FilmSpace at Edinburgh International Film Festival: Scheme Birds; Justine; The Souvenir

FilmSpace was at the 73rd Edinburgh Film Festival. Film critic Scott Wilson reviews a working class documentary, a touching drama about loss, and a best-of-year contender.

Scheme Birds – ★★★★☆

While Hollywood beams into schemes across Scotland with its wide-eyed love affairs and glamour, what’s going on outside the picture houses has always been a different story. New towns and the closing of industry have left many places directionless, and so too the people who live there. Life becomes a cycle of young pregnancies, crime, and addiction – because what else is there to do?

Following a young woman called Gemma across a few years, the film will form an instant bond with some, while providing access to lives the likes of which they’ve never seen before for others.

Gemma describes a scheme as a “non-snobby place to stay.” No one snobby appears in Scheme Birds. Gemma moves into a high-rise with her partner, who lives off a life of crime after she becomes pregnant.

The film is peppered with narration, usually Gemma’s, giving opinions on life in Motherwell, on class, on politics. About Thatcher, she says: “She put a lot of people on the brew. I don’t know why.”

Gemma was born in the late 90s when New Labour were in power, but she’s a child of Tory violence against the working class. There was confusion when it happened, and the next generation has inherited that confusion they were no part of.

While it could be argued the film does very little for Motherwell’s tourism board, there’s a lot of warmth to Ellen Fiske’s and Ellinor Hallin’s direction. No one here is being judged, not even a boy who attacks another so brutally his victim loses part of his skull.

Judgement of the working and under classes is rife. To the extent that people don’t even know they’re doing it. There is no judgement in Scheme Birds of the poor conditions the people it follows live in, that they turn to crime, that their relationships are volatile. There’s a sense the film actually quite likes them.

Some reviews require a personal note, and this is mine. I was raised in a new town and I went through school with people just like those in Scheme Birds. To this reviewer, this is not an extreme film, but an honest one. Other reviewers will be shocked, disgusted, repelled. It is why the writers you read must be as diverse as the people we share this world with. I take no pity on Gemma – she wouldn’t want it and it’s patronising as hell. Her life is the reality for hundreds of thousands of us who are forgotten about.

Tory MP Tim Loughton said Ken Loach was in ‘la la land’ after railing against austerity while accepting an award at the Baftas. A lot of people approached I, Daniel Blake as a piece of fiction, which it technically is, but its familiarity for so many meant that to dismiss it was just another part of Conservative violence against the working class. Scheme Birds is real, and while it isn’t the tragic story of Daniel Blake, it does portray a way of living that so many people do not realise exists.

It’s a pleasure to be invited into Gemma’s world and for her to share it with us all. It meant a lot to see the world how I know it shown on screen, and that will be true for lots of Scots, lots of working class people across the UK, and anyone who has ever felt ignored in society. Its soundtrack flits between dreamy mood music and the confrontational energy of Scotland’s own Loki. Those opposing attitudes are what it feels like to engage with a film like Scheme Birds. You can be frustrated at their living conditions while being happy they seem so adept at living in a way broadly considered to be unfair, when such excessive wealth exists in the world.

Scheme Birds should get people talking. It gets everything right that The Scheme got wrong. I would be proud to show it to people to say it was what I knew growing up. One for us to bond over.

Justine – ★★★★☆

Everyone reacts to trauma differently. For Lisa Wade, losing her husband in war means withdrawing from her family, leaving her kids to be looked after by her father-in-law. Spending her days in bed, she begrudgingly takes on a job as a carer – “I’d prefer just to work in an office” – to Justine, a girl with spina bifida. Sheltered by her affluent parents, Justine has her quirks and limitations, having never socialised and requiring mobility assistance.

Life begins to return to Lisa, as we see her become defensive of Justine. She should go to school, she says. When Justine is heard using racist language, Lisa begins to doubt the character of her parents. They develop inside jokes and Lisa plays games with her despite ignoring her own kids’ requests for her to play with them as well.

It is an effective look at refusing to engage with grief, as Lisa pauses her life until such a time she can bear to continue with it. Her own kids are reminders of what she’s lost. Any attempt to retrieve her from her depression is met with such strong resistance, it’s clear she has to find peace on her own. In a conversation with Justine’s teacher, she describes college as a place that enables you to get a well-paying job, but has nothing to do with what you enjoy. In her slump, she’s been reduced to functions, while the joy of life is something she’s yet to want to rediscover.

But the film works even better as a look at flawed people. Lisa is likable, but frustrating. Justine’s parents are aloof and, it seems, have racist tendencies, but they are still her parents, and Lisa is not. There’s a sense that everyone is trying to do what’s best for everyone else, but by being so stuck inside their own worlds, they rarely notice what impact they’re actually having on those around them.

The innocence in scenes between Lisa’s kids and Justine confirms that. Through the eyes of a child, difference is no big deal: Justine’s wheelchair and Lisa’s kids’ darker skin colour don’t mean anything to people who haven’t been taught to hate. Their bonding is pure in the way that it’s a reminder we get through life together and never alone.

The Souvenir – ★★★★★

Who knew watching two upper-middle class people date could be so enthralling? Julie and Anthony are unlike what many of us will ever be. She stays in the lavish Knightswood area of London, near Harrods. He has his high-flying job and his professional exterior which hides secrets, as all men in suits succumb to eventually.

It’s a mundane story of Julie’s passion for courting and filmmaking. Everything is prim and proper, ticking every box of off-putting features found in period dramas. On paper, The Souvenir is a nightmare, impenetrably privileged and narratively dull.

Except Joanna Hogg’s delicate storytelling is almost indescribable. She makes these characters familiar and flawed, like the rest of us. The perils of dating don’t stop once you hit a certain class, though the decorum that comes with it might change. Dinner parties and conventions these characters are born knowing are alienating in a way, but there’s a charm in treating it like the opposite of a Poverty Safari. Like watching an enclosure at the zoo, showing whole other species going about their business, The Souvenir is a window into a world many of us are unfamiliar with.

While it often feels unaware of its own hoity-toity-ness, Julie wants to be normal, wants to escape. She’s making a film about a poor boy in Sunderland, as far from her world as possible, in an attempt to find humanity? Or just because she’s able to tell his story? Hogg says the film is loosely based on her own experiences, and she – as a filmmaker – has the means to be a filmmaker. It’s difficult to separate the film’s own means from that of its creator, but maybe we don’t have to, and maybe that’s what makes it so fascinating.

The Souvenir is a hard sell. It’s been well-received, and Honor Swinton Byrne – Tilda Swinton’s daughter – shines as Julie, wide-eyed and headstrong despite everything; or, because of everything. It’s one of those films that reward those who lean into it and find its humanity. When a man at a party says he wants to give his children a better life than he had, but only so long as they’re aware of their own privilege, it’s a hint that the film is more aware of both its own narrative and the life of its creator. A best-of-year contender. 

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