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When we first started watching this, I thought it was a documentary. It reminded me of Ken Loach. We watched part of "My Childhood" but then needed to finish it the next evening. I had a sense of dread when we sat down to view it again. The hard cruelty and insanity of this child's family, and most adults except the German worker. There are moments when I was confused thinking this was Jamie's father, so warm were their interactions. These films are work but well worth the effort; a full meal. Reminded me of the "pure cinema" of Robert Bresson and "Au Husard Balthasar", to some extent; good children battling the harshness of the world, and the people in it. There were times when Jamie is sitting curled up under that table or outside when I despaired he would do injury to himself. I was so hoping when he fell backward onto that coal train, he would just keep going along with it. The previous comments from the gentleman who grew up in similar circumstances in a Scottish industrial town were very moving to me. His being reminded of his own childhood is a testament to Bill Douglas' gift of storytelling and marks these films very important indeed. The work of Terence Davies must have been influenced by Douglas, I thought of his "Distant Voices, Still Lives" quite a bit. There is an indictment of growing up in wartime U.K. that can't be ignored, and ultimately, the perils of growing up in poverty. I have to recommend the Bill Douglas Trilogy to anyone who appreciates a cinema verite film-making experience, but not for the faint of heart.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the first of three autobiographical films written and directed
by Bill Douglas, recounting his childhood and adolescence. Although I'm
nearly 15 years younger than Douglas, we have some common roots: we
were both of us born into grinding poverty in Scottish industrial
villages, and both spent time in orphan institutions. (In my case, the
venue changed shortly from a village to a council estate in "Glesga",
and then to Australia.) As I watched this film record of Douglas's
childhood, I found myself reliving incidents from my own early life
which were nearly identical -- painfully so -- to what I was seeing on
the screen. The boy protagonist in this film steals coal: not for a
lark, but out of dire necessity. I recall doing the same for the same
reason. I also recall getting caught, and getting beaten for it.
SPOILERS AHEAD. The protagonist in this film, ostensibly Bill Douglas as a boy, is cried Jamie. The name change warns us that some fictionalisation is about the premises, but we're never told precisely at which points in the story, nor how extensively.
'My Childhood' is set in 1945, before V-E Day. One of Douglas's experiences which I did NOT share: his home village Newcraighall (near Edinburgh) is also the site of a work camp for German PoWs. The only person who shows any kindness to young Jamie is a German labourer, Helmuth. There is a surprising amount of physical intimacy between the man and the boy, although Douglas does not seem to have intended any subtext.
Jamie speaks no German, and Helmuth is just barely learning Scots. We see them sharing a primer, as Jamie tries to teach Helmuth the word 'apple', which the German insists on pronouncing 'apfel'. (Doesn't he notice the spelling difference?) Throughout this film and the rest of his trilogy, Douglas uses apples symbolically: they seem to represent prized treasures which are highly desirable in this impoverished landscape. Jamie and his older brother Tommy live with their 'gran': their mother is in a mental institution, hopelessly catatonic. No smell of a father about the place.
In all three films, Douglas wrings astonishing performances from a (mostly) non-professional cast. I noticed that the boys cast as brothers Jamie and Tommy don't look as if they're related. It transpires that they're half-brothers, and neither father bothered to marry their mum. At one point, a local man gives Jamie the huge gift of a sixpence! This act of generosity pleased me -- I remember how valuable a sixpence was in Perthshire in 1953 -- until I twigged that this man is Jamie's deadbeat dad! So, why doesn't he live up to his responsibilities?
Tommy's dad, slightly less of an absentee father, is a spiv ... and marginally successful with it. He gives Tommy a canary in a cage. Since Newcraighall in 1945 is a mining village, this is actually a useful gift. (I hope I needn't explain why coal miners keep canaries.)
