Themed Playlist: Childhoods in Scottish Cinema
In this list, Robert Munro provides a range of Scottish films that explore childhood and child-parent relationships in ways that are both personal and allegorical.
Childhoods in Scottish Cinema
The exploration of childhoods, and child-parent relationships, is a recurring theme in Scottish cinema. Often attributed to Scotland’s ‘junior’ status in the United Kingdom ‘family’, these films are frequently read as national allegory; father figures are absent, cruel or neglectful and so the responsibility relies on the ‘orphaned’ child to make sense of their world and aim towards a better future.
Portrait of Ga (Tait 1952)
The pioneering poet and filmmaker Margaret Tait made abstract and bewitching short films, often autobiographical in nature, throughout the 1950s. None more so than this portrait of her mother at home in Orkney from 1952. Forty years later Tait became the first female filmmaker to release a feature in Scotland, with another look at childhoods and maternal relationships, in the arresting Blue Black Permanent (Tait 1992).
Portrait of Ga can be streamed on the National Library of Scotland Online Moving Image Archive: https://movingimage.nls.uk/film/3698
My Childhood Trilogy (Bill Douglas): My Childhood (1972); My Ain Folk (1973); My Way Home (1978)
Bill Douglas’s Childhood Trilogy (1972-78), remains one of Scotland’s most influential – though little seen – contributions to art cinema. Often crudely labelled ‘miserablist’, Douglas represents the impoverished childhood and adolescence of his semi-autobiographical cypher Jamie through a starkly affecting visual poetry.
That Sinking Feeling (Forsyth 1979)
Before Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling (1979) Scotland could hardly to be said to have any kind of commercially viable home-grown cinema at all. Forsyth’s whimsical take on 1970s youth culture in Glasgow managed to incorporate a social realist look at unemployment and poverty in Scotland’s biggest city, within a comedic, and quite farcical, caper movie. Of course, Forsyth would mine this terrain a few years later, though this time with a look at growing up in one of Scotland’s new towns, in Gregory’s Girl (1981).
That Sinking Feeling is available to watch on BFIplayer: https://player.bfi.org.uk/subscription/film/watch-that-sinking-feeling-1979-online
Lynne Ramsay’s Short Films (1996-1998)
Childhood has been a central concern for Scotland’s greatest filmmaker, Lynne Ramsay. Her acclaimed debut feature Ratcatcher (1999) – scandalously out of print on DVD in the UK, never released on Bluray and not available on any streaming platform I could find – is a beguiling, magical realist look at a young boy’s attempts to deal with trauma in 1970s Glasgow. Ramsay’s semi-autobiographical look at childhood elevates the allegedly miserablist social realism of working class and impoverished childhoods through an elusively tactile cinema that stands alone. Small Deaths (1996) provides a trilogy of inter-connected stories of a young girl’s youth and adolescence, and the first two – Ma and Da and holy cow – demonstrate her ability to represent the ‘small deaths’ of childhood innocence with grace and subtlety. Ramsay extends and perfects this approach with Cannes-winning short Gasman (1998). Again, privileging the perspective of youth, the film opens with a series of shots giving us a picture – never whole – of youthful innocence about to be lost. The young girl – Ramsay’s niece, also called Lynne Ramsay – mimics Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz before attending a Christmas party at a social club, where the truth about her father becomes apparent.
Orphans (Peter Mullan 1998)
After the success of Trainspotting (Boyle 1996), and with the emergence of Ramsay, and David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Starred Up, Outlaw King), the films of Peter Mullan – both as actor and director – helped to herald the arrival of a New Scottish Cinema. Mullan, like Ramsay, has frequently examined children and childhoods in his films, with his most recent film Neds (2011) a similarly autobiographical look at growing up working-class in Glasgow in the 1970s, while his award-winning short Fridge (1995) follows the attempts of two alcoholics to rescue a child who is trapped in an abandoned fridge in the back green of tenements in Glasgow, and provides a withering class critique. Mullan’s debut feature, Orphans, remains a beguiling film, blending British social realism with a surrealist sensibility, to follow four grieving siblings over the course of an evening as they prepare to bury their mother.
Orphans is available to view on BFIplayer: https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-orphans-1997-online
Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach 2002)
One of Ken Loach’s many ‘Scottish’ films, Sweet Sixteen details the trials and tribulations of the teenager Liam, whose entrepreneurial (and criminal) attempts to escape his challenging upbringing provide Loach and his long-time collaborator Glaswegian screenwriter Paul Laverty a lens through which to assess the hypocrisy of the New Labour promise of meritocracy after decades of Thatcherite stagnation in working class communities across Britain. As with Orphans and Ratcatcher, the film further demonstrates Scottish cinema’s outward-looking designs on European art cinema legitimacy, with Loach and Laverty ending the film in homage to Truffaut’s similar tale of boyhood rebellion, A Quatre Cent Coups (1959).
Sweet Sixteen is available to watch on demand through Channel 4: https://www.channel4.com/programmes/sweet-sixteen/on-demand/6T9439-001
Scott Graham’s impressionistic debut, set in the Scottish Highlands, features the eponymous Shell, an adolescent struggling with her father’s medical condition and the isolation of living and working at a remote petrol station. As with Scott Graham’s follow-up, Iona (2015), here familial secrets bubble under the surface in a muted melodrama that draws an affecting performance from lead Chloe Pirrie.
Shell is available to watch on BFIPlayer: https://player.bfi.org.uk/subscription/film/watch-shell-2012-online
Sunset Song (Terrence Davies 2015)
Perhaps the most famous adolescence in Scottish culture, Terrence Davies brings his renowned sensitivity and aesthetic splendour to this adaptation of Sunset Song, charting the maturation into womanhood of Chris Guthrie. Cruel, failing and then an ultimately absent father, played by who else but Peter Mullan, dominate Chris’s early life, along with the loss of her mother and her brother’s abandonment. Chris takes responsibility for the family farm, while the backdrop of the senseless Great War takes its toll on the community, and Chris. But, like the land she tends, Chris endures.
Sunset Song is available to watch on https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-sunset-song-2015-online
Robert Munro is a lecturer in Film and Media at Queen Margaret University. He is preparing a monograph on Adaptation and Visual Culture in Scotland, and recent publications include ‘Performing the National? Scottish cinema in the time of indyref’ (Journal of British Cinema and Television – forthcoming) and ‘To see oursels as ithers see us’: textual, individual and national other-selves in Under the Skin in Intercultural Screen Adaptation: British and Global Case Studies (2020 EUP).
About the lists: When it comes to finding something to watch, the sheer amount of options out there can be overwhelming. For this reason, we at the Centre for Screen Cultures are producing themed playlists of film, video, and television so you can organise your own series or festival at home (or home school). They will update here and here: https://screenculture.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/category/media-playlists/