Director: Ellen Fiske, Ellinor Hallin
Runtime: 90 minutes
In the opening scene of Scheme Birds we meet Gemma. She’s young, maybe 16 or 17 years-old with bright blond hair and a charismatic face. She’s in jogging clothing, running down an urban road lined with trees – and she’s smoking a cigarette. It’s hard to imagine a better beginning for this film, as it encapsulates the self-destructive behavior of nearly everyone we meet from the working-class Scottish ghetto of Motherwell, a small town outside of Glasgow where you are either “knocked up, or locked up” as stated in the film.
It’s clear Gemma wants something from life, but between getting high and starting fights it’s not clear how exactly she’s going to get there – wherever ‘there’ might be. The cast of characters around her includes her grandfather Joseph, who took her in when her drug-addicted mother declined to care for an infant Gemma. He’s a good man who trains boxers, including Gemma who has a solid left jab, and raises competition pigeons which isn’t nearly as strange as it sounds in the context of this film. But he’s gruff in that Scottish sort of way, and while Gemma herself suggests she’s been just fine without a mum, anyone can see some mothering would have made an enormously positive impact on her life.
Pat is the object of Gemma’s affection, a wiry young man and the alpha-male among a small gang of delinquent neighborhood kids. What he lacks in intelligence he makes up for in charm (and an array of Lacoste polos). He’s handsome and foolish, like a young Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, swaggering his way through an underworld of drugs and addiction. His wry smile, and compassionate glances towards Gemma are matched only by his proclivity for substance abuse and a willingness to punch anyone who crosses him. Joseph is no supporter of Pat, and when Gemma chooses her young lover over her grandfather’s caution she is effectively cast out of the only family she’s known.
Of course none of this we would know without the subtitles as evidence that English is being spoken. Scheme Birds is not a made for American TV drama, or worse yet a Mike Myers comedy bit. These Scots are the real thing and this is the brogue of a city that has been kicked more than once out of the economic prosperity found in other parts of the European Union – a fact referenced when Gemma speaks of Margaret Thatcher herself closing down the mills that once provided steel for all of Europe, setting in place a downward spiral of cataclysmic after effects.
In Scheme Birds Filmmakers Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin have captured the raw beauty of a desperate young woman who quite frankly rarely seems desperate – but rather content with the poverty and hopelessness that surrounds her. Even after she’s had a baby with Pat and then subsequently kicks him out for being a drunk and possibly a thief (there’s an argument about the whereabouts of five quid that goes unresolved) Gemma has a countenance that suggests she always knew things would work out this way.
The power and pathos of the film lies in the fact that none of these characters ever feel sorry for themselves. This is no more so on display than when Gemma and Pat’s neighbor and best friend nearly dies from a head injury incurred in a street fight – losing part of his skull, much of his mobility and all of his marriage as a result. Even his own mother, with whom he’s been forced to move back in with, seems positively buoyant to have her son back home. Credit Fiske and Hallin for avoiding the visual clichés associated with grim urban poverty and instead choosing to focus on the rich depth found in these characters barely surviving the violence and degeneracy that surrounds them.
Early in the film Gemma speaks of never leaving the projects (in Scotland they are called schemes) of Motherwell but in the end she does just that, young child in tow searching for a better life outside the familiarity of her grandfather’s gym, and the apartment she once shared with Pat. Like the pigeons Joseph raises and sets free from their cages believing they will return, we don’t know if Gemma will ever find her way back home. But her attempt to fly on her own is gratifying, like maybe one of these souls might make it out alive.
Scheme Birds was the winner of Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Written by AP