Scheme Birds falls somewhere between the cracks of a working class society stripped of its agency and what that means in a town that’s now scarred. What follows is a story of a girl named Gemma who lives on the outskirts of Motherwell, Scotland in the countryside of Jerviston. It’s a town she despairingly describes as a place where “you either get locked up or knocked up.” The days are aimless and picking petty fights becomes the next hot ticket of entertainment for the town youth. What was once a potent and thriving steelworks town now crumbles at the seams to what is the post-Thatcher economy. Jobs left the humble city since the ‘70s and now drugs and crime fail to make people flinch so easy.
Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin direct a documentary that finds numbness to be the only form of survival left when all is abandoned and given to waste. Scheme Birds is a blistering real life account of growing up around wreckage and brutality. It’s a thoughtful portrait against contempt and a story about working class rolled into one.
Gemma’s grandfather, who assumed the role of guardian when her mother was busted for shoplifting as a result of her drug addiction, would rather not see her travel toward the drug laden life. Instead, he keeps her active with boxing lessons, something he teaches so that Gemma would have a healthy release of aggression and not feel the need to pick fights with others. After all, it seems Jerviston routinely bubbles with misguided decisions. She also helps with his pigeon collection and showings. It doesn’t take long for the symbolism of flying to run its course through Gemma, who so worriedly looks for good purpose.
Gemma has friends and a boyfriend, Pat, whose child she carries into motherhood. Her Papa won’t have any of it. Feeling that his plea to straighten her life now feels jeopardized for her mother’s path, he basically renounces her and she goes off to live with Pat at a housing tower complex. There she meets Amy, a girl around her age who’s been caught for shoplifting in the past. Amy lives with her boyfriend, JP, a friendly, slightly wayward boy. Gemma and Pat bicker about money and Gemma’s tough resiliency only gets stronger. She needs to be tough, cold even, if she’s to ever be a mother in this harrowed town.
The story of their lives feels too cruel, too conforming to their town’s decline and much scrappier of a dream than what it should be. Their dreams are captivated by a steady way of life that is more willing to bog them down than see them be human. Counting the ambulances from their window becomes a casual guess at whether the fuss is a homicide or less. Two vans and a forensics truck is a double homicide, as someone speculates. It’s alarming just how much crime and even murder is talked over as casual as a grocery list or television show. But what keeps Scheme Birds at a constant is the intimate documentation of these young folks who just want life to give way. It’s just as much a brooding documentation of how economies half the world away ache and suffer as much as any hometown.
It’s misfortune after misfortune. The crime and violence that was only teased in the beginning of the documentary makes its way back into the fold, magnifying the utterly contemptuous nature of a crumbling society. It seems like a small world in Jerviston when even a friend of a friend can bring a sudden hostility to your perspective. JP is nearly beaten to death and the story creeps closer to home, both figuratively and literally. Fiske and Hallin never make the journey exploitative. Instead they give their subjects all the space to breathe and the film takes on a structure of its own.
Gemma is a bystander to the byproduct of a poor economy, now feeling a call to grab Liam and leave town after her and Pat grow apart. She may feel great grief for those around her but it also seeds an urge to be better than her upbringing and better for her son. Throughout Fiske and Hallin’s film, we see her grow colder to the things that surround her, but at the same time this may just have been her normalcy all along. What she decides to do with the cards she’s been dealt becomes the focus and center of the emotion that reaches its viewer. Gemma is as caged as those pigeons but only she can take control of her life.
Directed by: Ellen Fiske, Ellinor Hallin
Scheme Birds won the Best Documentary Feature award at both Tribeca Film Festival and Sidewalk Film Festival.