Dolly Sen: Broken Hearts for the DWP

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A review by Alison Wilde of the hard hitting documentary Broken Hearts for the DWP, a film by Dolly Sen that tells of the deaths of disabled claimants caused by the inhuman actions of the DWP.

A black poster with red printing showing disabled protesters holding up giant hearts with records of the deaths of disabled benefits claimants. The poster advertises the documentary Broken hearts for the DWP by Dolly Sen.

Poster – Broken Hearts for the DWP by Dolly Sen 2021

I am not the first to heap praise on Broken Hearts for the DWP by any means, and I am certain that much more will follow. Put simply, the documentary tells us about the deaths caused by the actions of the DWP – the Department for Work and Pensions. Maxine Peake sums the film up perfectly, stating that is one of most important films we will have seen in a long time, being, ‘urgent, powerful’, and ‘devastating’. I agree wholeheartedly. Dolly and her collaborators communicate the urgency of heeding the messages that deaths and suicides caused by the DWP are tragedies which should never have happened, and that the pain, suffering, and fear that many disabled people have imposed on them needs to stop.

An Asian woman wearing a white coat and a face mask is holding out a piece of card with a large heart printed upon it.

Broken hearts for the DWP: Dolly Sen 2021 – Photo by Grace Calder

The film revolves around art interventions designed by Dolly and her collaborators. In the Section 136 website (Dolly and Caroline Cardus) they explain that the Prime Minister failed to reply to their letter asking the government not to break any more hearts through the workings of the DWP. In the absence of a response, they staged an intervention on the Thursday 22nd July 2019, at Caxton House, head office of the DWP. This included a peaceful symbolic protest about the lives lost due to benefit cuts, carried out by disabled activists and those who had lost family members. As heartbreaking as the film coverage of this action, and the accounts of the lives lost, was, its simplicity and the use of large red hearts to portray the hearts of four people whose hearts were ‘once beating’ will get the message firmly home to all who see it. It is very clear that Dolly, and the rest of those who took part, are determined that we will all remember the many thousands of disabled people who died from a lack of care, aided by the lack of outrage at a situation where people are subjected to barbaric conditions which “cause ‘grave’ and ‘systematic’ violations of disabled people’s human rights.”

Two people in white coats are holding a strip of hazard tape across the entrance to the DWP building. The words Section 136 are duplicated along the tape. On the back of one white coat is written 'DWP sectioned for being a danger to others - 1000's dead due to its policies

Broken hearts for the DWP: Dolly Sen 2021 – Photo by Grace Calder

Indeed, it is impossible to watch the film without asking why we, all of us, have not found ways to oppose the evils which are firmly embedded within our social welfare system. Anger, disappointment, and pain are to be expected if you watch Dolly’s film, and rightly so.

Many of us will be aware of the brutal regimes of the DWP, fearing the brown envelope and its discontents, struggling with unlivable cuts to the meagre standards of living many of us face, as well as ongoing cuts to vital services which help us to live, or just exist. So, we may feel that is too distressing to watch. But I hope people can and will watch it. As painful as it may be, this film is not just for those who don’t know about the abuses of the DWP. or have chosen not to listen; it is also for us. It tells our stories too, communicating some of the fears and anxieties caused by the conditions which have been, or could be, imposed on us. Importantly, it may help other people in such dire conditions feel seen and understood, reminding us of the solidarity and potential for radical politics which has always been inscribed in our community. Indeed, the film ends with a signpost to ways that we can become part of this struggle.

An older white woman is stood behind Section 136 hazard tape holding a poster with the word Justice and a photograph of a younger white woman printed on it

Broken hearts for the DWP: Dolly Sen 2021 – Photo by Grace Calder

Nonetheless, it is true to say that the starkness of life at the mercy of the DWP is a glaring presence throughout. Those who have died of starvation after benefits have been cut are just one example, told here through respect and acknowledgement of the life and artistic talents of Mark Wood. And the harrowing experiences of those who are ‘bullied into suicide’, are equally compelling – those featured Jodey Whiting, Stephen Carre, and Ker Featherstone.
We hear several powerful stories told by the loved ones whose family members have died. We are given heart-wrenching glimpses of the battles that they felt compelled to fight for recognition of the injustices committed and the tragedies which ensued. But the solidarity of other disabled people and their families is abundantly clear, with this intervention and film founded on a commitment to defend future victims of these cruel assessment systems, logic-defying work capability assessments, and ‘fit for work’ policies/decisions.

I am using the words ’victim’ and ‘tragedy’ unapologetically here to describe situations which are brought into existence entirely by the systemic cruelty of the DWP. Dolly’s contributors portray this abundantly over and over, where the promise of many disabled people has become impossible due the opportunities robbed from them, and circumstances they have been thrust into. Despite my use of language to describe Dolly’s film, and the lives of the people she focuses on, this is as far away from ‘inspiration porn’ as one can get.

Three woman stand outside of the doors to the DWP. They are wearing white coats with two of them holding a large poster with Justice for Jody - 38 degrees printed on it.

Broken hearts for the DWP: Dolly Sen 2021 – Photo by Grace Calder

As inspired as I am by Dolly’s art and the actions of family members, such as Joy Dove, Jodey Whiting’s mum, accounts like this do not find their way into media stories of disabled people’s lives and deaths, and that is a fundamental problem. Indeed, Dolly asks us where the outrage is and points out that the media repeatedly avoids coverage of the scale of this human catastrophe, despite the overwhelming evidence about the failings and brutality of the DWP’s workings.

Dolly warns us, close to the start of the film, that this film is not objective. Thankfully, this is the case. However, it is measured. It is executed with passion and compassion for all; but the occasional expressions of anger, shown, for example by Dolly and Julie McNamara (here as a fellow activist) brought angry tears to my eyes. It would be reasonable to expect that those would defend such atrocities and the workers filmed at the DWP would feel shame at here at their interventions, especially if they see the contents of the film. However, action is clearly the desired goal of all involved.

My hope it that it will be watched by those who sweep our lives and concerns aside, not least by the faceless decision-makers who preside over our fates. Ideally Broken Hearts for the DWP should be shown to as wide an audience as possible, in order to win over the hearts and minds of the public who would otherwise vote for system which has a blatant disregard for disabled people lives, and deaths, at its very core.

An artist dressed as a doctor looks at the camera whilst holding a stethoscope to the entrance sign at the Department for Work & Pensions.

Dolly Sen assesses the DWP. Photo by Grace Calder

Regardless of deeply disturbing content of the film, Dolly communicates with heart, always exemplifying the kindness and courage she asks us to find to solve these problems. She even uses ironic humour to stage her interventions and diagnoses of the DWP, a strategy which serves to undermine the irrational and ideological nature of governmental attacks on disabled people, and to thaw even the coldest of hearts.

Dolly has the rare gift of an eloquence which speaks clearly and succinctly to us all, with little or no need for embellishment. As a thread running through her art and writing, these qualities also shine throughout her filmmaking. Despite the undoubtedly upsetting content of the film, the use of such talents in the service of disabled people’s lives, and the activism and solidarity of those involved gives me some optimism that kindness and intelligence may prevail in disabled people’s fight for justice.


Broken Hearts for the DWP is to be screened Thursday 16th December 2021 (16:00 – 17:30 GMT) hosted by Healing Justice London. The free screening will be followed by a discussion between Dolly Sen, Ellen Clifford author of the award-winning War on Disabled People) and Paula Peters (Disabled People Against Cuts), and facilitated by China Mills. The film was funded by Future’s Venture