Scheme Birds, written and directed by Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin, is a hybrid of reality TV, coming-of-age tale, and documentary blending observations, interviews, and narrations about its protagonist, Gemma; following her as she leaves her childhood to enter the adult world. It’s like the Boyhood of documentaries and is as intriguing as the Oscar-nominated film in its approach, or filming of people’ lives’ evolution over a few critical years.
We first meet Gemma on a frantic outing in her Scottish neighborhood as she introduces us to the harsh reality of the place. From these first few seconds, we get a sense of who this young teen is: a brash, cheeky, proud, but also perspicacious and astonishingly grounded for her age. Likewise, we also come to know her hometown of Motherwell, as she goes around the block, having lively discussions with neighbors. Gemma informs us that since people don’t have much to occupy their time, violence and abuse abounds. She even proclaims that girls like her eventually ‘either get knocked up or locked up…’ Like a premonition, Gemma’s words at the beginning of Scheme Birds will resonate and foreshadow the events happening throughout the next few years of her life and the lives of those around her.
“Gemma informs us that since people don’t have much to occupy their time, violence and abuse abounds.”
The title comes from Gemma’s neighborhood being known as a ‘scheme.’ In Scotland, that refers to an area with lots of social housing towers and estates, where predominantly working-class families struggle to stay afloat. There is high unemployment, especially since a steel factory – which was one of the prominent and only industries in the region – closed the same year Gemma was born. Thus, she sees the desolate and grey community as pretty depressing, especially since it is filled with many folks without prospects, who resort to crime and addiction. The sad truth is that this suburb’s description could be applied to so many others around the world where people stuck in low-income projects have very little chance to live a better life. Moreover, the youth living in these areas might be looked down upon by outsiders. But the savvy teen and her peers know all too well that society has abandoned them.
With industries and companies leaving their town (to often exploit others somewhere else for higher profit), and the government not bothering to try and save these agglomerations and their inhabitants, is it any wonder that the sad members of the community and parents are not fighting for their children’s future. Gemma was practically abandoned at birth by her parents, with her mother falling hard into drugs and her father incapable of taking care of a child. Soon enough, social services delivered Gemma to her grandparents. It somehow was a blessing in disguise as her granddad raised her and taught her how to survive in this environment by staying on the right path. We see him giving her guiding life values while also training her in his boxing gym. He also shows her how simple things like his “pigeon competitions” allow ex-convicts and young folks to focus on something other than a life of violence and disorder. Thanks to his guidance, and her passion for boxing, Gemma has hope that someday she will make it out, maybe out of there, but no matter how bad things are in Motherwell, she loves it and is proud to call it home.
"…an area with lots of social housing towers and estates, where predominantly working-class families struggle to stay afloat."