In Motherwell, Gemma tells us, you end up either ‘locked up or knocked up’. The steel capital of the world died at the hands of Thatcher in the 1980s, and Gemma recounts how the skies turned grey with dust when the factories were demolished. This hybrid documentary closely follows the young protagonist as she navigates motherhood, the tower of flats (or ‘scheme’) that she calls home, as well as relationships with her jailbird boyfriend Pat, unlucky cousin JP and pigeon-breeding grandfather.
Although referenced in the film’s title, these literal birds have no real agency in the narrative, but the documentary shows the pains Gemma’s grandfather takes to bond with and care for his birds before exhibiting them to judges. Their international flights and reliable returns to roost provide both a metaphor for, and a contrast to, Gemma’s reality: she loves her town and never wants to leave, but she is forced to consider other options when her son comes into the picture.
Gemma’s approach to life’s realities may be pragmatic and unfazed, but directors Fiske and Hallin do not shy away from the danger and volatility inherent in her and her friends’ existence. Brawls are common, and one such event drastically impacts her family’s future. This is the one moment to which the documentary – otherwise concerned with Gemma’s baby shopping, pigeon duties, and chats with neighbours – continually circles back to. Unfortunately, this tactic over-emphasises the narrative rather than allowing a more natural resolution to emerge – although this is only a slight distraction.
A veracious, fiercely sympathetic look at a tight-knit community, Scheme Birds takes flight when it has the same fierce joy and pride in Motherwell that Gemma does. While perhaps overly narrative, it never condescends or seeks easy answers.
DIRECTOR: Ellen Fiske, Ellinor Hallin
WRITERS: Ellen Fiske, Ellinor Hallin
SYNOPSIS: This hybrid documentary follows Gemma, a teenage mother-to-be in Motherwell, Scotland, and her love for her hometown and fractious family.