I hesitate to apply the term 'art direction' to this film, but the clothing, the streets, the houses and -- most of all -- the interiors of these people's homes are absolutely note-perfect, again triggering my own memories. One coal miner here wears a shirt which looks more like 1972 than 1945, but everything else is spot-on. Even the Bedford lorry is appropriate.
Although the main character in this film is a boy, I don't recommend this film for children unless they're VERY mature. Among other problems, this film includes a shot of a dead cat and another of a dead bird.
One piece of good news is not shown here: after 'My Childhood' was made, the wretched mining village Newcraighill was modernised and developed, and is now very much a fit place to raise a child. Much of the credit goes to Helen Crummy MBE, who appears briefly in this movie as Jamie's schoolmistress. The fact that this village could rise from the rubble of its own coal-tips -- and the fact that a boy who came from this despond was able to make something of himself in spite of it -- would constitute the only good news in this very bleak and discouraging movie.
I wept while watching 'My Childhood', but I suspect that this was down to Douglas's film triggering some of my own painful memories. Still, that's a testimony to his abilities as an artist. My rating for this bleak and depressing memoir: 9 out of 10.
Firstly, to my surprise, my local lending library had this BFI Bill
Douglas trilogy to rent for £1.90, for a week. The lady staff member
added its second sticker on which they stamp the due date. It had been
in the library since 2008. A few dozen borrowings in 5 years...
Secondly, all the reviews here outline much about the plot and story and its gritty, hard-to-take realism. I agree absolutely with all said. Radio Times online quote 'makes the relentless chill of poverty almost tangible'.
This is simple but extremely effective film-making, sparse dialogue, close-ups that show gestures and silence and natural sounds to accentuate those feelings. Heartwarming and heartbreaking, this is one film that is a must-see for all cineastes who think they know British film and really is on par with anything that the Italian or Russian greats have done.
You feel a certain numbness, a chill after viewing that tells you something - that it's touched you. Not too many films achieve that these days.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'My Childhood' is the first of the Bill Douglas 'Trilogy'. The film
details the chief obsession in Bill Douglas' life, his awful childhood.
While he originally tried to pitch it as non-autobiographical, it
didn't take long for someone to realise that this wasn't fiction. At
times it might seem impossible for anyone's upbringing to be so bleak,
but interviews with childhood friends indicate that his life was just
what you see on the screen.
Douglas originally wrote to Films Of Scotland to seek funding, but was quickly rejected. They were only interested in films that portrayed Scotland in a positive, forward-thinking light, and this proposal did not seem to fit those criteria. It's easy to see why their 'lochs and shortbread' image wanted nothing to do with this film. From the moment we begin the film with Jamie digging in the slag heap for lumps of coal, coated in dirt in his ragged, torn clothes, it feels as if we are being pulled down into the dirt ourselves. He lives with his brother and his granny in a bare house, where the little furniture remaining occasionally has to be chopped up to provide heat. As the bleak story unfolds, we learn that both boys have different fathers, but the same mother. The father of Tommy, the elder brother, visits briefly for his son's birthday but is chased off by the grandmother, who despises him. Jamie's father turns out to live just a few doors away, where the absent father is absolved from blame by his mother, who tells him that all women are whores. The mother of the children is initially said to be dead, but later turns out to be in a mental hospital. Jamie is taken to visit her later, but she is unable to speak, and wants only to pull the bedsheets over her head.
Jamie befriends Helmut, a German POW working in the fields nearby, and the two form a kind of father-son relationship. Jamie brings him a school book and begins teaching him English, and before too long Helmut is able to communicate with him directly. Any chance of a happy ending is soon dashed with the end of the war, and Helmut abruptly breaks from teaching Jamie to fly a kite with the announcement that he has to go home now, leading Jamie to end up lying in bed imitating his mother's gesture.
