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Social realism and the basic truth 

Thomas H. Sheriff

Editors: Nash Croker and Molly Blackall

In 1969, the year after the protests which gave this publication its title, Ken Loach’s endlessly poignant Kes was released. Fast-forward almost fifty years to 2016 and Loach became the oldest ever winner of the Palme d’Or, Cannes Film Festival’s highest honour, for his quietly furious I, Daniel Blake.

Kes and I, Daniel Blake are remarkably similar, a fact which points not to a lack of imagination by Loach (both films are masterful) but to a disappointing lack of progress in British society. This is a topic frequently grappled with in social realist cinema, a filmmaking tradition which overflows with brilliance from directors like the tireless Loach, visceral Alan Clarke and visionary Lynne Ramsay. 

Social realism, grounded in and dominated by the British working class, is deeply critical without saying much at all. Its skill lies in presenting us with facts with which we can only jump to one conclusion. Filled with simple pleasures and insurmountable tragedies, social realism presents a system stacked against those it claims to support. At the core of the whirling storm of bureaucratic failures and social injustices, the genre shows us people - for what they are, for what they could be, and from what they are held back. 

Kes, Loach’s second film, is set in Barnsley, Yorkshire, and follows a young boy named Billy who trains a kestrel as he navigates an unforgiving childhood. “A British The 400 Blows,” is often said of Kes, but that does it an injustice. It’s at least the film’s equal; stylistically subdued but lyrical and beautiful. Loach paints such a perfect portrait of a boy’s childhood that you are enveloped into its folds to laugh and cry (and cry…). But more than just being a study of its subject, Kes is fiercely political, boldly spotlighting the lack of opportunity afforded to its characters.

We follow Billy as he is churned through school, beaten and bullied by students and teachers alike. Trapped in a small musty house with a weary single mother and irate miner brother, his beloved kestrel provides some small respite from the grim realities of daily life. Even a careers officer, a role with all the potential of optimism and opportunity, only serves to direct him to follow his sibling down to the squalor of the pits. 

There isn’t much of a plot to Kes, and its ending is foreseeable. We can all map out Billy’s future, and guess quickly that the glorious freedom his kestrel inspires won’t last. But to critique it for its predictability is to miss the very essence of its message. It is in the inevitability of the film’s sad conclusion that Loach poses his overarching question: if we all know, why aren’t we doing anything about it?

During the film we come to know Billy as a person, which exacerbates the pain of seeing him dehumanised by his environment. This painful dehumanisation is a key theme in British social realism, and one taken to the grim extreme by Alan Clarke in his 1979 gem Scum. 

With a baby-faced Ray Winstone in the lead, Scum takes place entirely within the grounds of a hellish borstal for young offenders. Locked away, these children are reduced to four-digit numbers and surnames. Scum is a shockingly violent film – after all, taking dehumanisation to its logical conclusion means turning a person into just their flesh and blood. Anyone of status is content with abandoning the borstal. Like Kes’s Barnsley, its people are neglected as if they are less than human. 

Scum is not all brutality: Clarke enriches the film with subtlety. When one inmate asks Matron if she can call them by their first names, she explains that her personal feelings don’t come into it and that she has no choice but to follow protocol. Is the film damning the system which extinguishes Matron’s humanity, or is it damning Matron for complying with that system? Likely both. The system is abject but it is made up of individuals; some colder than others, but none prepared to rock the boat.

Location is important to both Kes and Scum. Damned through geography, the characters are disadvantaged by virtue of their place of birth, which are frequently crippled by unemployment, poor education systems and widespread poverty. This idea is further explored in Lynne Ramsay’s poetical Ratcatcher (1999), which follows a young boy called James (not dissimilar to Kes’s Billy) in filthy 1973 Glasgow, during a strike by the city’s binmen.

There is a pivotal scene in which James takes a bus to the countryside and explores an empty construction site where new houses are being built. He staggers, amazed, around the clean white angles of the houses, then climbs out of a window and runs in golden fields. It is the complete antithesis of his home, where binbags pile up on the grey pavements and the sinister brown canal runs past the dilapidated block of flats where he lives. 

The scene illustrates how important James’s location is to his life and experiences. Whilst he could have been born in a neighbourhood of new houses, in a world of opportunity; he landed in a world quite literally abandoned to drown in rubbish. Through the lens of Ramsay’s delicate camera, the golden fields become his Elysium. What’s so heartbreaking is that his idea of paradise is so simple: space, cleanliness, and nature other than rats.

This is what makes British social realism so arresting and vital: at its core is a simple and powerful idea. It doesn’t try to engage in debate. It doesn’t try to “see both sides” of the political spectrum. These films simply say: here are people, and they are being treated as less than that.

I, Daniel Blake provides a stunning example of this concept in action. The film, a direct attack on Conservative welfare policy, follows Daniel as he navigates a failing social security system, hostile at every level. Like Billy, Daniel takes respite in friendship, and the story that unfolds is both deeply moving and intensely harrowing. Again, Loach’s work wields a simply, irrefutable idea, culminating in its devastating final words:

My name is Daniel Blake, I am a man, not a dog. As such I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less.

The impact of the film has been palpable: a Palme d’Or; Loach’s best-ever UK opening; and a projection of its key lines upon the Houses of Parliament. I, Daniel Blake marks the latest masterpiece in the rich tradition of social realism. It joins a long list of poignant and harrowing cinema from authentically working class experiences. 

Technically these films are a marvel: Loach’s reserved long takes; Clarke’s kinetic Steadicam mastery; Ramsay’s gritty, beautiful montage approach. These magnificent filmmakers give their stories colour, heart and dignity. They rally against Hollywood-style storytelling with their loose narratives, and do not sensationalise. They are content simply to observe, with detail and clarity.

Fifty years have passed since Kes, and yet these works of social realism demand to be watched now more than ever. In our age of hyperbolic rhetoric, we cry out for voices like theirs – to illustrate the basic truth that Britain is not treating its people as the humans they are.