Scotland has been a fertile political ground for the second half of this decade. Debate has thrived in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish government has been at the forefront of the charge against Brexit, and the nation has slowly started to reinvent itself as a progressive democracy. Nevertheless, there are still stories unfolding which subvert Scotland’s new and rosy identity. SCHEME BIRDS tells one of these stories, and does so with raw authenticity, restraint and technical excellence.
The film follows Gemma, a young woman living in the Jerviston area of Motherwell. The Thatcher government’s closure of the local steelworks drastically increased unemployment in Jerviston, and in 2018 it’s a deprived area that offers little hope or opportunity to its residents. Early on in the film, Gemma falls out with her adoptive grandfather over her choice of partner. We see Gemma and her boyfriend Pat living life on the scheme which, amidst much drug-taking, drinking and violence, she describes as “a non-snobby place to live”. We also see the positive aspects of life, in her companionship with neighbours and friends, but our understanding of these relationships is filtered through Gemma’s perspective.
For those not familiar with these deprived pockets of Scotland, the activities we see could be shocking – but the film presents them from first-hand experience as normal, or at least unremarkable. Although many events in the film could be considered harmful or controversial, the film never passes judgment. We are aligned with Gemma’s point of view, via her narration in voiceover as well as the camera’s focus on Gemma: in close-up, in profile, and frequently in the centre of the frame as her relationship with Pat frays at the edges. Although it’s clear that the life being offered to their newborn son, Liam, is far from ideal, this is conveyed by Gemma’s own reactions and not by the imposition of a sensational or voyeuristic cinematic tone.
Swedish directors Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin’s achievement is a damning indictment of British media, where stories like Gemma’s are often reported with much disdain and prejudice. Their stylistic approach has a visual lyricism and metaphoric skill which elevates the excellent screenplay even further from a cinematic standpoint. The philosophical tone of the interstitial shots, focusing on Gemma’s grandfather’s pigeons and her ‘Let The Free Birds Fly’ tattoo, bring depth to Gemma’s developing perspective in the voiceover. Soundtracked by Scottish rapper, Loki, there is a hybrid approach at work similar to something like THE ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS, another Tribeca award winner the year before SCHEME BIRDS. Whereas Gabrielle Brady’s feature used nature and more ephemeral music to amplify the metaphysical soul of its subjects, SCHEME BIRDS uses rap and its own musical score to ground the film in the urban reality it follows.
By blending all these elements, Fiske and Hallin establish the housing scheme as a living and breathing part of the story in the form of the people living there, not just a backdrop of concrete and deprivation. Gemma’s brief and stark articulation of the Thatcher government’s impact on her life – she was born only in the year the steelworks were shut – highlights the impact of such decisions on future generations an honesty simplicity and not didacticism.
SCHEME BIRDS is a notable achievement on various levels. In chronicling Gemma’s feelings on her life, it reaches a level of intimacy and empathy with its subject that’s rare in Scottish or even British cinema. Placed in the hands of such technically skilled filmmakers, this important story simply soars.
The TAKE ONE team also reviewed SCHEME BIRDS as part of their podcast special covering EIFF 2019. You can listen to the special edition of Cinetopia covering the show below. Head here to subscribe on whatever podcast service you prefer: