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The Chimney Swift

A short documentary based on the writing of a real sweeper master, The Chimney Swift is whole lot bleaker than Mary Poppins' "Chim Chim Cheree" would lead you to believe

A flock of chimney swifts flies in the sky

If Canadians think at all about chimney sweeps today, it's most likely in the context of Mary Poppins. No surprise that a whimsical musical whose most memorable lesson is about sweetening things to make them palatable wouldn't dive too deep into the truth of that profession. Suffice to say, if The Chimney Swift's depiction is anywhere near accurate, Dick Van Dyke would probably be a whole lot less happy about his occupation.

Based around a first-hand account from a real British sweeper master, Frédéric Schuld's short documentary quickly dispels any romanticism there might be around what was essentially a deadly form of torture and enslavement. The narration is matter of fact, although it's hard not to hear a little sadness in the delivery, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that the sweeper master himself is trapped in a cycle of abuse. The animation doesn't dwell on the story's most explicit imagery—but that doesn't make it any easier to watch.

Schuld uses crude pencil and charcoal drawings to accompany the story, the thick lines and gritty textures echoing the grime and claustrophobia faced by children as young as four years old. The film's extreme perspectives and narrow angles can make for confusing viewing on first watch, as it can take a minute to orient yourself to any given shot. If you ever get lost, though, the narrator is there, describing vicious cruelty as if they it's the most normal thing in the world.

Given how much of The Chimney Swift's power comes from its narration, you might wonder why use animation to tell the story instead of more conventional documentary imagery—Ken Burns style photography, say. Schuld says that stylized 2D animation "create[s] a unique access to a multi-layered story of fate through metaphoric images." Still photos, especially stills from the early days of photography, have a way of distancing us from what we're seeing. We think of them as objective, but we also see them as historical. The things they show happened long ago, and so we're able to gloss over them and not really see them.

Films like Schuld's, on the other hand, engage the imagination by forcing you to find the parallels between the story and the images. Sometimes the image echoes the narration. Other times it contrasts it, hitting a note of emotional dissonance that pulls you in closer to try to resolve the disconnect. It isn't an easy watch, but given the subject matter, it really shouldn't be. There's no artificial sweetening here, just a story of casual, systematic cruelty from the not-distant-enough past.

The Chimney Swift

dir: Frédéric Schuld

syn: A British chimney sweeper describes his everyday routine of forcing young kids to become workers. While we observe a kid cleaning a chimney, the master's statement gets more personal with every sentence until we understand, that he is speaking about his own past. Being locked in a vicious circle there seems to be no exit.


Director statement by Frédéric Schuld:
The idea for the film is based on an early childhood memory of a bird falling down my grandparent’s fireplace. It is one of those vague memories that stays. After researching the systematical abuse of the 19th century children chimney sweepers, I connected the dots.
Like in my previous film “Carlotta’s Face” I use hand drawn 2D animation with a personal style to be able to create a unique access to a multi-layered story of fate through metaphoric images.