Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Bill Douglas Trilogy (1972 -1978)

The RBC Film Club must be commended once again for its fortitude in showing films that you would have a problem seeing in any other cinema in Scotland other than perhaps Glasgow or Edinburgh. Scottish film director Bill Douglas is best known for a small body of work and his trilogy of films about his early life has been shown over consecutive weeks at the RBC Film Theatre as part of its Film Club season. Drawing upon his own childhood they recount the harrowing experiences of a young boy who grows up in crippling poverty, starved of any emotion and bullied and mentally abused by those around him.

The Streets of Newcraighall.
The first of the three films, My Childhood (1972), is based in the Scottish mining village of Newcraighall where Douglas was born. The film deals with the complex family background of 8-year-old Jamie, brought up by his elderly grandmother, who gradually discovers that his father is a man who lives down the same road and that his mother is in an asylum.

Jamie can't cope any more.
In the second and harshest of the trilogy, My Ain Folk (1973), Jamie’s grandmother dies and he and his brother Tommy are separated. Tommy is taken to a children’s home and Jamie goes to live with his other grandmother and an Uncle where life is far worse than before, rejected and hardly spoken too he also has to deal with bouts of family violence. Eventually Jamie is also taken away to the Edinburgh care home.

Finally a friend.
The final film, My Way Home (1978) finds Jamie 5 years-older and still living in the Edinburgh children’s home. Taken away from the home by his father he is again dumped on his grandmother who now lives in squalor. Destined for a life down the pit but preferring to be an artist he ends up at an RAF base in Egypt as part of his National Service where he makes his first real friend, an educated Englishman called Robert who is the first glint of light in his otherwise bleak and lonely life.

These three films with their matter of fact dialogue are stark, grim and very disturbing to watch. But saying that Douglas produced a truly memorable piece of work that raises the question as to how on earth, in a so called civilized country, could people be allowed to exist in this way?

Eight years after completing this autobiographical collection and five years before his death in 1991 he made Comrades (1986). This was the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six farm labourers who were arrested, tried and transported to Australia in 1834 for forming a trade union. This later work continued his interest in the lives and struggles of ordinary working class people. Bill Douglas has been described as one of the most original film-poets in British cinema history and his work reminds me of Andrei Torkovsky’s 1962 Soviet masterpiece Ivan’s Childhood the story of an orphan boy and his experiences during the last World War. A film that was not typical of Russian cinema at that time, one that looked at the human cost of war but did not glorify the experience of war. Douglas like many other great British film directors got considerably more critical acclaim in Europe than in the country of his birth.

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