Explore by #Jodie McNeilly-Renaudie
Scheme Birds is a difficult contemplation on reality. Grey, isolated lives that duplicate inter-generational hardship are stacked within one of the government housing towers (or “schemes”) that dot an even greyer landscape with brutalist absurdity. Motherwell, Scotland, is a former steel producer for the Empire. “Steelopolis” now lies in socio-economic ruin due to Thatcher’s strategy to make Britain great again, at the expense of its neighbouring kingdoms.
Our teenage protagonist Gemma is born in the year that the steelworks are blown up. The camera intimately buries its lens into the daily life of this young woman and her community as they invariably fall victim to the system: «If you stay here, you either get locked up or knocked up». With no work and little opportunity, the children fight. Cultural pugilism starts at an early age: toddlers pummel soft furnishings as a celebrated milestone; Gemma trains with her fists in the local boxing gym run by her grandfather; scraps between other teenagers go viral on social media, spilling onto the streets and landing them in jail or hospital. The illusion of respect from incarceration and violent brawling culminates in both tragedy and transformation, but through exchanges of hardened love and hope for tiny lives we are directed by filmmakers Ellen Fiske (UK) and Ellinor Hallin (Sweden) towards Gemma’s strength and bravery when mobilising her and her son’s freedom from this template of existence.
The filmmakers treat actuality with self-effaced sensitivity. Motherwell’s story is told mostly through Gemma’s narration over montage and filmed action. Small lapses of time demonstrate the duration of the filmmakers’ interest in her world as we watch a feisty girl, happy to live her whole life in the scheme, peel away from juvenility into a caring mother and friend. Time in its synchronic slicing and diachronic unfolding are visually engaged through slow-motion grabs of intense emotions set against the vocal thump of Scottish artist and author Loki the Rapper. Scenes that dwell inordinately on everyday actions express the grip of “mundane being” over any transcending purpose.
One cannot overlook the simple yet apposite metaphoric relation between the teens and the homing pigeons - the pride of their community. Seen as pestilent “rats with wings” in most affluent cities of the world, we track their haphazard murmuration, swirling around the towers; the potential to break free from the flock can occur at any moment. While most return to what they know, some «fly the nest».
Fiske and Hallin’s collaboration brings concrete social truths to light with story-telling and cinematic finesse that fictional working-class realist cinema simulates in representation, but ultimately removes us from.
Scheme Birds | Film | Ellen Fiske, Ellinor Hallin | SWE-UK 2019 | 87’ | Zurich Film Festival 2019
Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca Film Festival 2019
Twarz, translated as “mug”, explores more than just the deformation of Jacek’s face (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) after his tragic, yet miraculous survival of an accident on a construction site. It is seen as nothing short of a miracle in the eyes of his deeply catholic village, as he falls backwards into the giant body of Christ, a statue built with the people’s unrivalled devotion, Polish nationalism and their absurd expression of religiosity. Jacek loses not only his face but his fiancé (Malgorzata Gorol) who cannot see past his deformity, nor beyond her mother’s myopic prejudices, despite the transplant and his subsequent notoriety.
The film humorously unveils the degree of superstition and lack of education reflected in the archaically shared belief system of the villagers. Exorcisms and ecclesiastic evaluations of where Christ should be looking or showing his “best side” punctuate other more stylised scenes of awkward and inappropriate dancing to bad 90s dance music and death metal. A touching sense of family is felt between Jacek and his older sister (Agnieszka Podsiadlik) who is a cynical and clever figure remonstrating against the odd dynamics of his other relations. We also watch Jacek face (in another sense) the cruelty of the State in its unsympathetic demands for him to return to work uncompensated. A somewhat limited life worsened.
There is an interesting use of focus that foregrounds the faces of the figures of whom the camera invites us to look at, fuzzing out the edges and background into an undifferentiated haze. Is the face the only way that one can constitute love, understand another or find a deep spiritual connection? Are we still looking for icons? Perhaps on or beyond the LCD widescreen as the opening scene – looking more like the “Last Judgment” than a product sale – attests. Writers Michal Englert and Malgorzata Szumowska make light of such questions but explore them astutely all the same.
Twarz - Mug | Film | Malgorzata Szumowska | PL 2018 | 91’
Birdie is a boy with artistic sensibilities. He is growing up in a Mongolian ger district and has very few prospects. His only respite from the ramblings of a drunken father, the nagging of a nasty step-mother and from the little brother who steals from him to buy a pony ride are the daily sojourns to sell his neighbour’s milk in the capital city Ulaanbaatar. Eventually Birdie flees from the misery of his familial hell, taking up residence on a city rooftop, surrendering himself to the endless blue of the Mongolian sky. From here, he spies upon the lives of other people through their living room windows. Using a stolen “universal remote control”, he changes TV channels and anonymously interacts with the lives of these strangers: diffusing arguments, distracting sex, preventing robberies. He silently falls for a sad woman on the top floor who suffers from severe vertigo and a fear of flying; even his own happiness is experienced remotely.
There is a pervasive gentleness to the film, even in the violence. The Buddhist sensibility is infused everywhere – in image, character and story. The little monk, Bunya, whose desire to fly causes him to be beaten to death. The manifestation of a Mongolian princess appearing at the bus stop, walking amidst the traffic. Ideas of our remote spiritual interconnectedness are explored, with the ethical implications of never meeting fact-to-face, interacting instead only through digital technologies.
Tradition mingles with contemporary life, each making the other look antiquated in their ill-fitting relationship. Ulaanbaatar’s saturated urbanisation with its Soviet-era architecture meets the smooth grassy plains of the steppe, that reach out to dusty yurt districts with barking dogs and wooden fences, embraced by the dizzying scale of arid mountain ranges. The views are shot mostly with a flat widened lens and staccato pan, suggesting both duration and change.
There is a feeling that director Byamba Sakhya plays it safe in this, his first feature, but the lack of risk is an honest offering, with promising prospects of flying ahead.(JMR)
Remote Control | Film | Byamba Sakhya | MNG-DE-USA 2013 | 90’ | FIFF 2018
Screenings at FIFF 2018