Helmut is not unique in this film, as anything that briefly offers Jamie a sense of hope, escapism or brief enjoyment is mercilessly ripped away from him. He has a cat which he is only seen interacting with a couple of times, once playfully and comically chasing it outdoors, another trying to pet it and have it sit on his knee indoors, which the cat does not appreciate. Even the cat seems to want to reject him. Tommy is given a budgie by his father on his visit, and he finds the grandmother attacking the cage as a proxy for attacking the father. The budgie and its battered cage are safely removed, but when the community have to head to the pathetic corrugated air-raid shelter, they return to find that the cat has eaten the budgie. Tommy then kills the cat in revenge.
At the end, the grandmother is dead, and Tommy tells Jamie that he better go and get his father. Jamie is understandably not keen, and runs away to place his head on the railway line. At length he gets up, and on hearing a train approach, runs to the railway bridge. Earlier we saw Tommy run to this bridge, in a memorable visual moment when Tommy's running is shown through the metal railings to look like the motion of a zoetrope. While Tommy wanted only to stand and be engulfed by the heat and smoke from the train, we see Jamie climb over the bridge and jump. We're not sure if this is a suicide leap, but he is soon shown safe, sitting in the coal car of the train, returned to the dirt where we first encountered him, and the film exits with a long shot of the train leaving Newcraighall, the mound of Arthur's Seat in the background.
The zoetrope scene and the extremely sparse dialogue are a couple of the signs of the influence of silent cinema and other early forms of the moving image. Like 'Institute Benjamenta', 'My Childhood' does not ignore more contemporary technologies, but also never threatens to become part of them. But while the Quays film belongs to a surrealist art world, Douglas' film is more clearly aligned with the Italian neo-realist movement. Douglas enhanced this sense by using non-professional actors, and famously always instructed his actors to "stop acting". The effect is at once real and unreal, shaking us out of our notions of what a 'performance' should entail. Douglas believed that acting was done with the eyes and face, that all the hidden emotion came out there and not through grand gestures. The end impression is of the cold camera staring into the soul.
'My Childhood' is not a cheerful and pleasant watch, nor is it intended to be. Nor should it. Neither of the two boys ever 'acted' in anything again, and both suffered early deaths. Stephen Archibald, who played Jamie, died at age 38, and Hughie Restorick, who played Tommy, died 18 years after the completion of 'My Childhood'; while no date of birth is given, it's safe to assume he couldn't have been much more than 40. The world portrayed is now gone, both in time and in actuality. The coal mines are closed, and the village of Newcraighall in which filming takes place has since been completely demolished and rebuilt. While Films Of Scotland and others may like to forget about such things, Stephen Archibald and Hughie Restorick, both in their screen portrayals and in their actual lives, are reminders of how harsh lives of grinding poverty churn people up.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
My Childhood is literally that, Bill Douglas' description of his young
life as a poor, parentless child cared for by a grandmother dying of
dementia and a brother struggling with anger and jealousy, all under
the fear of a German attack. It is part of a series of films Douglas
did on the subject that views different parts of his life with
different styles. In this segment, we're in British kitchen sink
realism territory, with grainy black and white photography, unerring
eye towards poverty, and struggling self-repressed characters.
In this chapter we meet his and his brother's father (though it's not entirely certain that they really are), his dying mother, his dying grandmother and his dying countryside. Yes, it is a very dark and despairing movie, particularly since it doesn't have very many moments of happiness and those that are are quickly and brutally cut short. You do get his relationship with Gunther, a German POW, as he tries to teach Gunther English and the two find an escape in each other's companionship. However, Gunther ultimate is taken away and Bill finds himself unable to find any other outlet. Eventually there's somewhat an element of hope as he runs away.
I have not yet seen any of the other sections of this story, so thus far I can only take it as a singular work. It has a short and minimalist story arc that only really works as autobiography because it's not entirely clear why the movie starts where it does (though it's a little more clear why it ends when it does), and it feels like it could have started or ended at any time--which, it probably could. As far as the style is concerned, it's probably one of the most unerring and least political approach to that sort of filmmaking, though honestly there are much better realist and especially kitchen sink realist movies out there. It almost feels like too much, and though the movie doesn't deal with Catholicism, I felt a strong Catholic perspective in Bill Douglas' approach which I later confirmed with research into his biography. You're in regret and grief land, tempered all the more bare due to the children actors and the raging sirens of bomb alerts in the landscape.
