We’re introduced to Gemma, a fresh-faced blonde “scheme bird” living in a rundown housing estate in the Scottish town of Motherwell, while she’s simultaneously jogging and smoking a dart. She is the plucky teenage protagonist of Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin’s new documentary ‘Scheme Birds’, and an instantly likeable one.
The film follows Gemma from her teens into her early 20s as she spends her time hanging around the suburban “scheme” (“A scheme is like a snobby place to stay,” she informs us in a softly-spoken, poetic and Bjork-like voiceover) and the monolithic housing estate buildings.
The local kids, due to unemployment and boredom, are obsessed with aimless destruction. Their accents are so thick and filled with so much slang that the movie has subtitles. They scrap against one another, graffiti (“All Cops Are Bastards,” Gemma points out on a tag she’s just written on an underpass), play shoot-‘em-up videogames, and pore admiringly over street fighting videos on YouTube. They scream insults (if you’re offended by the word “cunt”, look elsewhere) and roughhouse in ways that could tip from playfulness into aggression in a heartbeat, with no perceptible acknowledgement of the cameraman. Even the hands of a baby are evaluated as potentially being those of a boxer or kickboxer, in terms of potential violence.
Gemma was raised by her grandfather, Joseph, and has no relationship with her biological parents. As it’s described in the movie, her mother is a drug addict who abandoned Gemma as a baby, and her father passed on the responsibility of raising the child to his parents. She works out some of her aggression at a boxing club run by her “poppa”, hitting the heavy bag and slamming the pads until her sweaty hair is plastered down over her forehead. The older man warns her to “stay away from dafties,” but doesn’t realise that his granddaughter is planning a future with her bong-smoking boyfriend Pat, fresh out of his second stint in jail. “If you stay here, you either get locked up or knocked up,” Gemma observes.
Eventually, Gemma flys the coop and we meet her best friend, Amy, and Amy’s boyfriend JP. It’s not a coincidence that an assault with life-altering consequences for one youngster comes after Gemma’s grandfather has cut himself out of her life. In fact, it’s when her friend’s life is drastically altered by this horrific and seemingly random act of violence that Gemma finally reconsiders a future she once thought was entirely predetermined.
‘Scheme Birds’ takes place in a similarly bleak universe of post-Margaret Thatcher urban hopelessness to those that Ken Loach has spent his career exploring, as well as Andrea Arnold with ‘Fish Tank’ and ‘Red Road’, which was set at the Red Road flats in Balornock of Glasgow, Scotland ( the tallest residential buildings in Europe at the time they were built). Expectations are low, ambition is discouraged, and people don’t have much motivation to get out of their rut of disenfranchisement.
They scream insults (if you’re offended by the word “cunt”, look elsewhere) and roughhouse in ways that could tip from playfulness into aggression in a heartbeat, with no perceptible acknowledgement of the cameraman.
Fact: by the 1930s, most of Scotland's steel production was in Motherwell and, by the middle of the 1970s, the town’s steel industry employed more than 13,000 people. But the 1980s brought a catastrophic collapse of the industry in Motherwell and the high unemployment and economic decline, as a result, is still horrifically visible in ‘Scheme Birds’. Gemma recounts how the skies turned to grey with dust when the factories were demolished.
Birds are a key metaphor. The documentary shows the pains Gemma’s grandfather takes care to bond with his homing pigeons before exhibiting his birds to judges. These birds fly around the world, some returning, others never to be seen again. Gemma has an independent spirit and the words “Let the birds fly free” tattooed on her shoulder, but she loves her town and never wants to leave. However, she is forced to consider other options as her life changes drastically.
‘Scheme Birds’ occasionally stumbles with its cinematography. Slow-motion shots - Joseph releasing his pigeons, the teens running wild with road flares, and young love on the rides at the local showgrounds - verge on unsubtle music video territory. However, these are compensated by the candidness with which life on the estate is captured and some powerful shots elsewhere - a mother admiring a sunset through the window of her house, her young son’s slumped head (crushed by a brutal assault) out of focus in the foreground, will haunt you.
As a documentary subject, Gemma proves to be a source of warmth and comfort to those most affected by the deplorable societal conditions surrounding her, but directors Fiske and Hallin never shy away from the danger and volatility inherent in her existence. It’s difficult for the horror at the conditions not to curdle into active disdain of the town’s residents themselves, and their apparent apathy towards change or "self-improvement".
Fortunately, aside from being a deeply impressive debut, this documentary exudes compassion for its subjects and finds a few glimmers of hopefulness among the factory dust of Motherwell. As the credits rolled, I wondered whether Gemma was doing okay. It’s hard not to become attached as you watch these “scheme birds” leave the nest and slowly find their instinct for freedom and survival on their own terms.