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Crimes and punishments

ABUSE OF POWER / Criminal justice in Northern Ireland and Spanish abuse of power in the Basque Country were the subject of two of the Scottish Documentary Institute's debut films during the Bridging the Gap program this year.


"Co-la-breith-math" is Scottish-Gaelic for "congratulations on the day" – a greeting documentary environment in the UK, Europe and the world should send Edinburgh this year, since the Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI) celebrates its fifteenth anniversary. The institute was founded by Noe Mendelle, who himself has worked with film and television since the beginning of the 80 century, at the Scottish Capital College of Art since 2004. Over the fifteen years that have passed since then, they have built themselves up to become one of the most vital, innovative, inclusive and productive film institutes in the world. To date, SDI has produced over 100 films, most of them short or medium in length, and has developed a well-functioning and balanced relationship with the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), which has been running smoothly since summer 1947.

Under the heading "Bridging the Gap", SDI presents five to six new projects each year. The program is a showcase for the Institute's impressive international, sharp look: Like many other Scottish institutions, SDI has a clear international stance and is open to filmmakers and thematics from other countries and continents while finding room for the distinctive and homely narratives.

At this year's "Bridging the Gap" program, there were two debutant films that stood as shining examples of SDI's admirable geographical balance art: Ross McCleans Hyde Bank, a very special glimpse into Northern Ireland's penal system, and Eoin Wilson's Altsasu, which gives the audience a snapshot of Spanish power abuse in the Basque Country. Both films last for about 15 minutes, they both have a distinctly contrasting style, and both directors have exactly the kind of talent SDI has fostered and highlighted for years.

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Hyde Bank

Impressionist, minimalist and captivating in their audiovisual form language: Hyde Bank is the most poetic and ambitious of the two debut films. It is a character study of a person, identified only as "Ryan" in the cast, an inmate in the prison from whom the film derives its title from: HM Prison Hydebank Wood. The prison is located in the southern part of Belfast and is best known for its women's department, which is located in the same location. Hydebank is (according to British terminology) a "juvenile detention center", a type of prison for minors who for centuries has been called "borstal" in public.

From a historical perspective, there are two well-known examples of films that, hard-hitting and controversial, have portrayed the conditions of such institutions, and both can be placed within the "angry young man" sub-genre of British social realism: Tony Richardson The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) – which is based on Alan Sillitoe's novel, with actor Tom Courtenay – and Alan Clarks Scum (1979), the film version of the same director's banned BBC program Play for Today (1977). But where these films focus on a sunned and lithe person in constant opposition to the system (represented by brutal and / or condescending Borstal staff), Hyde Banks protagonist a thoughtful soul who regrets his criminal acts. We don't know the details of what this is about, but Ryan gives us some small hints that there are extreme things he has done: "Ugly, ugly," he says, leaving no doubt about the enormous guilt he has inflicted itself.

Hydebank is impressionistic, minimalist and engaging in its audiovisual worm language.

We rarely see Ryan in the company of other inmates; he pretends to spend most of his time caring for the prison's four-legged residents: Hydebank huser a flock of sheep, and their soft presence is an idyllic element that breaks with the prison's strict infrastructure – high concrete walls, lattice fences and floodlights that flood the air yard. Like Matt Damon's title character in Gus Van Sants The Unique Will Hunting (1997), who, during a conversation with the psychologist, says that he dreams of raising sheep in New Hampshire, Ryan has rural longings – and they are deathly serious. The young man seems to have a good hand with the animals, which makes it hail with bitter, sheep-related insults from his fellow prisoners. In a film made of quiet, nightmarish contrasts, McClean brilliantly juxtaposes the loud aggression of the immature thugs against the serene simplicity of Ryan's gentle treatment of the animals. In several of the key scenes, the director has snapped pictures of cold corridors and picturesque light and shadow compositions, while a cacophony of percussion instruments hits the bare surfaces – just like the mocking voices (the outward heat of fellow prisoners and his inner self-criticism) ricochet head, both in waking and sleeping state.

Hydebank Director Ross McClean

McClean does not judge Ryan, either in terms of his criminal actions or in terms of whether he deserves the punishment he is given, on the contrary, he withholds crucial information that the audience would probably get in a more conventional film. We are left with the impression of a filmmaker who is eager to understand and portray – neither judging nor condemning. The beneficial aspects of a prison like Hydebank huser living animals, is quietly emphasized in a film that is otherwise subtle, yet clear in its support for the humane treatment of inmates, regardless of age and guilt.


Also Altsasu deals with crimes and punishments, but here the director is shameless and uncompromising in his polemics and clearly chooses side with those who languish behind the walls: Seven young Basques, sentenced from 2 to 13 years in prison after a bar fight with two members of the Spanish paramilitary police force Guardia Civil.

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We do not get to meet the seven men, we only see photographs or drawings of them: The film has a more familial focus, more specifically on one of the inmates' mother and her close surroundings. Two years after the incident, which took place in October 2016, the middle-aged Igone is engrossed in proving the innocence of his son Jokin and his mates, who have ended up in jail.

Altsasu focuses on one of the inmates' mother and her relatives

The social implications of this case are stated in the scroll text: “For many, the Altsasu case has become the very symbol of Spain's oppressive policies in the Basque Country. The sentencing has been widely condemned and considered politically abusive by law. "International attention around what is going on in this beautiful, controversial corner of Europe has fallen sharply after the much-talked-about Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna," Basque Country and Freedom ") Officially dropped the weapons in 2011. But there is obviously still a lot of bitterness on both sides of the political divide, in a Spain that, since the global financial crisis in 2008, has struggled to find social and economic equilibrium and with issues that hold hostility to equally, such as the Altsasu case and its subsequent sentencing.

Altsasu Director Eoin Wilson

Wilson – like McClean – omits a lot of specific information about the case, rather he spends his time drawing attention to Igone, her hometown (which just then has colorful festival days, which were also the backdrop for the fight in 2016) and the spectacular surroundings. He uses slow motion in sparse amounts, as in the scene where the folklore group Kantuz performs a sad interpretation of a chorus piece. The scene shows that the Altsasu case has affected the local community as a whole, and we also get to see every part of the bottomless grief the relatives carry. Igone tells of "two years of pain, with suffering" – her fearless resilience is an inspiring example of indomitable, motherly steadfastness in the face of power: Guardia Civil is legally exempt from punishment; their words should always be followed and trump any contradictory testimonies of the population.

The fact that statutory impunity still exists in EU member states in the second half of the 21st century is perhaps surprising to many. This is just one of the thoughts in the short film's polemics. In the aftermath of the EIFF, the film will probably be shown to a larger international audience, which will hopefully result in the fight Igone – and others in Spain and surrounding areas – will receive more attention and support. SDI thus fulfills its own goal of producing films with "emphasis on content and emotional experience".

Translated by Vibeke Harper

Neil Young
Neil Young
Young is a regular film critic for Modern Times Review.

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