The Power of a Story: I, Daniel Blake

by Tim Perkin

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I am no avid film fan. I can barely sit through an entire episode of Breaking Bad or Homeland let alone a whole film. But my experience of I, Daniel Blake was very different. I was fixed to my seat, my eyes glued to the screen in front of me, immersed in the story of Daniel, a man from Newcastle, and his friend Katie, a young woman who has recently moved North from London.

I won’t ruin the story, because you must see it. However I will say that the film tells the narrative of ordinary people who are caught in systems that manipulate, oppress, and alienate them. You sit through an hour and a half of anger, frustration, and sadness as you watch the everyday occurrences of the protagonists’ lives that appear so real it almost feels like a documentary. For me, it brought to life Guy Standing’s notion of precarity and experiences of the state in today’s neoliberal Britain, giving poverty a face; challenging perceptions that poverty is the result of a personal failing in aspiration or responsibility. It demonstrated the failures of ‘the enterprising culture’, and the gig economy that demand individuals sell themselves on applications, CVs, and in interviews as if each of us are just a commodifiable business.

The film has reminded me of the power stories hold, and the power they have to tell a message to audiences. They can bring laughter, sadness, anger, and joy, but most of all they have the ability to illuminate reality and to provide insights into the everyday lived realities of people. I, Daniel Blake, although not an objectively ‘true story’, captures a fundamental truth about the experience of poverty, marginality and redundancy in neoliberal Britain better than any hard ‘facts’ or statistics ever could. And this power of stories, reminds me of the salient position that anthropologists occupy in relaying ordinary, everyday situations to their readers.

I often get told by people that there is a disconnect between academia and the realities of this world; a disjuncture between theory and practice. But anthropology offers something different; a way to break down that divide through the narratives of true situations and real lives. It puts a face to key theoretical concepts such as precarity. It takes academic, and sometimes obscure, theories and reconciles these with the voices of those who are victimized by structures, whether they are political, social, or economic. I, Daniel Blake has reminded me about the power that stories have, and has inspired me to ensure that I can be a listening ear to others.

Tim Perkin is studying for a Masters in Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex.

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