«Co-là-breith math» is how they say «Happy birthday» in Scottish Gaelic, a greeting which the non-fiction community in the UK, Europe, and further afield should be directing towards Edinburgh this year as the Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI) celebrates its 15th anniversary. Founded at the Scottish capital’s College of Art in 2004 by Noé Mendelle, whose own film and TV credits stretch back to the early 1980s, the SDI is now firmly established as one of the most vital, enterprising, inclusive and productive such organisations in the world.
It has been responsible for over 100 films to date, the bulk of them of short or medium length, and has struck up a particularly harmonious professional relationship with Edinburgh’s long-running international film festival (EIFF) which has taken place without a break each summer since 1947. Under the banner «Bridging the Gap», SDI presents around half a dozen new projects every year, showcasing its impressive international sweep: like many Scottish institutions, the SDI is determinedly non-parochial, welcoming filmmakers and subjects from other countries and continents while also finding room for outstanding stories from closer to home.
the SDI is now firmly established as one of the most vital, enterprising, inclusive and productive such organisations in the world.
This year two «Bridging the Gap» titles, both by newcomers, exemplified SDI’s admirable geographical balancing-act: Ross McClean’s Hydebank, a very particular glimpse into the Northern Irish penal system, and Eoin Wilson’s Altsasu, which provides a snapshot of a miscarriage of justice in the Basque Country. Both films clock in at around 15 minutes; executed in distinctly contrasting styles, they both herald just the type of promising new talent the SDI has long sought to nurture and promote.
Impressionistic, spare and arresting both visually and aurally, Hydebank is the more poetic and ambitious of the two films. It’s essentially a character study of an individual, identified only as «Ryan» in the closing credits, an inmate at the eponymous facility – full title: HM Prison Hydebank Wood. Located in South Belfast, and better known for the adult women’s prison on the same site, Hydebank is (in British terminology) a «young offenders’ centre», the kind of jail for minors which for centuries was colloquially termed a «borstal».
In cinematic terms, the most famous representations of such establishments are hard-hitting. Two controversial films which can be broadly positioned within the «angry young man» sub-genre of UK social-realism: Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), an adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s novel starring Tom Courtenay, and Alan Clarke’s Scum (1979), the big-screen version of the same director’s banned BBC «Play For Today» from 1977.
Impressionistic, spare and arresting both visually and aurally, Hydebank is the more poetic and ambitious of the two films.
While both the Richardson and Clarke films concentrate on a surly, snarling individual very much at odds with the «system», as represented by brutal and/or patronising borstal personnel, Hydebank‘s ruminative protagonist shows evident remorse for his crime, the details of which remain unspoken. Ryan merely remarks about its extreme seriousness: «grim, grim», in terms which leave no doubt about the guilt-trauma scars which this incident left upon his psyche.
Seldom depicted with his fellow inmates, Ryan instead seems to spend most of his (spare) time looking after the facility’s four-legged residents: Hydebank is home to a flock of sheep, their fluffy presence an incongruously bucolic element among the stern prison infrastructure of high walls, fencing, and harsh security lighting. Like Matt Damon’s title character in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, who during a psychologist session spoke facetiously of his dream to raise sheep in New Hampshire, Ryan has pastoral ambitions – except his are of the deadly serious variety.
The young man seems to display a knack with the animals, much to the derision of his (unseen) peers who are heard raining down vituperative, ovine-related insults. In a film of quietly nightmarish contrasts, McClean superbly contrasts the raucous fury of the immature louts with the tranquil simplicity of Ryan’s careful animal husbandry. At several key junctures, he shows shots of institutional corridors, painterly compositions of shadow and light, with percussive cacophonies echoing around the bare surfaces – just as, we deduce, jeering voices (external taunts and internal self-recriminations) ricochet through Ryan’s waking and sleeping brain.
McClean makes no judgment about Ryan, his offense, or the appropriateness of his sentence – in fact, he withholds much crucial information that would likely be provided in a more conventional treatment of this material. The unspoken impression is of a filmmaker keen to understand and depict, but not to judge or condemn: the beneficial aspects of Hydebank’s livestock are quietly endorsed, in a film which speaks subtly but clearly in favour of the humane treatment of offenders, regardless of their age or culpability.
Altsasu likewise deals with issues of crime and punishment, but here the director is unashamed and unapologetic about having crafted a polemic that comes out strongly on the side of those languishing behind bars: seven young Basques who were handed sentences ranging from 2 to 13 years following a bar-room altercation with two members of Spain’s Guardia Civil.
The prisoners themselves are only seen via photographs and drawings; instead, the main focus is domestic, upon the mother of one of the incarcerated and her immediate home surroundings. Two years after the incident, which took place in October 2018, middle-aged Igone seems to have devoted her life to establishing the innocence of her son Jokin and the half-dozen of his friends who ended up in prison.
The social implications of this case are spelled out in the closing credits: «For many, the Altsasu Case has come to symbolise Spain’s repressive policies in the Basque Country. The convictions have been widely condemned as a politicised miscarriage of justice.»
Goings-on in this beautiful, contentious corner of Europe has dropped sharply down the international news radar since the much-chronicled «Basque separatist group» ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, i.e. Basque Homeland and Liberty) announced the end of its military activities in 2011. But rancor still evidently runs deep on both sides of the political divide as Spain struggles to find social and economic equilibrium in the wake of the post-2008 global financial crisis, such enmities kept fresh by contentious developments such as the Altsasu case and the subsequent sentencing.
Wilson, like McClean, eschews much in the way of information delivery: in his brief running-time, he instead concentrates on Igone, on her town (during the days of colourful fiesta, also the backdrop for the 2016 flare-up) and its spectacular surroundings. He sparingly deploys slow-motion, sometimes in conjunction with a mournful choral rendition by the folkloric group Kantuz which underlines the deep sadness felt not only by those directly affected by the sentencing, but also its inescapable ripples through the wider community. Igone speaks of «two years of pain, of suffering», her doughty resilience an inspiring example of indomitable maternal persistence in the face of difficult odds: the Guardia Civil have «total impunity» enshrined in law, their word to be taken over and above any opposing testimony from the general population.
That such legislation can even be on the books of a European Union country in the second decade of the 21st century may perhaps come as a surprise to many.
That such legislation can even be on the books of a European Union country in the second decade of the 21st century may perhaps come as a surprise to many. This is just one eye-opener in a miniature polemic which, by dint of its likely international exposure post-EFF, might hopefully make a small difference to Igone’s campaign and those of others in Spain and elsewhere – thus amply fulfilling SDI’s own mission statement to produce films «driven by content and emotional experience».
Featured Image: Altasu, a film by Eoin Wilson