Having seen the trailers for this film at my local cinema and with my wife having a form of muscular dystrophy (oculopharangeal muscular dystrophy – OPMD), we were determined to see this film which we did last night (Tuesday 1st November).
It is an important film and one that should be seen by as many people as possible. It was made with the support of the BBC so I guess it will pop up on TV at some time. If so, the BBC ought to show it on BBC1 at 8.00 pm on Saturday not on BBC2 or BBC4 at 11.30 pm on Sunday or some other obscure time. Other groups supporting the production were from Europe. If the Europeans see it, we won’t have to worry about invoking Article 50; they will do it for us in order to get rid of us uncaring and hard-hearted lot as quickly as possible.
The film’s main character is Daniel, a 59 year old carpenter/joiner in Newcastle who has had a heart attack and who has been told by his doctor and consultant that he cannot work until he has sufficiently recovered, meaning the only option available to him to keep body and soul together is to claim the benefits our Social Security system is supposed to provide. However, as anybody who has been through this process will know, claiming your rightful benefit is not straightforward and the film charts his progress, or lack of it, through the welfare system, with all its inconsistencies, ironies and illogicalities.
The scene and the message are set at the very beginning. The first minute or so of the film is a blank screen, the only action being a conversation between the carpenter and a business-like, soul-less, uncaring assessor/interviewer who is asking the same questions, and only those questions, about his physical abilities that he has already answered on the form he completed previously and none of which mention his heart, which is the cause of his health problems in the first place. He keeps trying to move the conversation to his heart but the assessor/interviewer simply repeats, automaton-like “please answer the questions.” The film doesn’t answer, and neither, I’m sure, does the Department of Work and Pensions, when you ask them why it is necessary to answer these questions face to face when the information has already been provided and is there on the form – maybe the reason is to try and catch the claimant out on an inconsistency and make them appear as liars.
Following his interview, with its questions such as can you raise your arms, can you put something in your top pocket, can you complete an action like putting a hat on your head, can you walk 50 metres, etc., to which he truthfully answers yes, he is later informed (by telephone, by the “decision maker”) that he has been assessed as being fit for work and therefore not eligible for Employment Support Allowance. He can appeal of course but that has to be done on-line and having been a carpenter all his life, he has only ever seen a computer from a distance and a good distance at that. His only other option for any sort of financial help, is to apply for Job Seekers Allowance and for this, he has to make major efforts, and prove he is making major efforts, to secure a job which if he is successful in doing (and in the film he is) he will have to turn down on doctor’s orders because of his health and the state of his heart.
He meets up with a homeless single mother, Katie, with two children who have been re-located from a hostel in London to a flat in Newcastle and who he ‘adopts’ and helps to settle in their new home. She too is having real difficulties getting the help she needs.
The film’s importance is its portrayal of the ridiculousness and cruelty of the benefits system. These aspects would be laughable if it wasn’t for the fact that they affect, and sometimes destroy, peoples’ lives. Many of the audience did laugh in places, not because there were any jokes, but because of the stupidity of the responses given to the claimants in answer to legitimate questions and the ridiculousness of the situations people found themselves in. (Actually there was one joke where he is sitting at a computer attempting to complete a form on-line and the person helping him tells him to move the mouse up the screen (meaning move the curser up the screen using the mouse), but he takes her literally, i.e he runs the mouse up the surface of the screen).
Apart from that bit of laughter, there are scenes that will make right thinking people angry sometimes and cry others. The automaton-like responses mentioned above and the Catch-22 position of being made to seek a job, which he cannot accept if he is to follow the advice of his doctors, can only raise the hackles. There is one scene in a food bank where Katie, choosing the food she and her children need, picks up a can of beans, turns away in an attempt to hide her actions and opens it and stuffs some into her mouth because she is so hungry. Anyone not moved by that scene is very hard-hearted indeed.
Having said all the above, you might think the film it hard going but, on the contrary, it is very watchable and the one and three quarter hours flew past. Clearly, the writer has done his research and homework thoroughly, because although we haven’t had to endure all the things that Daniel in the film has, we could easily sympathise with his frustrations having shared some of his experiences.
We went to see the film this week because that is when it is on at our local cinema. However, the timing is particularly apt for us as my wife is scheduled to attend a face-to-face assessment as to her fitness to work on Friday 4th November. This is the third assessment she has been subject to since she was first diagnosed with her condition 10 years ago, aged 52. I guess if we were to ask the Department of Work and Pensions why someone with a progressive condition caused by a genetic anomaly needs to be seen repeatedly, when everybody knows the condition progresses and does not improve with time, the answer would be “Please answer the question asked”.