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As winter approaches, two British films currently in cinemas are making issues of homelessness and poverty their focus. In I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach, a filmmaker whose reputation is made on representing the concerns of the underprivileged, reveals the struggles of Daniel, a middle-aged man recovering from a heart attack who is unable to work, and yet finds himself denied the benefits he needs to survive. Dealing with similar issues, but with a lighter touch, is A Street Cat Named Bob, which tells the story of a homeless, recovering addict named James, who finds his life turned around when a charismatic ginger cat named Bob decides to attach himself to James.
A hard-hitting film, I, Daniel Blake has been winning over critics and fuelling debate because of its representation of people often stigmatised in sections of the mainstream media. Loach reaches out to the audience, asking them to sympathise with two distinct cases of people seeking the state's help through the benefits system. We follow Daniel's story, and through him we also meet Katie, a young single mother bringing up two children, and who has been displaced to a different city after living in a homeless hostel for two years.
Through Daniel's exasperated perspective, we experience the painfully farcical process of applying for support. Failing to comply with all the tasks, forms and appointments required of him - however ridiculous - could result in very serious consequences. This Kafkaesque system of confusing procedures and harsh penalties (also seen in satirical drama The Trial), is represented here as a means of discouraging the disadvantaged from even seeking the help they so urgently need.
The importance of community is emphasised in the film, with Daniel and Katie's relationship forming the core of this, but it's also seen in the support between Dan and his neighbours, and in small moments where strangers come to his aid or lend their voices to his protests. With its unapologetic political stance, this deeply moving film is a call to action to stand up for others in difficulty, and to question our own responsibility as a society that allows situations like this to occur. In one of Loach's early films, Cathy Come Home, similar issues were brought to the British public's attention, the film caused such outrage that charities were set up to support people who found themselves on the verge of homelessness. You can read more about Ken Loach's body of work and engagement with social issues here.
Documentary The Divide takes a matter-of-fact approach to this topic, comparing and contrasting several case studies of the systematic difficulties of those on low incomes. The film reveals the challenges of making ends meet for a range of people in the US and the UK, as well as showing how luxurious lifestyles are guardedly maintained on the opposite end of the scale. Michael Moore's Sicko is a revealing portrait of inequalities in the US healthcare system - a system that puts the financial burden on those who can afford it the least. The result is shown to be people suffering from chronic ill-health as they must forgo treatment that they cant afford, or finding themselves in crippling debt if they go ahead. Our socioeconomic diversity film list addresses these and many other stories that focus on the impact of economic circumstances on peoples lives.
Despite its serious messages, the film also boasts a defiantly playful sense of humour, which balances the film's tone, and also brings the audience closer to Daniel and Katie. Daniel is played by stand-up comedian Dave Johns, who expands on the importance of using comedy to connect with human stories alongside screenwriter Paul Laverty in an interview with one of our young reporters, which you can watch - along with an interview with Ken Loach himself - on the page below.
Explore the themes of I, Daniel Blake further with our Into Film Recommends podcast below, or log in to SoundCloud to download the podcast and listen on the go.
A Street Cat Named Bob also tackles the difficulty of getting back on your feet after a serious setback. Based on the bestselling memoir of James Bowen, the film deals with tough issues in an accessible way, and embraces the popularity of Bob the cat; now a feline media icon. Making a feature of the magnetic effect Bob has on people, the film uses cats-eye view perspectives to give Bob's side of the story, and uses this humorous touch to balance out its harsher depictions of life on the streets.
James is fortunate to have a supportive key worker who strives to help him break free of the cycle of addiction, putting a friendly face on a system which is presented in a much more forgiving light than in I, Daniel Blake. However, A Street Cat Named Bob reveals a pecking order that leaves James at the bottom of a long list of people in need, as a result of his substance abuse. Despite having been helped off the streets, James must prove himself self-reliant to be worthy of the second chance he's been given, and is in a very lonely and precarious position. It's only when Bob appears and refuses to go away that James develops enough feeling of self-worth to reclaim his life.
Difficult family relationships form a background to the homeless aspect of James' story - a subject also explored in Time Out of Mind, about a middle-aged man in the early stages of dementia, living on the streets and attempting to reconnect with his daughter. Hector, meanwhile, takes the experience of homelessness on the road, following an older man in reduced circumstances forced to go on a journey across Britain in order to reconcile different elements of his life.
All of these stories - whether moving, inspiring, or aiming to provoke change - represent circumstances that are all too common, yet rarely portrayed on the big screen. They show just how easy it is for very ordinary people to find themselves sinking into deep trouble, and pose the question of what we as an audience can do to support others in need, and whether or not the systems that we have in place to help people are truly effective.
We speak to the talent behind Ken Loach's latest drama, I, Daniel Blake, including actors Hayley Squires and Dave Johns, writer Paul Laverty, and Loach himself.
Viewing time 10 mins
We take a look at Ken Loach and his subversive and provocative back catalogue.
Reading time 8 mins
A selection of films from around the world exploring democracy and the political process throughout history, encouraging debate, understanding and engagement.
No. of films27
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