Monday, March 6, 2017

Thoughts on 'I, Daniel Blake' pt2 - 'Two Days, One Night.'

Last time I wrote about my personal response to Ken Loach’s latest film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, welcoming the way it highlights in detail the pernicious modifications that have accumulated within the UK benefits system in recent years, but critical of its ‘tick box’ approach to storytelling.  

The film I’d like to describe now is one that, I felt, told a gripping story (managing to do so without resorting to car chases, explosions etc.) at the same time as it exposed the plight of low waged workers within the corporate system we have built around ourselves.  It was made in Belgium, released in 2014 and its English title is ‘Two Days, One Night’.

The story concerns a factory worker, Sandra, who returns to work after taking time off for depression, only to find that her bosses have decided that, in a period of austerity, they can get by with one less worker.  She is to be made redundant unless a majority of her co-workers vote to keep her on.  But if this is what they decide, they each have to sacrifice a 1,000 Euro bonus.

It’s a small factory, manufacturing solar panels, with a work force of 16 men and women.  A show of hands vote has gone against Sandra, but she persuades her employers that there has been a degree of intimidation on the part of a supervisor who is determined to get rid of her and secure the bonuses.  They agree to a secret ballot and she finds herself with a single weekend to persuade enough of her colleagues to support her, so the vote will go in her favour and enable her to retain her livelihood.

It’s a gruelling challenge, involving bus journeys, hours of foot slogging, searching for addresses, fruitless doorbell ringing, constant rehearsal/modification of the arguments she will use when she does get face to face with one of the 13 people she hopes to speak to.  Some of the confrontations are heartbreaking – they are all people for whom the 1,000 Euros could make a positive difference in their lives, or in some cases who are under family pressures to bring home that additional money.  Sandra herself understands all too well the difficult choice she is asking each of them to make.  And remember, her own mental balance is still frail.  The actress who plays the role, Marion Cotillard, is superb.  We are made to feel the strength of her determination; we are touched by her many moments of weariness and despair; we share her occasional moments of encouragement when someone agrees to vote in her favour.

The suspense builds as the weekend winds to a close, Monday morning and the secret ballot arrive.  It is not clear how the vote will go.  The story’s end can be found online, but I’m not going to put a spoiler here.  Suffice to say that a final twist presents Sandra herself with an acutely difficult moral choice.  That she makes it with clarity and compassion is a testament to the way in which her own strength of character has been developed by her efforts.

Okay, this film has a somewhat different brief to ‘I, Daniel Blake’.  But there are a good many parallels.  Both films highlight, as the gap continues to widen between rich and poor, the unnecessary and humiliating shit the latter have to face just in order to live.  Both focus on the harsh, soulless environments in which working class people now find themselves more often than not living.  Both tell of a possibly hopeless quest for some sort of justice in the face of a profoundly unjust system.  Where ‘Two Days, One Night’ scores is in making out of this kind of material a story that cannot fail to affect anyone of a reasonably sensitive disposition.  It’s a film that makes you ask questions and think, rather than to nod along numbly and say: ‘Oh yes, isn’t that terrible?’

It’s been said to me that in this particular slough of the twenty first century, the oppressed lack articulate voices to speak in their favour.  This may well be true and the likes of Ken Loach are to be treasured for speaking up and for going resolutely against the grain.  But in terms of doing this effectively, in a way that might just bring the situation home to those who prefer to think otherwise, I think Ken may have missed a trick.  One that the Dardenne brothers (directors and screenplay writers of TDON) managed to achieve compellingly.

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