Reviewed by: Robert Munro

The push and pull between the global and the local is often a theme for filmmakers in the modern era. How do we retain our heritage and traditions, while negotiating the reality of the fast-moving 21st century? Never mind the question of how... what about why? Why cling on to a rural idyll that seemingly has little relevance today?

This is the territory explored by Blackbird, a beautiful yet at times stark film set in south-west Scotland. Local lad Ruadhan (Andrew Rothney) is captivated by the past as told in the songs sung by the older generations of his village, and by the knick-knacks he collects in the boat upon which he lives.

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Incidentally, the boat is, like Ruadhan, not only out of time but also out of place, moored on a hill on land belonging to Alec (Norman Maclean), one of the village’s venerable old-timers and also the film’s funniest character.

The times are very much a-changing for Ruadhan and his fishing village. Dead fish wash up on the beach early on in proceedings, provoking a sense of foreboding not lost on the father of Ruadhan’s friend Calum (Patrick Wallace). There is a sense of things slipping away and that the magical aura of the place which so captivates Ruadhan is slipping too.

While Ruadhan may be the centerpiece of the story, one of the film’s great strengths lies in how truly well drawn each of the characters is. In small and subtle ways, each has is battling their own internal conflict. Calum dreams of driving off to Spain in his tatty two hundred quid car. Not only to escape his rural setting, you feel, but to flee from his drunken father - one of the many Scots working class men of a certain generation for whom alcohol and the hard man facade is their only crutch in a world they no longer understand.

Ruadhan’s adventures become more complicated still by the arrival and advances of childhood friend Amy (Scarlett Mack), back home from university in Glasgow. Her father and his new girlfriend Sofia are opening a new bistro in town, with Calum and Ruadhan’s mothers both seeking employment there. The thought of the bistro with its olives, hummus and parma ham proves the final straw for Ruadhan, whose behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

At the centre of the film is a theme which seems inherently Scottish - the threat of clearance and displacement of our rural communities, with outsider Sofia seemingly the driving force - yet is entirely international. After opening the bistro, Sofia buys up Alec’s land and demands that Ruadhan moves from it. One can’t help but recall Local Hero and Mac’s attempts to move Ben Knox from his shack on the beach in order to drill for that black, black gold.

Where Local Hero eschewed our expectations of the local and the global with its representation of the Ferness populace as rather greedy and devious (canny, one might say), attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of the slick Texas oil executive, so too Blackbird refuses to allow for simplistic conclusions.

Rather than permit the imperialist march of modernity to wash away traditional folk culture, Blackbird finds ways to negotiate the past and the present, the global and the local. Ruadhan finds that the song he most wants to learn is being kept alive by a young girl who shares his passion for the songs. The song is also played from Amy’s iPod to Ruadhan, to his obvious wonderment, indicative of the ways in which technology can enhance our understanding and appreciation of the past as well as threaten it.

All of the above may make Blackbird sound like a rather dry tribute to our oral tradition of storytelling and the struggle we face to keep it alive, but the film is also really bloody funny. A frequently comic script is enhanced by the naturalism with which all the actors deliver their lines. Top billing in this regard must to go Norman Maclean, whose performance as Alec is central to an understanding of what makes the film so unique.

That the funny and heartfelt details are so well captured is a testament to the filmmakers themselves, who have managed to grapple with some weighty and universal themes in a small setting, showing that there remains room for both the global and the local after all.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2013
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A young ballad singer laments the way his small Scottish village is changing - and dying

Director: Jamie Chambers

Starring: Andrew Rothney, Scarlett Mack, Patrick Wallace, Sheila Stewart, Norman Maclean, Margaret Bennett

Year: 2013

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK


EIFF 2013

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