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Social Realist Film Today: ‘The Selfish Giant’ and ‘I, Daniel Blake’

British theorist Mark Fisher, while analysing possible challenges to the current neoliberal system in his acclaimed book Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?, states that ‘a moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism’ (2009: 16). Such a statement, if it was proved to be true, would be drawing quite a discouraging outlook for all the artistic forms involved in critically engage with different aspects of reality, including social realist film. As a response to that, and trying to prove that films do have a role to play in fighting against the inequality of capitalist system, the purpose of this essay is to explore how social realism is facing the challenges of neoliberalism in contemporary cinema, through the comparison of two relatively new British films, The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, 2013) and I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016). Despite the lack of critical material that their recent release date implies, these two films constitute appropriate examples to be considered: while each of them represent a different approach to the conventions of social realism, they both deal with central issues in the neoliberal ideology.

Both The Selfish Giant and I, Daniel Blake, each in its own way, are films placing their focus on the struggle of the working class. Their main characters, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Daniel (Dave Johns), might seem very far from one another (a 14-year-old teenager working as a scrap dealer and a 59-year-old unemployed joiner, respectively), but their stories do share some features. Both are set in Northern England (Bradford and Newcastle), with an emphasis on the influence of the location. Both portray work, on the one hand, as the characters’ only option to survive in an aggressive reality; and on the other hand as an alienating force that leads them to pain and suffering. Both, in general, are describing the situation of inequality that the working class is facing nowadays, and defying the neoliberal idea that equal opportunity has already been achieved.

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But how is each of the films specifically engaging with this general context? Moore’s analysis of ‘potential silences’ in relation to films and its problematic (in her case, applied to environmental issues) is a good example to follow in order to examine this in detail (Moore 2015). As it is clear that both Barnard and Loach are dealing with the effects of neoliberalism on the working class, let’s see how this process is described in terms of causes, consequences and possible solutions.

Regarding the cause or responsibility for the characters’ problems, both films refuse to accept the neoliberal principle that even if ‘social, structural problems still exist, the responsibility or blame now shifts from society to the individual’ (Chen 2013: 446). If there is something to blame, in both cases that is clearly the system. The difference, thought, is how explicit this idea is made: while Barnard is implying metaphorically that the ‘Selfish Giant’ from the title is the political and economic system forcing Arbor to work scraping, and driving his friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) to death, Loach is not implying but overtly showing it. I Daniel Blake shows how the State, with its dehumanization of the administration (constant reference to an abstract ‘decision maker’), its inefficient bureaucracy, is failing to help its own citizens. And Katie’s (Hayley Squires) words in the last scene of the film are very explicit: ‘the State drove him (Daniel) to his grave’.

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That sentence sums up the thesis that Loach is defending in his film: the state is responsible for the situation, and the consequence of it is inevitably death. For its part, Swifty’s death in The Selfish Giant is conveying a similar idea: the marginalization of working classes, far from not having any effect, actually leads to the most tragic results. Some might argue whether death is too extreme as a consequence (and therefore more ‘determinist’ than realist), but as pointed out by Dave, tragedy has a key role to play in social realism in order to convey a commitment with real change (2011: 26). That is, by means of Daniel and Swifty’s deaths, Loach and Barnard are introducing the tragic mode in their narratives, thus calling for the need of a real change in the status of working classes.

What remains unclear, though, is where to find the solution that will lead to a change. By their description of the causes and consequences of working class struggle, both films are proved to be an accurate moral critique of the system, but they still do not contradict Fisher’s initial statement. If they are not able to provide solutions to the situation they are denouncing, if there is a ‘silence’ in this aspect, then social realist film is failing to oppose neoliberalism in an effective way. I think, however, that both The Selfish Giant and I Daniel Blake are suggesting a way out for their characters: the recovery of solidarity among the working classes. The union between Arbor and Swifty’s mother (Siobhan Finneran) at the end of Barnard’s film, and between Daniel and Katie throughout Loach’s, can be seen as the force that the working class have against the dehumanized and individualized system. Even if both endings are tragic, Daniel has been able to help Katie redirect her life, and Swifty’s mother has forgiven Arbor, thus implying that he is not the one to blame for what happened to her son. Thus, solidarity does seem to be a way to improve the lives of the characters, to fight against the aggressive neoliberal reality.

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If we stopped at this content analysis of causes, consequences and solutions, it might seem that the two films are quite similar to one another. And even if, as it has been shown, they share a common analysis of the neoliberal context (same themes), they are drastically different in their approach to it, both in their narrative and their visual style. These differences are based, basically, on the way social realism is understood by the filmmakers: Loach has a clear and overt political intention, while Barnard, according to her own words, is not trying to convey a political message, being aware of course that it will always be there (O’Hagan 2013). Thus, I, Daniel Blake engages more directly with the context of neoliberalism than The Selfish Giant, but this is not necessarily a positive aspect. For some, its direct narration (the scene on the food bank, or the one on the supermarket) could be considered manipulative, as he portrays ‘the working class as the simple possessors of truth’ (MacCabe 1993: 62). ‘Being moved to tears by heart-rending content does not necessarily involved being moved on’, as Caughie argues (Caughie 2000: 25). For others, though, Barnard’s approach would seem too poetic or metaphorical to convey in practice a real critique to the neoliberal ideology.

