This month the Filmhouse in Edinburgh are presenting a season celebrating the work of British director Antonia Bird. The season includes a rare screening of the 1993 film Safe, starring (amongst others) Robert Carlyle as a homeless Scot trying to eke out an existence on the streets of London.
For those who don’t know — and despite the best efforts of the BBC and the Filmhouse, there are many who still don’t — Antonia Bird was an English film director who sadly passed away in 2013, at the age of 62. The BBC documentary about her life (which kicks off the Filmhouse season on Tuesday 9th August) is called From Eastenders to Hollywood and follows Bird’s career trajectory. But it could just as easily have been called From Eastenders to Hollywood and Back Again...
As a woman working against an institutionalised gender imbalance in the industry, success was not something that came easily, or overnight. When Bird finally got to make a (moderately budgeted) film in Hollywood with an A-list cast, she found working within the artistic constraints set by a larger production made it a career mis-step, rather than a highlight.
Even after her untimely death, the injustice continues. In her book Political Animals, Sophie Mayer argues that one of the challenges women film-makers face is that even when progress and successes are made, their films are not properly celebrated or archived. As if to illustrate this, at the time of writing, Bird’s emotionally devastating homelessness drama Safe is not listed on Wikipedia — and (somewhat bizarrely) listed as a “comedy” on IMDb.
What I love about Bird’s work — and what I think shows that her aims in some way correlate to the aims of Shelter Scotland — is that she strove to give a voice to the voiceless. There is a real drive through all her films to tell the stories that would otherwise go untold.
For example, The Hamburg Cell (which is still available to watch on 4OD) is a film made for HBO barely four years after the September 11th attacks, which told the story of the events leading up to those attacks — from the perspective of the terrorists. HBO buried the film, complaining to Bird that she had “let the terrorists talk”. Which raises the question: how can anyone expect to understand a person’s motives and fears and drives without hearing their voice? Care from 2000 is a story about people let down by the care system, helpless to do anything about that. And Safe — screening on Tuesday 16th at the Filmhouse — is a film about the homeless community in London.
Of course when most people think of ‘a British film about homelessness’, they think first of Cathy Come Home, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year (and currently on iPlayer!). There is no question over that film’s importance to British cinema and indeed British culture.
But how Safe differs is that it’s a story told from the perspective of those facing the trauma of homelessness, whereas Loach tells the story of a descent into homelessness. In the seminal 60s film Cathy learns of the horrors of the homelessness journey and the issues faced when the housing safety net fails, and we the audience learn through her experiences. But Safe is about people already coping (and not coping) with homelessness. They are the protagonists, and it is their story, told from their point of view.
Filmaker Mark Cousins (probably the most singular and distinctive voice in film criticism today) — described Safe as “the best British film ever made about homelessness”. (He made a 15 part, 15 hour documentary series about the history of innovation in World Cinema, so knows a thing or two about films.)