The cinematic ethos of bureaucracy

The childless protagonist of Everything Else reminds us family-types of how accidental independence can be overrated.

The childless protagonist of Everything Else reminds us family-types of how accidental independence can be overrated.  

Don’t argue. Stop stressing me out!” His voice had assumed a breathless, nasal tone. This was most unlike my father. His Zen-like demeanour had cracked. Our routine long-distance phone call had turned desperate. For once, I didn’t want to scream back. I was vaguely aware of his scenario. The company he worked for was troubling him. An arrogant chairman and a corrupt web of red tape had worn him down. For the first time in my life, I asked him to calm down. I wasn’t angered by his tone – just cripplingly saddened by it. I couldn’t pinpoint why.

Until recently, when, at the Mumbai Film Festival, I watched British director Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake. The film is about a middle-aged heart patient’s (Dave Johns) sapping struggle against an unyielding bureaucratic wall to qualify for Jobseekers’ Allowance. He can’t avail of benefits created specifically for people like him. Time and again, Blake finds himself answering mechanical questionnaires for robotic outsourced voices on the telephone. On better days, he tries to keep his cool opposite robotic stiff-upper-lipped supervisors in grim government cubicles. Either way, the forlorn widower is at the receiving end of a rehearsed, unsympathetic system – peppered with “official procedures” whose sole purpose is to dehumanise both, the soulless perpetrators, and the lifeless victims. His predicament is not directly similar to my father’s.

But his form is.

Both of them are inherently optimistic men, likeable and upbeat, at the fag end of respectable careers. Which is why it appears even sadder when their inbuilt happiness is extinguished, grin by sardonic grin. Actor Dave Johns, otherwise known as a comedian, has a face that falls like the late Robin Williams’ would. We’re so used to being made to laugh by them that their slightest frown feels like uninvited, rabid depression.

My father never expressed his anxiety. This was in accordance with an inexplicable parent-rulebook clause that forbids exposing your kids, adult or otherwise, to the mere concept of discomfort. But with every passing day, and each consequent phone call, his friendly inquiries became milder and softer. His voice lost its zest.

Blake’s energy, too, visibly decreases each time he visits the job center. We repeatedly see him crossing bleak streets, wrapped up in heavy jackets and mufflers, fighting a lone battle against an invisible, deep-rooted force. He doesn’t have a son to vent on, which explains his affinity for an equally hard-off young single mother (Hayley Squires). He finds solace in her bleak company, and misses the goodness of his late wife.

Something dawned upon me as I watched his old-school fingers wrestle with the intimidating world of computers and online forms. When advised at a cybercafé to “run the mouse up the screen,” a confused Blake physically drags the device up to the monitor. While the hall was in splits at this scene, I went quiet. It suddenly occurred to me that my old man, for those months alone in an alien country, may have had countless such moments. He was familiar with technology, but his straight sense of ethics must have felt thoroughly outdated. I thought of the several sleepless nights he must have endured, unable to fathom the extent of his environment’s decay – the greedy lawyers, complex documents, shifty ex-colleagues. I’d come across rags-to-riches IIT-IIM success stories, and feel inadequate for choosing the arts over a path that would have allowed me to money him out of there.

I even thought of the various stonewalling personalities he may have encountered: how could they live with themselves? In Natalia Almada’s Mexican film, Everything Else, I watched – somewhat nauseously – as an old, isolated government bureaucrat (Adriana Barrazza, as Doña Flor) inflicted her own existential torment upon exasperated clients. If she didn’t like their faces, or their withering attention spans, she rejected their forms on some obscure technicality. She created many Daniel Blake(s). But this power she felt at her desk barely rivals the numbness she feels at home with her ailing cat. My resentment towards her far outweighed an obvious empathy I developed towards her wasted lifetime: Blake and Desai’s enemy, enslaved by the very spirits she destroyed every day. Her pathetic life made me feel vindicated.

But at some point during her journey, I began to see her as the other side of the same coin. I felt sorry, more so as a son than an observer. Because, in a way, both these childless protagonists remind us family-types of how accidental independence can be overrated. And barren. And heartbreaking.

During one of my visits, I remember watching through a window as my father walked away. His asthma acted up; he wheezed and ambled his way onto the street. This was, ironically, the exact minute I stopped worrying about his health. It became the moment a son stopped fearing the prospect of his parent’s demise, and began fearing his own. Because if I passed, who would care for him? Who would he live for? If I were to leave, he’d become every film I ever wept for, every character I ever felt with. The reason people like Daniel Blake make us emotional is because they remind us of what we have – and are at the risk of losing. We attach ourselves to them because of our evolved sense of real-life detachment. I have my folks, but there are times when I mourn my inability to help them financially; there are nights I fear they will fade without fully experiencing my care; there are mornings I fret I’ll fade away without them being proud of me.

When my mother, who has a hip problem, had to renew her passport recently, the tediousness of the infamous process frightened me. In a scene straight out of the film, I took care of the online paraphernalia. But I declined walking her through it physically. She did it on her own, despite apathetic cops and misplaced files. I joked about how tough it made her. But I still regret my decision. The film however made me realise that it wasn’t because I didn’t care – but because, in fact, I cared so hard that it would kill me to see her look lost in those queues. It was an absurd self-preservation technique, only so I could mentally survive long enough to be around her later. Only so that I could make up for that one phone call long ago, when, while moving away, she tearfully asked, “Is that all we get?” – mirroring that line, that tragic rhetoric, in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, when Patricia Arquette breaks down at the sight of her grown-up son (Ellar Coltrane) packing for college.

It’s not all we should get. Selfishness, too, is fuller than emptiness. Blake didn’t have anyone to cry at, or feel disappointed by. My parents do. I do. I’d rather no film ever reminds me of what could have been, again. As a result, “I live with my mother” became “we live with each other,” which, I hope, soon morphs into “my mother lives with me”. And my father, my Daniel Blake, assured me last week that December would finally bring him legal closure. Just as he had said each year, for the last four years. Blake, too, waged a futile war by hoping – by hoping it was only a matter of time: when, not if. Romanticism, not deluded optimism. I won’t argue anymore. And to think, it took the murderous machinery of bureaucracy to humanise us.

The writer is a freelance film critic, writer and habitual solo traveller

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 1:41:41 AM |

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