Cinema in quarantine: Ken Loach, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Maren Ade

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Roberto Noritomi*

Commentary on three European films that address transformations in the world of work.

One cannot accuse cinema of having avoided the setbacks in the world of work that have occurred in recent decades. The precariousness of productive relations and massive unemployment gained the screens in films such as Human Resources (Cantet, 1999), monday in the sun (Aranoa, 2002), The snows of Kilimanjaro (Guédiguian, 2011) and the law of the market (Brizé, 2015).

The year 2016 added three more significant works to the previous list: Me, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach) the unknown girl (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne) and Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade). Works by prominent independent filmmakers, they have the merit of bringing different dimensions to an economic scenario that involves migration, the crisis of the social security system and the top echelon of transnational corporations. Despite their aesthetic singularities, it is worth risking some circumstantial comments about the films as a whole.  

Ken Loach leads the way. Always engaged in the workers' struggle and in tune with the heat of the moment, the director shoots his camera against the hardships of the dismantling of the social security system in England (it is not difficult to perceive echoes of Umberto D (De Sica, 1952)). In doing so, he took charge of the twilight fate of his country's workers (and the developed world at large). Daniel Blake is an example of this class that lived through its heroic times, as can be seen from the circle of relationships he still maintains.

However, aged and ill, the great feat of the skilled carpenter boils down to facing the intricacies of official agencies to obtain sickness aid. Very much in the style of Loach's realism, a prosaic situation becomes the dramatic axis whose outcome is the least important. What counts here is filming on the ground floor, where concerns and tensions are limited to basic needs: food, rent, wages, etc. These objective limitations define the entire radius of action and aspirations of the characters. The camera highlights every moment of those ordinary people.

It is in this context that Daniel Blake will lead the decline of his class and see the rise of a new, precarious and misshapen working-class generation. This is clear in the contrast between Blake's mastery and professional pride and the elusive and labile workforce of unemployed young Katie. Blake's craft is obsolete and consigned to the antique shop, along with his toolbox. Knowledge acquired through experience is no longer valuable, not even for filling out an electronic form. Productive restructuring runs over Blake and the entire working class.

But for the old worker, the executioner comes in the figure of the state agent, that is, the impersonal and inscrutable bureaucracy that makes access to legal benefits difficult. Here is the neoliberal assistance model that takes the petition for a right to the brink of humiliation. Faced with this stony bureaucratic oppression, Loach supports Blake in friendship and neighborhood relationships. However, despite the emphasis on community ties, the film culminates in a solitary and pathetic reaction (the graffiti of the social security agency). Trade union and political organizations no longer mediated the struggle.

For the Dardenne brothers, politics is not what matters. In his films, the world of work is the arena of ethical conflict and not of class. the unknown girl follows the rule. In it, Jenny Davin is a dedicated doctor who works on the outskirts of Liège, dealing with blunt social situations that include precarious workers, illegal immigrants and other marginalized segments, however, her biggest concern is with the rigor of professional practice. For the good professional, technical efficiency matters more than the patient.

This professional attachment is shaken after the death, close to his office, of a young black female migrant, who would have been alive if it weren't for the medical protocol that prevented her from opening his door. From there, driven by guilt, Davin begins an exhausting journey to identify the unknown young woman and remedy what is for her the greatest injustice, that is, a human being to live, or die, without an identity.

The film enters, at this point, another phase. If in the first moment blind obedience to professional protocol predominates, in the second, what stands out is flexibility and informality. Davin gets rid of rigid procedures and invests himself with medical authority to question patients in search of information about the young woman. The professional function becomes an investigative posture at the service of a police plot, and, above all, the purge of guilt and an ethical dilemma.

However, unlike detective films, the objective here is not to solve a crime, but to unravel the victim and repair a human indignity that transcends historical urgencies. If there is a whole causality that leads to the exploitation of illegal migrants, the doctor does not feel responsible for it. The ethical shift is another: starting from the citizen limited to immediate interests (professional) and arriving at an order of universal and indeterminate value, Humanity.

Finally, the German Maren Ade rises to the top corporate summit. Her universe is that of white collars. The workers here are consultants hired, and well paid, by businessmen and shareholders to give a technocratic guise to their deliberations, which are, above all, political. Ines is inside this costume. With long-standing training and experience, she advises a multinational oil company on operations in Romania. And she could soon be anywhere else, in the most varied ruses to meet the vortex of capital.

The film seeks to address exactly this integral availability, physical and moral, of the top management worker. Ines' life is confused in a chameleonic way, right down to intimacy, with that of the decision makers. Ines, however, is not part of them. Day and night, she is subjected to orders and excesses, even suffering sexist attitudes and other affronts. Her reaction, however, is serene and sometimes even humorous. The consultant is far from Manichaean characterizations; she is neither the cynical and unscrupulous careerist nor the repressed angst. The embarrassing situations to which she is exposed show that the diploma is less relevant than its malleability and impassibility. These are the attributes that guarantee success and survival in the corporate network.

The disturbance is on account of the father, dressed as Toni Erdmann, who invades, through burlesque, Ines' routine and tries to rescue her for simple and familiar emotions. Despite the sharp tone, for Erdmann what is questionable is not the character of the exploitation perpetrated in the business actions that his daughter legitimizes. This is a separate fact. Alternative life does not touch politics.

Once this brief tour of the three films is concluded, despite the directors' critical effort, it is clear that the works are not committed to changes based on the intensification of the contradictions inherent in the world of work. Boldness is intimidated by the movement of capital, whose cumulative logic: it promotes budget cuts, restricts rights and public services (such as the computerized, outsourced and restrictive State of benefits that subjugates Daniel Blake); invades and destabilizes countries, causes unbridled migration and subjects legions to illegal work (like the African girl enslaved and prostituted in Liège); speculates and interferes in peripheral economies (such as the productive restructuring that Ines advises and will result in unemployment and precarious work relations).

In short, Blake, Ines and the young African are united in the same drama. Capital has these things. It unifies the destiny of workers and peoples.

To be up to the challenge, the films could have been more lavish in opening up narrative meanings. In any case, the works are necessary contributions and eager for intervention, which is a good sign these days.

*Roberto Noritomi he holds a PhD in sociology of culture from USP.

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