Probably its best moment is when his brother, after killing Bill's cat in revenge for the cat killing the brother's bird, runs to the train and bathes in its steam as it passes under a bridge. In this and the ending moment, it is clear that the train represents transcendence for the children, though the movie is so short and sparse it doesn't really take that idea further, which is sort of unfortunate.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Bill Douglas directs "My Childhood", "My Ain Folk" and "My Way Home", a
trilogy of films which charter the life of Jaime (Stephen Archibald), a
young boy living in 1940s Scotland. Based on the director's own
experiences, the series watches as Jaime is subjected to a series of
misfortunes and abuses, most of which take place in the small mining
village of Newcraighall.
The trilogy is structured as a series of loosely repeated cycles, Jaime struggling to cope with parents, grandparents, surrogate parents, half-brothers and surrogate brothers. While Jaime remains locked in limbo, adults come and go, either dying, committing suicide, abandoning him or being consigned to mental wards. Douglas fancied himself as a class conscious artist, a "socialist realist", but unlike most neorealist works, which sanctify the poor and downtrodden, his trilogy pushes past canned sorrow and proletariat piety and instead tries to tap into a kind of nauseating self-hate. Everyone here is cauldron of seething resent, long resigned to a life of dishing out and receiving emotional and physical abuse. Meanwhile, Jaime begins to plot his escape.
And so Jaime hitches a ride on a coal train, befriends a German POW and falls in love with the idea of becoming an artist. This is where the trilogy gets problematic. It is not only that Douglas has a narrow view of the working classes, but that in tracing Jaime's rise out of the slums (via his meeting the educated middle class, the elite upper class and the development of a love for art) the trilogy begins to exhibit a somewhat snobbish attitude and dismissive stance toward whence Jaime came.
"My Childhood" and "My Ain Folk" are the best films of the trilogy. "My Way Home's" narrative has been criticised for its "confusing" structure and Douglas' refusal to explain major plot points, but such an initially jarring approach works well upon re-watches. The trilogy ends powerfully with the sound of what seems to be gunfire and explosions played over the glorious image of a tree, the juxtaposition epitomising the twin poles of Jaime's uncertain future. "My Ain Folk" opens spectacularly with the glorious, triumphant image (taken from "Lassie"?) of a dog scaling a majestic mountain. This image the allure of cinema and the hope of escape then snap-cuts to grim, black-and-white Scotland.
The trilogy's narrative, which focuses solely on suffering townsfolk, is as depressing as Douglas' aesthetic. Shot in black-and-white, the series stresses doom and gloom. Respite is infrequent. Douglas uses long periods of silence, slow camera work (and much locked down, static shots) and moments of eerie, discordant sounds, to create a unique aesthetic. The trilogy's disturbing tone autobiography meets creep-show horror strongly resembles Lynch's "Eraserhead".
The film represents another link in the spreading chain that is neorealism. Very loosely speaking, neorealism began in Italy in the 40s, spread to France (cinema-verite) in the 50s, to Britain in the late 50s and 60s ("Kitchen sink"), to the United States in the 60s and 70s, Scotland in the 70s and Iran in the 70s and 80s. The style is a delayed reaction to the socio-political-economic situations in these respective countries.
Douglas' filmography is revered in Scotland, Wales and Britain, but none of his films were widely distributed or have been widely seen. Because of this, they've developed a somewhat overinflated reputation.
8/10 Makes a good companion piece to Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy ("Song of the Little Road", "The Unvanquished", "The World of Apu") and Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series ("400 Blows", "Stollen Kisses", "Bed and Board", "Love on the Run"), all autobiographical films chartering the transition of young boys into adulthood. Worth one viewing.
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