Friday, August 19, 2022

My Old School – driven, delusional and dishonest: a fantasist hiding in plain sight (QFT until 25 August)

Television documentaries tend to be quite formal and serious. They’re often logical, breaking down something complicated into easy-to-follow steps. My Old School throws those constraints out the window and offers a fabulous cinematic alternative format.

The first 45 minutes uses the recollections of classmates and teachers to tell the story of what happened when new boy Brandon Lee from Canada joined the sixth year Bearsden Academy. He carried a briefcase rather than a backpack. He’d more stubble that most of the lads. Could answer more teachers’ questions too. Bit of a loner. Though opened up to a few over time.

The presentation is comical, aided by playful cartoon animations of the pupils and teachers, and a evocative soundtrack. The classmates, often filmed in twos in an old classroom set, are chatty, comfortable with each other, and it’s soon apparent that mixed in with the remembering is more than a little hearsay and myth. They’re quite matter of fact about how various incidents raised alarm bells, but never quite loudly enough for anyone to call Brandon Lee out as being twice the age he was pretending to be.

The tone then changes and a lot of the levity drops as the filmmaker begins to unpick the legend of this Glaswegian Peter Pan imposter and considers how Brian MacKinnon was able to enrol in the school as Brandon Lee with no documentation. Which school figure took the blame for that? How could someone turn back time and make his own second chance to pursue a particular course at university?

There’s something wonderfully non-judgmental about the adults looking back on their classmate. My Old School conveys their sense of tender sadness that someone so driven, delusional and dishonest could dupe them so successfully. The documentary also has space to celebrate the positive influence Brandon had over some of his classmates, someone who inspired their musical tastes and propelled some towards their grown-up careers.

Director Jono McLeod – who has a personal involvement in the story – disentangles the lore from the reality. Contradictions abound. Many of former students come to realise that the rationale they’ve built up and carried for 25 years does not stack up, even when ever so gently challenged. Footage from a school musical in which Brandon had a lead role confounds a fellow cast member Val, who remembers a key romantic scene very differently: she’s probably the one figure who is left with an “icky” bad taste in her mouth at the realisation that a 32-year-old man kissed her on stage. Yet like everyone else, she too isn’t defined by the duplicity. 

Not everything can be resolved. A couple of key figures are missing. While we hear Brandon Lee’s voice during interviews, he chose not to be seen on screen, so his interviews are lip synced rather brilliantly by Alan Cumming. The teacher likely to have been responsible for Brandon’s enrolment declined to take part. Neither did a present-day doctor who seemed to have seen through the ruse by the time she left school, inviting Brandon away for an end of term holiday in the sun with some other classmates. Her absence, in particular, leaves a lot of unanswered questions about how much some people knew, and why any teenager would want to holiday with a thirty-something fraud.

No one who answered the call of director McLeod is made to look foolish. Instead, the film reveals how unreliable we can be as witnesses to what’s right under our noses. How authority figures can cover for each other. How being dishonest doesn’t always equate to criminal behaviour. How humans can see past being wronged and marvel at what happened rather than become angry or vengeful.

My Old School is stylish and full of substance. It’s incredibly well produced, and is a joy to watch. While clearly a passion project for the director, he’s definitely a talented storyteller to watch out for in the future. Strongly recommended. It’s being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 25 August.

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