“If you stay here, you either get knocked up or locked up,” Gemma says of Motherwell, Scotland where she grew up not long after “Scheme Birds” begins in a gruff introduction with a little bit of poetry to it that seems ideal for what co-directors Ellinor Hallin and Ellen Fiske have captured in their engrossing feature debut. The tough talk reflects the thick skin the 19-year-old has had to develop in Motherwell where economic opportunity has been scant since 1997 when the steel industry fled for England, which as it happens was the year Gemma was born. Proudly declaring she isn’t one to run from a fight, Gemma is as keen to take on the socioeconomic struggle involved in staying in Motherwell as much as any bare-knuckle brawl, training at her grandfather’s gym when she isn’t making trouble on the streets with her friends.
However, even as Gemma takes a surprise pregnancy by way of her boyfriend Pat in stride, Hallin and Fiske are there to witness the potential downsides of resilience as the young woman’s fiercely protective streak prepares her well for being a great mother, but may prevent her from giving her child a better life than the one she’s had when the poor conditions all around her have become so mundane they’ve been accepted. Still, she’s growing up while friends like Amy, who gets caught stealing on a security camera, and JP, who gets into a life-threatening altercation with another chum Scott, appear destined to repeat a cycle that their parents experienced before them, and Gemma’s gradual recognition of what might exist for her beyond her current circumstances is as compelling as the initial bravado she shows as a means of survival.
Brimming with the intoxicating mix of lyricism and grit that you’d usually see in the films of Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold, “Scheme Birds” actually seems as if it’ll inspire narrative and nonfiction filmmakers alike for years to come with the striking scenes Hallin and Fiske collect from Gemma’s life, as well as from the entire community she’s from, and shortly before taking nearly every prize one could win at the Tribeca Film Festival including Best Documentary, the two Swedish-based filmmakers spoke about finding their way to Scotland, how their subject approached them rather than the other way around, and being able to slip into the psyche of a young woman who hasn’t quite figured things out for herself yet.
How did this come about?
Ellinor Hallin: We went to film school together in 2011 and we realized we had the same attitude towards filmmaking, so we started to work together. And I’m half-English and I stayed in Edinburgh for half a year when I was 19, so I wanted to do something there. I made a few short films there before. Ellen, you’d been to Scotland too a few times, so when we got this idea to make “Scheme Birds,” it was so obvious that it would be us working together making the film. Now, we’ve been to Scotland I don’t know how many times.
Ellen Fiske: We can’t count anymore.
Ellinor Hallin: We were making another short film there. Then we ran into [Gemma] when we were filming and she asked us what we were doing. We told her and she was like, “This sounds so boring, this documentary you’re making. You should make a documentary about me instead and my life.” Then, she introduced us to her scheme — her neighborhood — and she showed us this boxing gym where every Friday they have the beauty contest for pigeons. That caught our attention…
Ellen Fiske: Yeah, we realized it will be an adventure to hang with her.
Ellinor Hallin: From the beginning, we wanted to make a short, and we felt quite confident that we would be there two times and it would be about her grandfather and her. Then when she got pregnant, that changed everything — her life [first and foremost], but also the film and what it would focus on. She was going through such a lot of things. She was drifting away from her grandfather and when we went over we were quite focused. We knew what we needed for the film or what we wanted and Gemma also came up with ideas, what she wanted us to film.
Ellen Fiske: But she didn’t care too much about us [when we were around with a camera]. We worked with that, of course, to make her trust us. We just we were hanging around. We didn’t ask her too much what to do. We were there waiting for it to happen.
Ellinor Hallin: It made us free to use a slower pace and to be more observing in the scenes. I think the story comes through so nicely and straightforward in her voice.
Did Gemma’s actual voiceover come from interviews you were doing throughout filming or did you record it later? It works so well with the material you have.
Ellen Fiske: The voiceover was so natural because that’s her way of speaking. She’s very witty — she’s a one-liner machine — and we needed to keep her eye on the skin with her voiceover. Usually, it’s like hard men speaking this way and she’s this tiny little girl. We thought it was funny. Then that’s our style [in general].
Ellinor Hallin: Sometimes we would ask, “Can you say that again, or could you develop what you just said?” But every single time she delivered exactly what we wanted, without us telling her too much what we wanted. It was quite amazing. A lot of the times we maybe had a quite fixed idea what we were looking for, but then she said something quite different that was 10 times better. I think she’s the most verbally talented person I’ve met.
You have that opening shot of her that feels instantly iconic where she’s jogging with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Did you know when you shot it that was how you’d want to introduce her in the film?
Ellen Fiske: Yeah, because [of this] saying she has in the beginning, “I never run away from a fight. I run to it.” She said it very early, so it was like, “This is Gemma and this is how we got to know her, so this is how the audience has to get to know her as well.”
Ellinor Hallin: It’s not in the film anymore, but she also had a line which was, “The police know me by the way I run,” [which] we thought was so funny. We didn’t really know then if she was telling the truth or if that was just her bragging about being the cool kid in the neighborhood.
Was it obvious to structure this in such a way that you don’t meet everyone in the neighborhood all at once, but they get to have their own moment before joining her story?
Ellen Fiske: She did [that] from the beginning. She was like, “This is my grandpa. He loves pigeons,” and it [felt] quick and fresh in a way, so we had that idea from the beginning to use that this way.
Ellinor Hallin: Also, our challenge in this film had been at some points to get a hold of Gemma, because she’s going through a lot of things in her life and started with her introducing us to different people, but we were there and so focused on filming that once she didn’t turn up, we were talking to different people in the scheme and it expanded because we thought it would be interesting to bring in different voices.
Ellen Fiske: To get the wider perspective. It’s not like [she has] a unique story [in that community]. It’s like [representative] of the society than a certain person’s story.
Ellinor Hallin: Also, [it was] to make it more complex and fair in a way to people [Gemma] has an opinion about or how she has a way of presenting us a character, so it’s really nice to give that character their own voice, and their own point of view.
You note that she was born in 1997, which is the same year the factory that had provided a livelihood for much of the town shut down. Was that a big realization for you about how this connected to the entire community?
Ellinor Hallin: Yeah, it was quite clear when we talked the early generation that it had been [a town that once was] really flourishing and people had jobs, but we haven’t met any of her friends that actually has a job. It was in our face, so we couldn’t really ignore it, and it had to be in the film somehow.
This is remarkably vibrant, in part because of the music. What was it like creating the soundtrack for this?
Ellen Fiske: Yeah, the music has been very, very important to create young, hard music and also very beautiful music that symbolizes the birds in a way, so we worked a lot with different composers and we tried so much. The last song was finished just a couple of days before we locked [picture].
Ellinor Hallin: It’s difficult and it’s a balance between feeling contemporary and then part of her world, and we want to add our perspective [through the music] because we’re making this film, so putting it together, it was quite tricky, but we’re very happy how it ended up.
What’s it like getting to the premiere?
Ellen Fiske: It’s wonderful because we never worked so hard on anything before. It’s crazy when we watch the film and it seems pretty easy, but every minute is so much work, so it’s very nice that it’s done and that Gemma has the chance to tell her story to more than just us. That’s everything.