Ellen Fiske is a writer, producer and director of the award-winning Scottish short films “Keep Me Safe” and “Lone Dads.” Ellinor Hallin is a Swedish director and cinematographer with a background in documentary.
Within the framework of the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Voices of Women in Film,” Tara Karajica talks to Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin about women in film and their sensitive documentary, “Scheme Birds,” that won the Best Documentary Feature Awards at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. “Scheme Birds” follows Gemma, a tenacious teenager in the tough neighborhood of Jerviston, Motherwell, where you “you either get knocked up or locked up,” in her words. It is an amazingly intimate and at times heartbreaking chronicle of Gemma’s life, in a place blighted by broken promises since the steelworks closed almost forty years ago.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Ellen Fiske & Ellinor Hallin: We were always interested in expressing ourselves in different ways. Acting, writing, photography… It just comes from a strong urge to try to describe to others how you experience the world. The interest in documentary moviemaking comes from the fascination of other people and their way of living. The reality is always more interesting than what you can create in your own head, we think. It’s the greatest privilege in life to be able to join other people a little bit in their lives, it’s like you get to live so many lives in a way. We met in film school and realized that we think the same way when it comes to storytelling and style, but that we also complete each other in a great way.
How did Scheme Birds come about?
E.F. & E.H.: It all started three years ago when we met Gemma in Jerviston, a so-called “scheme,” a social housing estate outside Glasgow, in Scotland. We were there to shoot a different documentary when she approached us and said “What are you doing?” And upon us telling her: “That sounds so boring.” Then, she introduced us to the place and when we came to the local boxing gym, the weekly beauty contest for the pigeons was going on. We thought it was almost too good to be true and perfect as a subject for a film.
Can you talk about the title?
E.F. & E.H.: Scheme means a social housing estate. “We get called Scheme Birds,” Gemma declared early to us. People from the outside sometimes use this term to describe the girls – the birds – from this area. It’s sometimes a bit patronizing, but Gemma however reclaims the name. It also refers to the pigeons of course, so it’s kind of a lingo.
Scheme Birds is a chilling commentary on the violence and loneliness all around Gemma, in a place scarred by society’s broken promises. Can you elaborate on that?
E.F. & E.H.: Since the steel works shut down, the unemployment is high. “We still have nothing to do”, Gemma says in the film. We’re not sure where the violence comes from, but the meaninglessness and boredom contribute for sure. Kids start being violent very early, they fight in a very childish and playful way as you can also see in the film. When we first saw the kids fight as “Friday fun,” we realized that something serious would eventually happen. When the kids grow older and the things are not that innocent anymore, things could go horribly wrong. Which, unfortunately, was exactly what happened. JP is definitely not the only example of this. We think that many (boys) are destined to commit crimes like this. We have met several witnesses that say that life in prison is better than life outside. The teenagers want to go to prison, so they won’t really realize what they have done and change their behavior.
What you show is that motherhood gives hope in this poignant story of survival, determination and courage. Would you agree with this assumption?
E.F. & E.H.: Boys go to jail and the girls get pregnant – that’s life in Gemma’s area. It’s not always a good and wanted thing for those teenagers to become parents. For Gemma, it was a great turning point, though. Baby Liam gives her the same purpose as the birds give Joseph. Something to be here for and care for. Liam being born made Gemma think a lot about her own upbringing, a chapter that she didn’t really reflect on earlier. It was clear to her that she needed to change something in her life in order not to walk in the same footsteps as her own mother. Not everyone has this strength. Motherhood itself does not solve a hopeless situation, but for Gemma it meant hope.
How do you see Gemma? What does she represent, according to you? Is it her inner strength and resilience that you found inspiring and attractive?
E.F. & E.H.: Gemma as an unusual storyteller inspired us a lot. When we first met her, she bragged about her being the neighborhood’s “top-girl” and that she had seen a lot of fights. She has a unique perspective on a rough reality which often has been told from a male point of view. Her gift of being able to express herself in a witty way was also important when it came to telling the story from an inner perspective. We didn’t want to come to a place we knew little about and just tell the story from our point of view. Gemma is really in charge of her own life story, which makes the whole difference, we think. She is also allowed to make mistakes and stupid choices. That courage to be herself was very inspiring.
I have a bit of a problem speaking about “female filmmakers” because then you assume that just a “filmmaker” is automatically a man. That’s unfair! Men don’t have the right to claim this title. Adding an adjective to filmmaker puts it in a sub category and females definitely don’t belong in a sub category.
What was the best advice you were given?
E.F. & E.H.: Just throw yourself out there, don’t think too much about practical things in the beginning! Try your thoughts. If it doesn’t work rethink. It’s better trying things than sitting home thinking about getting started. Don’t wait for anyone else to tell you what to do!
How do you think the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Women in Film” will impact your career, your visibility and the promotion of European female film talent in Australia?
E.F. & E.H.: It’s a great chance for us to let the film meet an international audience in Sydney. We’re also very honored and happy to be part of the program and hope we can inspire and be inspired by other filmmakers of all genders in the world. It’s great for us to build a network with people who like to work in the same style as us.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in Film for the past year and a half. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in Sweden that is spearheading the fight for gender equality in film?
E.F. & E.H.: People talk more openly about these things in the industry since #metoo. It’s no longer taboo to express your feelings and you won’t be labelled a “rabid feminist” if you mention the importance of gender equality in the business. We think the dialogue that’s going on at the moment is both important and empowering for us and other female filmmakers.
Are you feminists? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
E.F. & E.H.: Of course we are! I (Ellinor) have a bit of a problem speaking about “female filmmakers” because then you assume that just a “filmmaker” is automatically a man. That’s unfair! Men don’t have the right to claim this title. Adding an adjective to filmmaker puts it in a sub category and females definitely don’t belong in a sub category. Being a female is not a something that makes you better or worse as a filmmaker and I hope in the future it won’t matter what gender you are. Anyhow, things are as they are at the moment and I realize women get less support when it comes to filmmaking. The Swedish Film Institute, however, has supported us a lot and we never had to prove ourselves. I really hope we can continue in the same style. I (Ellen) agree! I think being a feminist also helps us to put light on other oppressing structures that exist in our society and that affect the people we’re portraying.
Who are your favorite female filmmakers? And your favorite films by a female filmmaker?
E.F. & E.H.: Andrea Arnold – always the greatest inspiration. And Fish Tank is her masterpiece.
What are your next projects?
E.F. & E.H.: Ellen is currently working on a new documentary about a retreat for former religious fundamentalists in San Francisco. Ellinor is working as cinematographer on various projects. We will soon start researching for a new feature to direct together as well. We want to keep on working in the same style as Scheme Birds.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: