“EDUCATE, agitate, organise.” With his latest film, Ken Loach takes heed of George Bernard Shaw’s famous call to action for the British left wing. “I, Daniel Blake” tells the story of a joiner put out of work by a heart attack, and brings a cold light to bear on Britain’s impersonal and inflexible welfare system. Reviews have ranged from rapture to begrudging respect. But with its overt political message, “I, Daniel Blake” is an anomaly. Despite a six-year “age of austerity”—and an eightfold increase in the number of local authorities operating foodbanks—the reaction in film has been muted.
The answer partially lies in funding. The number of low-budget feature films—films with a cache of less than £500,000 ($620,000)—produced in Britain fell by over 70% between 2010 and 2015. Steve Presence, the co-founder of the Bristol Radical Film Festival, says that without this money the chance of hearing angry, politicised voices “is diminished”, and that the risk aversion of the British Film Institute, the largest film funding body in Britain, is partly to blame. But Ben Roberts, Director of the BFI film fund, notes that they are committed to backing films which “say something culturally specific”; a phrase that, although vague, does not preclude films with a political message.
Judging from their track record, the BFI are true to their word. “I, Daniel Blake” received funding from them, as did several other indirect responses to the current political environment. Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant” (2013), set in post-industrial Bradford, is an allegory of sorts for the dangers of unfettered capitalism. Esther May Campbell’s “Light Years” (2015), set over the course of a hazy summer’s day, explores three sibling’s sense of loss and isolation after their mother falls ill. Both are examples of “magical realism”, a fantastic and introspective strand of social realism. But neither escaped the orbit of the arthouse film scene, and neither experienced anything like the buzz that has surrounded “I, Daniel Blake”.
This might be significant of a lack of demand for films that touch on contemporary politics; Mr Roberts argues that in times of economic uncertainty cinemagoers want an escape, not reality. In the 1970s, amid sky-high inflation, sex comedies like “Confessions of a Window Cleaner” (1974) emerged as some of the most popular British films. The recent box-office success of “Bridget Jones’s Baby” may be indicative of a nostalgia for the boom days of the early 2000s.
But poor showings at the box-office do not necessarily mean that film audiences are politically disengaged; instead, the conversation has moved online. David Archibald, who co-ordinated the 2016 Radical Film Network festival in Glasgow, says that there is more interest in grassroots film than at any time that he can recall. Over the past six years, social media has come to dominate the way that people learn and share their views about the world, with Vimeo and YouTube emerging as new channels for political films to be distributed. Fans coalesce around Facebook groups and websites such as meetup.com to organise film screenings and discussions. According to Mr Archibald, there has been a “breakdown of what cinema is”: rather than pay £10 to sit in a cinema, many opt to watch for free in cafés and clubs. Radical film festivals are flourishing, but to find them you need to already know where to look.
At a national level, political opposition to austerity has lacked force; voices on the left have become disillusioned. Under Ed Miliband, the Labour Party’s response to welfare cuts was limp; a report from the Fabian Society, a political think-tank, notes that Labour failed to mobilise poor and working class voters. Rebecca O’Brien, a producer for Sixteen Films and a long-time collaborator with Mr Loach, thinks that the root of the problem goes back to the 1980s and Thatcherism. She believes that “we have forgotten how to protest”, that the scope for change has narrowed as people have struggled to escape the neoliberal credo that the capitalist system will always work. It is no surprise that it is Mr Loach, whose career was formed during the political optimism of the 1960s, who has made the first direct and angry response to economic austerity.
In the 1960s, the “Wednesday Play” series of television plays tackled the major social and political issues of the time. It is unlikely that we will see such a regular, wide-ranging critique on mainstream television again. But the commercial success of “I, Daniel Blake”—which made over £400,000 ($500,000) in its opening weekend—suggests that the general mood may be changing. Perhaps now, with the rise of a hard-left under Jeremy Corbyn, a popular movement of writers and directors will emerge who share Mr Loach’s urgency. Unfortunately for Bernard Shaw, and for British film-makers, it is difficult to educate if you are not sure which alternative to teach.