There’s a kind of grim, kitchen-sink realism that has almost come to define British cinema. Unrelenting in its depiction of the squalid misfortune of the working class, it’s underpinned by a leftist concern to flag up inequality, but can tend dangerously close to poverty porn, especially when embraced by directors from privileged backgrounds who seem more compelled to assuage class guilt than to create from a place of authentic experience. Scheme Birds is not one of those films. It feels like it might be, to start with: the Scottish town of Motherwell, stagnating in economic decline after its steel industry was gutted in the Thatcher years, is presented to us as bleak as they come, blighted by drugs and knife crime, its male population in and out of jail. «If you stay here you either get locked up or knocked up,» says young resident Gemma, who we follow over several years as she navigates the beginning of an adulthood that, stacking the odds against her, requires grit and resignation from the get-go.
Social realist fiction
Directors Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin have made a documentary (the top award-winner in that category at the Tribeca Film Festival, no less), but in its intimacy of access and dramatic character arcs, it could well pass for social realist fiction. The filmmaking duo hail from Sweden, but allow their protagonists scope to describe and define their relationship with their environment on their own terms, and without milking their tragedies for voyeuristic shock value. The story of Gemma and those she holds dearest is not short on misfortune, but what stands out is the way it’s told. Instead of the suffering as spectacle, we find in so many films about Britain’s poor, low-key, heartfelt sweetness, and ultimately hope is threaded through a world in which tribulation is the daily «normal».
«If you stay here you either get locked up or knocked up»
When we first meet Gemma, she is living with her grandfather. The task of raising her fell to him, since her drug-addicted mother was not around, and she seems content enough to have bonded with him over his male-dominated pastimes of boxing and pigeon shows (the tension between domestication and freedom of these birds — some of which return home and some of which fly off to do their own thing, never to come back, is a symbol that recurs in this lyricism-inclined film). They’re preoccupations essential to keep him away from crime, he says. When she becomes pregnant, her father breaks contact, unable to accept her choice in boyfriend Pat, who is determined to stay out of trouble but has already been in jail before. Happiness lasts for a time, the newborn and their companionship with best friends Amy and J.P. (also a couple) over evenings laughing, drinking and chain-smoking allowing them to navigate the stresses of new parenthood without quite giving up the release afforded by the carousing of their teenage years. But the fragile harmony, like everything around them in Motherwell, is short-lived. A tragic rupture that will have a lasting mark on their lives comes in the form of the recreational violence of another acquaintance, Scott, who picks fights for kicks despite the jail time that inevitably results. His vicious streak is unleashed one night with devastating consequences. All the more disillusioned by the lure of partying, Gemma doubles down on parenting responsibility, prompting a parting of ways with Pat.
Archival footage shows Motherwell when it was the «Steelopolis» that preceded Gemma’s birth. The steelworks provided jobs for much of her family before it was catastrophically demolished in the ‘90s, its collapse as an industrial centre bringing large-scale unemployment. While social deprivation and a dearth of opportunities infuse every frame, this is ultimately not a film about poverty and political, institutional neglect, so much as it is about motherhood, and the meaning of loving commitment. Never moralising or sentimental, and all the more moving through its very understatement, it is a testament to women of the town — J.P.’s mother, and the generation after. Like her, Amy and Gemma must intuit how to rise to the mammoth task of nurturing amid losses that would devastate lesser lionesses of resilience.
«Let The Free Birds Fly» is one of several tattoos Gemma has lettered across her skin. Uncompromising in its depiction of brutally reduced options, the film never leaves us complacently comfortable in any illusion of meritocracy. Nor, crucially, does it create space for patronising pity, as its women defy the painful events they carry with them, invisible but irremovable as any ink, to consistently evolve and transform. The film avoids talking-head interviews in its naturalism, but makes liberal use of voice-over, mainly Gemma’s — a subtle reminder that how you tell your story and make meaning of it has as much bearing on your future as the raw, punishing facts of material events.