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EIFF 2013: ‘Blackbird’ is a sensitive portrayal of Scotland’s vulnerable folk tradition

Blackbird Film 2013

Blackbird
Written by Jamie Chambers, John Craine and Robyn Pete
Directed by Jamie Chambers
UK, 2013

Blackbird is set in a Scottish island town where the traditional culture, based around folk singing, is gradually dying out and young people are flocking to the cities in search of better opportunities. The community has been fractured by weakening local industries and a loss of identity, leading to social discord and conflicting views about how the town should move forward. Director Jamie Chambers delicately draws out these issues, showing a sad reluctance on the part of the older community to pass down their traditions, acutely aware that they have little economic value in the modern world.

The film’s protagonist is Ruadhan (Andrew Rothney), a wide-eyed, vulnerable young man, with a passion for the songs he picks up from the town’s legendary but ageing performers. He lives in a small, wooden fishing boat, now standing in an open field, and collects old things – trinkets, shells, musical instruments – which would otherwise have been discarded. To him, they have enormous sentimental value, representing his deep connection with a romanticised version of the past, when the songs were so important to everyone in the community. He becomes obsessed with the idea of saving them, taking it upon himself to ensure they are not forgotten, even when he seems to be nothing more than a lone voice shouting into the wind.

The camera is drawn to small details, exquisitely capturing the subtleties of facial expressions and the symbolic value of tiny objects. There are some gorgeous, slow shots, particularly one that captures Ruadhan’s hero, Alec (Norman Maclean), standing outside after a funeral, swaying gently in the breeze. The artistic cinematography brings out the fragile beauty of this disappearing world, contrasting the graceful isolation of the natural environment with the troubled developments of life in the town.

Blackbird Andrew Rothney

The sparse plot is Blackbird‘s major weakness; it relies heavily on moments of forced drama and the resolution leaves a lot to be desired. It is far too neat, abandoning the steady progression prominent in the rest of the film and racing towards a conclusion that is thematically confused and lacks any real catalyst. It also somewhat spoils the authenticity of Ruadhan’s character, which is a shame because Rothney gives an inspired, liberated performance in the leading role. Much-loved Gaelic singer and comedian Maclean also proves to be a powerful screen presence, stealing each of his scenes with natural wit, passion and remarkable emotional depth.

Chambers demonstrates great sensitivity in evoking the divisions between tradition and modernity, successfully creating a rich portrait of life in a disintegrating community. The songs that are performed, whatever the context or setting, are always moving, which lends weight to the necessity of preserving a culture that accords them at least some degree of significance. However, Blackbird‘s eventual concession to narrative contrivance means that its impact dissipates at the crucial moment and we are unable to quite take from it what we should.

Rob Dickie

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