Regardless of personal preferences, I think the key question here is which of these two approaches is more able to reach and convince audiences of their critique, and therefore more effective in their fight against the current system. Visual style, rather than content, plays the key role here: it is not as much what you show, but how you show it (in terms of form), what determines the appeal to audiences. As Forrest argues, the documentary-like, ‘objective’ style traditionally associated to social realism (the one in I, Daniel Blake) is in fact condemning the spectator to an ‘inactive and closed role’, denying him the chance to actively involve in what he is seeing (2013: 8). In contrast, a film like The Selfish Giant, by opting for a more artistic, arguably ‘subjective’ stylistic approach, might be allowing its audience to engage more intensely with the story, even if its message is less direct.  That is, while Loach’s film is by all means more overtly political, and its critique is probably easier to understand, it might be less effective insofar as it is not involving spectators through its visual style, not allowing them to think by themselves. And on the contrary, Barnard’s broader understanding of social realism in terms of style, her choice of a more artistic mise-en-scène, might compensate for a less direct attack to neoliberal system.

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Heretofore, then, it has been proved both films engagement with a critical analysis of neoliberalism, their role beyond reinforcing capitalist realism by offering solidarity, and how their different approach in terms of content and style might make of The Selfish Giant a more effective approach than that of I, Daniel Blake. The question still to be asked is which are, if any, the challenges that these two films (and social realist cinema in general) are failing to address in nowadays neoliberal reality.

In this sense, Paul Dave points out how contemporary social realism has been unable to ‘challenge the exclusions, inequalities and divisions that have scarred the working class (race, gender, sexuality, nationality)’ (2011: 41). That is, how films as I, Daniel Blake or The Selfish Giant are mostly focused on white lower class characters, generally male, while they are turning their back on a British society which is much more diverse than that. In the two films mentioned, actually, there is only one character having a racial origin other than white (China, Daniel’s neighbour), and most of their main roles are male. The lack of diversity being an undeniable fact, thought, might have an explanation in the context of class struggle in which these films are placed. Following Benn Michaels’ analysis of recent American fiction, he points out how the focus on identity (either in racial, gender or sexual terms) ends up reinforcing neoliberalism insofar as class inequality is perceived as one of these identity differences rather than a structural problem (2006: 297). Thus, even if some might argue that social realism should be more inclusive with certain minorities, this could imply a lack of attention to the real issue that it is supposed to fight for: neoliberal ideology deepening the differences of wealth and social status in terms of class.

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While the lack of diversity of social realist films can be, at least, argued, there is a second problem in recent social realism that is very difficult to justify. In the last few years (and therefore, also in the two films analysed here), there has been ‘a movement away from the public and the social […] to the private and the personal’ (Lay 2002: 118). This does not mean that films do not have a social and public dimension (that, as proved, they have), but that they are focusing on individual/familiar problems with a socio-political echo rather than dealing with social conflicts from a more collective approach. The Selfish Giant is a clear example: the film is engaging with social issues, but there is no sense of the collective beyond the structure of the family or the friendship between Arbor and Swifty. In the case of I, Daniel Blake, even if Daniel’s links to other characters are less family-based, there is still that sense of community missing. In a way, paradoxically, these two films trying to fight the capitalist system are following a neoliberal tendency in this point: a weakening of the collective opposite to a rising of individualization.

That is, probably, the main gap in contemporary social realism: a focus on stories of individuals (Daniel, Arbor) rather than an insight on the collective aspects of society. And maybe that is exactly the social realist cinema still to be achieved: films that, without losing Loach and Barnard’s engagement with a critical analysis of neoliberalism, are able to regain the sense of the collective.

Andrés Buesa

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Bibliography:

  • Benn Michaels, W. (2006) ‘Plots against America: neoliberalism and antiracism’, American Literary History, 18(2): 288-302
  • Caughie, J. (2000) Television drama: realism, modernism, and British culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Chen, E. (2013) ‘Neoliberalism and popular women’s culture: Rethinking choice, freedom and agency’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 16(4): 440–452
  • Dave, P. (2011) ‘Tragedy, ethics and history in contemporary British social realist film’, In: Tucker, D. (ed.) British Social Realism in the Arts since 1940 New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 17-56
  • Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?, Winchester: Zero Books
  • Forrest, D. (2013) Social Realism: Art, Nationhood and Politics, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Pub.
  • Lay, S. (2002) British Social Realism: from Documentary to Brit Grit, London: Wallflower
  • MacCabe, C. (1993) ‘From realism and the cinema: notes on some Brechtian Theses’, In: Easthope, A. (ed.) Contemporary Film Theory, New York: Longman, pp. 53-67
  • Moore, E. E. (2015) ‘Green Screen or Smokescreen? Hollywood’s Messages about Nature and the Environment’, Environmental Communication: 1-17. Web.
  • O’Hagan, S. (2013) ‘I’m drawn to outsiders. I don’t know what that says about me’, The Observer, 13 October, pp.16-18
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