“Maggie Thatcher took the steel industry from Scotland and Ireland, [and] gave it to England.”
Twenty-one-year-old Gemma sums up the history of her sleepy Scottish hometown as documentary “Scheme Birds” gets its bearings. She is the main subject of the film, and was born over a decade after Westminster sucker-punched this Glasgow satellite, but Motherwell’s residents are still reeling.
Swedish documentarians Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin crossed the sea to chronicle Gemma’s life. Her grandfather, whom she calls Papa, raised her in lieu of her parents. Her mother was a drug addict and her father is in jail.
In the film, Gemma says that she never wants to leave Motherwell and seems exceedingly comfortable, despite the apparent decay of the stagnant town. She spends her free time drinking and committing petty crimes around her scheme, a government housing complex, with her boyfriend Pat and their coupled neighbors, Amy and JP. Papa doesn’t like Pat very much, but Gemma’s impending motherhood drastically re-contextualizes her life.
“Scheme Birds” presents Motherwell exactly as it is. Hallin as cinematographer discovers an appealing quality to its muted tones. The damp green of the Scottish countryside melts into the somber gray of the predictably gloomy British sky. But the danger of unbridled youth is apparent and promises to rear its ugly head.
Aside from spending time with her friends and boxing at Papa’s gym, Gemma doesn’t have much else to do. Under-utilized potential permeates the town itself, devoid of its once-lucrative steel mills. Papa breeds pigeons, and their erratic flight highlights a sense of urgency underscoring the film. Motherwell is exactly what it is, and nothing more.
Gemma’s story is one that is all too often accepted without thought. She lives in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, by any measure, but her circumstances do not reflect it. To an American audience, Motherwell’s decay evokes images of the “Rust Belt” that spans the tri-state area of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. Cities such as Gary, Toledo and Detroit continue to hobble along in the wake of the auto crash.
Today, in the U.K., the government is scrambling to deliver on the faulty promise of Brexit — a promise in which Scottish voters were wholly uninterested. The pro-independence Scottish National Party has overwhelming support and holds the highest office in the country’s devolved government. Fiske and Hallin bring to light an unpleasant reality.
All is not equal among the Home Nations. In the 1960s, my Scottish grandparents left Barrhead — a suburb of Glasgow not far from Motherwell — for England. That’s where the opportunities, money and everything else were. Gemma faces the very same reality half a century later. Her story is heartbreaking, but not without hope. She still has a chance to change — and so does Motherwell.
“Scheme Birds” is a deeply personal film with national implications. Like Danny Boyle’s brilliant “Trainspotting,” which explores the heroin scene in Edinburgh, it unflinchingly presents the struggle of Scotland’s least fortunate. Fiske and Hallin gave them a voice. They deserve to be heard.
Email Fareid El Gafy at [email protected]