My first review for the Take One Action film festival was the harrowing but hopeful documentary The Prosecutors, which spoke about justice for victims of sexual violence used as a weapon of war. Geographically closer to home, Scheme Birds was a far less optimistic film.
This is a grim depiction of young people from a housing estate in Motherwell, where the main character, Gemma, tells at the start how girls her age either get locked up or knocked up. A worse end awaits the young men, for whom frequent stretches in the Jail are a way of life. For one of Gemma’s friends, J.P., being beaten up was his fate: so severely that he emerged (miraculously) from a coma half paralysed and with a stoven skull.
The film likewise pulled no punches, relating an intimate honesty that felt almost intrusive at times. Filmed over four years by two Swedish directors, Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin, the timescale and distance allowed them to take a long view of the narrative. They may have been geographically distant from Gemma’s tower block in Jerviston, but they were able to capture her Life Events with poignant immediacy.
In the post-screening discussion (an essential part of Take One Action events) one of the producers, Ruth Reid, described how Gemma herself instigated the documentary when she saw them filming. Even though she too followed the pattern for young women described at the start, her desire to tell her story was a driving force behind the film. Articulate and determined, we were privileged to watch her mature and take control of her life.
Having said at the start that she would never leave Jerviston, the conclusion proved contrary: to break the cycle, she would have to fly the nest. Either way, she would not be giving up on her baby boy the way she was given up as an infant. Sadly, the story of Joseph – Gemma’s ‘Papa’ – was less conclusive, but his passion for homing pigeons provided a touching metaphor. As Gemma’s narration hinted, some never return; they find a new life.
This chink of optimistic was in contrast to the brutal truth of the film. Like The Prosecutors, the same violence and injustice results from toxic masculinity that exists globally, not just in Scottish housing schemes. But poverty is the real root, and when Gemma gives a short ‘history lesson’ early on in the film, it is the looming image of Margaret Thatcher closing down the steel works that shows where else this seemingly hopeless situation stems from.
And yet, as one audience-member pointed out, there has always been massive poverty in this area, and this is why this film is so important. For most people, watching in the velvet seats of the Filmhouse, Jerviston is as distant as it was to the Swedish filmmakers. Comparisons with global poverty are easy, and even – or especially – for those not from this existence, people need to see this film.
Thankfully, another note of optimism is that there is hope of wider distribution of Scheme Birds, so hopefully it will find a larger audience, and festivals like Take One Action and EIFF will continue to pioneer inspiring and thought-provoking film. For more information, visit the website and be part of the action. “Come, take part, be inspired.”