blake only wants to receive the medical care required along with some welfare. But this is simply a legitimate repayment of contributions he had made – through tax and national insurance – over decades. Indeed, during the film, Blake meets Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), a young single mother who is sanctioned for missing a welfare appointment, despite being new to the local area. All she wants is to provide for her children, taking part in educational courses that will allow her to seek employment. She doesn’t want to be a billionaire living off the state, she just wants dignity.

There is a clear intention of wanting to reflect the lives of people who feel that society isn’t working for them

It is these traits – dignity, agency and responsibility – that so define the characters in Sorry We Missed You. Indeed, some would argue that these characteristics espoused by Loach are more conservative in their outlook. Ricky desires control over his work, wanting to ensure customers receive their products quickly and efficiently. This is because he is so driven to personally provide for his children. Meanwhile, his partner Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), who, as a care worker, believes that looking after the vulnerable is about far more than just feeding them, but devoting time and energy to ensure their wellbeing. The combination of the volume of patients, poor transport connections and lack of staff prevents this from happening.  In his characterisation, Loach highlights how the protagonists want freedom from government, yet only through stability in their own lives can they begin to provide compassion and support to others.

While both films focus on specific protagonists, there is a very clear emphasis on the community’s impact within their own lives. The films are therefore inherently political, for they recognise and take account for the role of an individual within broader society. In I, Daniel Blake, the inherent compassion of a community is demonstrated through Daniel and Katie relying on a food bank. Such is Katie’s desperation for food that she immediately begins eating baked beans out of a tin. This demonstrates the social hardship she has experienced and extent to which she is willing to go hungry to ensure her children are fed. Yet the compassion experienced from the food bank cannot be easily forgotten. In Sorry We Missed You, Ricky and Abbie’s son, Seb (Rhys Stone), plays truant from school, regularly graffitiing the local area in neglect of educational opportunities. Nihilism runs through his behaviour, far more so than your average rebellious teenager. He genuinely feels there is nothing to aspire towards: even with admirable grades, the only life opportunities seem insecure work, low wages and few chances. The tough love of the police force is required to discipline Seb, though Loach continually explores how lives devoid of opportunity and hope have little reason to abide by the law.

Through his films, Loach, in a sense, goes beyond party divisions in search of values

Life should be about opportunities for personal and social development. The political and social stresses that the characters experience mean there is little time for that. Loach isn’t afraid to feature controversial and provocative scenes, for they demonstrate the extent of his characters’ lack of control and decision-making processes. In I, Daniel Blake, Katie has to resort to prostitution to earn money, an issue that still causes much debate within Parliament. Through Daniel’s character, we so brilliantly witness how Katie has to sacrifice her dignity in exchange for money. Indeed, Daniel, a law-abiding citizen, has to resort to graffitiing in order to be recognised, itself a political act against the welfare system. Meanwhile, Ricky and Abbie in Sorry We Missed You are simply overworked and underpaid. Their aim of holding things together financially means their relationship with one another and their children becomes a secondary concern. Loach is unafraid to reveal the depths to which people will sink in the name of financial security.

Ken Loach’s films, obviously, do not speak for everyone who claims welfare or in the gig economy. There will always be exceptions, individuals who’ve had a perfectly cordial relationship with the benefits system or who genuinely believe they are their own boss. But he shines a light on what is often missed by the media, especially the press, in terms of social injustice and dignity. These characters demonstrate how the notions of welfare reform and flexible work have profound impacts through their potential for exploitation. Such policies created far away in Whitehall place a huge strain on their lives, hopes and future. Through his films, Loach, in a sense, goes beyond party divisions in search of values. The characters strive for dignity, need and offer compassion, require accountability, whether from the state or a private sector. But most importantly, Loach highlights the human condition’s requirement for love: between friends, couples and families. When this cannot be met, as the films show, a tidal wave of consequences is unleashed. I feel truly sorry for the people leading those lives; you will be truly sorry if you don’t see those films.

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