At a Cannes press conference for his competition entry, I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach explained his filmmaking style using a quotation from Berthold Brecht: “And I always thought the simplest of words must suffice. If I say what things are like, it will break the hearts of all.” Then Loach added, “It should not only break your hearts, it should make you angry.”
Of the films shown thus far at Cannes, two are especially powerful precisely because they have been made in anger, inspiring fury at appalling and seemingly insurmountable social divisions. One is I, Daniel Blake, the other is Eshtebak (Clash) by Egyptian filmmaker and activist Mohamed Diab, which opened Cannes’ Un Certain Regard program.
Eshtebak confronts the longstanding rifts in Egypt, exacerbated when mass demonstrations forced president Hosni Mubarak to resign in 2011, a time recalled in the film as “the Revolution”. The title refers to the fights, two years later, between the Muslim Brotherhood members who continue to support president Mohamed Morsi and allies of the military that deposed him in July 2013.
Diab, a well-known activist and blogger of the 2011 uprising, earlier generated controversy with his anti-sexual harassment film, Cairo 678 (2010). His new film conjures a convincing microcosm of the Cairo protests, with remarkable scenes of explosive violence. When the central characters all end up in a police truck, the hot weather makes it a furnace.
The inmates of this prison-on-wheels experience the riots through small barred windows. With the exception of a few scenes, so does the viewer. This framework recalls Lebanon (2009), a view of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon from inside an Israeli tank, but in Eshtebak, we share the perspective of frustrated citizens rather than soldiers.
First, the riot police throw an American-Egyptian journalist Adam (Hany Adel) and his photographer Zein (Mohamed El Sebaey) into the prison truck. As the riots rage on, both anti-Morsi and pro-Morsi prisoners fill the van. A Coptic Christian military officer finds himself trapped inside when the rioters overwhelm the lawmen. Each influx of militants leads to scuffles and recriminations outside the van, while inside, ideological differences give way to shared horror, as the prisoners witness all manner of mayhem.
At one point, a prisoner watches through the bars as his father, and 50 others, die of heat, locked in another police truck parked nearby, the dying men’s pleas for help fading as the soldiers guarding them do nothing. For a minute or two, it seems the common predicament will overwhelm political conflicts: an inmate bursts into an out-of-tune pop song to everyone’s delight, or children of opposing parents play a game of tic-tac-toe.
But such moments are fleeting: each time a different side gets the upper hand outside the van, people inside turn on each other, and on Adam, whom everyone regards as a spy. Repeatedly, the inside of the vehicle becomes a chaotic mass of moving bodies, pierced with lights and bullets, as when a pro-Morsi sniper, targeting the guards, shoots up the truck, endangering everyone inside regardless of political persuasion.
These gripping scenes are a combination of careful choreography and improvisation. Diab reports that stuntmen and untrained actors worked together to create action that is “real and live”. The result conveys a pacifist message with an exacting punch.
I, Daniel Blake
I, Daniel Blake confronts the British welfare state with similar emotional force. After he has a heart attack, joiner and carpenter Dan Blake (Dave Jones) is in a Catch-22. Now unable to work, he no longer has health benefits. Yet he can’t appeal the decision until he gets a call from “the decision-maker”, who can’t be reached in any way, leaving people like Dan to wait by the phone.
Dan applies for unemployment benefits that require him to look for jobs, but he can’t accept any offers because he is too sick to work. He is “sanctioned” — denied his checks for weeks and months — for not using a computer to fill out online forms, and for not using a smartphone to document his offline job searches. But he can’t afford to own, or learn how to use, either one.
This all sounds like a 21st-century dystopia, a Brave New World of austerity politics. But Loach bases the situation and the bureaucratese on life, as he explained at the press conference. He visited food banks and disabled workers’ organizations while researching the movie, and includes real-life food bank volunteers and welfare office workers in the cast. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan does not enhance the dreary grey and brown hues of Newcastle’s streets, construction sites, and welfare offices.
For most of the film, it seems that Dan will pull through. He is always ready with pointed retorts at the “healthcare professionals,” and Jones, a standup comedian, delivers these flawlessly. He befriends a single mother of two named Kattie (Hayley Squires), so hungry that she steals a few gulps from a pasta sauce at the food bank in order not to pass out in public.
But even as Dan fixes up the place for Kattie and her two kids, Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan), he’s unable to get his own situation sorted. His quips, both justified and witty, only get him thrown out of the welfare office. Loach’s downtrodden heroes usually find some way to sustain hope, in family or in humor, in individual ingenuity or collective kindness. But this time, the filmmaker’s own anger at systemic, interminable inequities threatens to overcome his optimism.