THIS year marks the 50th anniversary of the television play Cathy Come Home, about the catastrophic slide of a young family into homelessness. It was watched by a quarter of the population, provoked questions in Parliament, and played a large part in promoting the launch of the housing charity Shelter.
Its director, Ken Loach, released another film last month: I, Daniel Blake, which explored similar themes (Comment, 28 October). Set in Newcastle upon Tyne, it tells the story of one man’s struggle with a benefits system that does not acknowledge his disability and plunges him into poverty.
I would like to examine how accurate the film is in its portrayal of an individual’s experience of the benefits system; whether it can be an impetus for change; and the unseen part that the Church plays in this narrative.
SOME scenes in I, Daniel Blake are set in the Benwell area of Newcastle, where, until last year, I served as a parish priest (Comment, 26 June 2015). I worked in the foodbank that features in the film, which is based in a church hall. The real individuals I encountered there shared many of the experiences of the fictional Daniel Blake.
I spoke to people exhausted from trudging the streets looking for jobs that they knew they would not have the physical stamina to carry out. I saw people so hungry that they sat in the foodbank eating straight from the tin. I watched people gradually deteriorate, physically and mentally, as insecure accommodation turned into full-blown homelessness.
I also spoke to jobcentre employees, who were desperately trying to hang on to their sense of personal integrity while administering a system that they knew to be unjust.
When I went to see Mr Loach’s film, I rather naïvely thought that, having seen the real-life stories, I would not be shocked by a fictional one. But I was. Having seen the real thing made it more difficult to watch. I could not say to myself: “It can’t be as bad as that,” because I knew that it was. People are being punished every day for being poor and unfit for work. It is foodbanks, such as the one in Benwell, that are picking up the pieces.
I, Daniel Blake is, however, a film of light as well as darkness. The kindness of strangers shines in it: ordinary Geordies who support Blake through his increasingly desperate life, proving to him that there is still good in the world.
A scene set in a foodbank is another rare oasis of dignity and humanity. Kathy Germain and Christine Wood, who are real-life volunteers at the Benwell foodbank, were given speaking parts in the film. They are seen working under considerable pressure, but they treat Blake and his friend Katie with respect and love, and give them the practical help they need — as they do every week with the characters’ non-fictional counterparts.
THERE is no clue in I, Daniel Blake that the foodbank is based in a church hall, but Christians should be proud of the work done there. For decades, the wider Church has supported the church in Benwell financially, besides other deprived areas around the country, providing places of help and sanctuary for the poorest of the poor.
Within days of the release of I, Daniel Blake, the Church of England published Statistics for Mission 2015 (News, 28 October), resulting in some gloomy media headlines about the decline in church attendance.
Those statistics give us vital information about the health of the Church, but they do not tell the whole story — such as that of the 1000 people fed each week at the Benwell foodbank, who do not appear in the figures.
After Cathy Come Home, Mr Loach was disappointed: the film did not lead to a lasting change in attitudes towards homelessness, as he had hoped. He is determined that I, Daniel Blake will be a catalyst for change, and has appeared on news and current-affairs programmes to discuss the issues that the film raises.
We are already beginning to see results. For example, the film was cited in news reports about a planned overhaul of the system for assessing claimants for disability benefits. The Scottish National Party MP Mhairi Black told the House of Commons last week that the film “shows the brutal and sobering reality of what life is like for those struggling most in today’s society. Watch it, get angry, and do something to change this horrible system.”
THE Church, as often happens, is hidden in plain sight in I, Daniel Blake. Only people who know the West End of Newcastle will know that churches were involved at all in Blake’s story. In many ways, that is as it should be: the poor are sick to the back teeth of being made to feel grateful for being allowed to survive. The Church should not be yet another organisation to which they feel indebted.
This film will not, however, be watched mainly by people who use foodbanks, who cannot afford to go to the cinema anyway. Some of the people who watch it will have real power and influence in society, and it frustrates me that they will not see the Church in this film.
When we publicly challenge the Government on a benefits system that fails the poorest people in our society, we know what we are talking about, because we are one of the many voluntary organisations that are quietly picking up the pieces and ensuring that people do not starve.
THERE is more that Christians can do to help those struggling with food poverty. First, we can continue to donate food, time, money, and resources to foodbanks, many of which are run by churches. The Trussell Trust (www.trusselltrust.org) supports many of them, including the one featured in I, Daniel Blake.
Second, we can swell the whispering campaign that is already under way around the film. Those who use social media can contribute by retweeting helpful comments and sharing relevant articles on Facebook, or indeed writing their own.
We can also help by using the film to open conversations in churches and communities about failings in the benefits system, and to raise awareness of those who are suffering.
A third course of action is louder demonstrations. There has already been open protest in connection with I, Daniel Blake. On the day the film was released last month, campaigners were photographed by ITN News chained to the railings of Trinity Methodist Church in Blaydon-on-Tyne. Their banner read: “Benefit sanctions are binding people to poverty and denying them the right to be able to feed themselves and their family.”
There are many more ways — by writing letters to newspapers, MPs, and others, for example — in which we, as Christians, can stand alongside some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Their suffering is avoidable.
The Revd Catherine Pickford is Continuing Ministerial Development Officer for the diocese of Newcastle, and Priest-in-Charge of St Mary’s, Stannington. She spent 11 years as Team Vicar and then as Team Rector of the Benwell Team in Newcastle upon Tyne.