Broken Song turns the camera on street poets, hip-hop artists and songwriters from north Dublin. For the young men featured in the film, self-expression in the form of poetry, rap and song has become a spiritual experience. Anthony Assad chats to director Claire Dix about music, redemption and the struggle to find and articulate meaning in an often chaotic world.
What lead you to the subject of north Dublin hip-hop scene?
Well I knew nothing about the Irish hip-hop scene but I got introduced to it and there was something there in the message of the music and the lyrics and the poetry, and something interesting about what they were saying and how they were saying it. I wanted to find out more about the guys doing it and the more I found out about them the more interested I was.
Can you explain the title?
Broken Song came after having a working title for a while. It has a double meaning in a way because the rap is almost like a deconstructed song, it’s very staccato and broken down, and the other meaning is kind of a loose reference to how you’re on a knife edge throughout the film. This guy really trying to make it with his music but having all these issues where he might go to prison.
The opening sequence incorporates some really beautiful black and white imagery of the artists floating above water in slow motion and becomes a reoccurring motif. What was the intention behind that?
I suppose you go down a dark passage in a past life and we wanted these underwater sequences to represent the past. We filmed a lot of the landscape because that was the landscape that inspired a lot of their music. All of these housing estates were going to be featured a lot in the film anyway that show the present day and we thought about using this idea of water to represent the past. Also kids go swimming a lot in Dublin and we knew there would be swimming sequences in the film, so we thought of water as a way of tying memory and the past. Sometimes these things just work, I think some people love it and some people hate it.
I loved it. I thought it was great and it caught my attention straight away. You mentioned the exteriors of these north Dublin housing estates, and they are in colour but are kind of veiled in this surreal, misty palette. What was the intention behind that?
Richard Kendrick (cinematographer) helped devise an underwatery look to link in with the underwater sequences and the water theme that runs throughout. So he gave it that dreamy feel. And I suppose it comes back to the importance of the landscapes, and we hold for quite a while on these landscapes, because this is where they’re from. These are what inspired the rappers and we wanted to give it this poetic lens. We wanted the viewers to really look at those landscapes, maybe for a little longer than they otherwise might have.
It almost looks like a painting, especially when you get used to the black and white.
Yeah and Richard Kendrick had a really good eye for that.
The opening specifically is really soulful, some say might spiritual. Was that to get the viewers to maybe transcend their notions and stereotypes of hip-hop and north Dublin?
I’m glad you mentioned the opening. Costello is actually a very spiritual guy and for him rap and hip-hop is a spiritual experience. He talks about his music as not only an art form but says ‘it’s not me’, ‘it’s beyond art’, ‘it’s my religion’. It has given his life purpose so we wanted to highlight that spiritual poetic element in the opening and set us on that path.
With the Arts Council you are able to experiment a bit with the filming and this was my first documentary but I had that luxury to, if I saw something in my head, to just go with it.
Willa Lee is very explicit about his past and current offences, and the music kind of offers him a chance for salvation. As an audience we are never forced to sway in favour or against him, he’s a creative individual but with violent tendencies. Were you worried that viewers would dislike Willa and the documentary would be accused of sensationalising his endeavours?
It’s always difficult making a film about a real person because people want be shown something they haven’t seen before and to engage with the character, but then you have to remember that this is a real person who’s only 19 or 20. So I suppose we were conscious about it. When we came to edit we wanted you to get to know him, and we see him going to court but only later find out what he did.
People are complex and we weren’t making any judgements. I don’t know what people who walked out of the cinema thought of him but I know him as a person and I think he’s a good guy who did some things in the past that he’s really not proud of and he regrets it every day. But then he did do them.
I think you did a good job of making him balanced. One of the artists says he wants to find something to die for, that’s his ultimate wish in life. A lot of the artists have lived dangerous lifestyles but they all seem to believe that their music offers a way out, that in their music is something pure that is worth dying for. Without being arty-farty, is that something you relate to in terms of your own artistic endeavours?
I suppose yeah, I love filming and I love stories, whether they are fiction or through documentaries. I love meeting people and hearing their stories. Filmmaking is tough as well, it takes so much out of you, especially with a family, but I think it’s worth it.
On the choice of black and white, there are instances where the subjects nearly blend in with their environment, with a lot of the greys overlapping coupled with the depth of field. Was this to reflect that their personalities, their faults, their creativities are all subjects of their environments?
It was black and white because again I wanted them seen in an almost poetic way, and that was an idea I had when we were first conceiving the idea of the documentary. Maybe it’s because I love black and white film. But that’s interesting about them blending into the back, I don’t know if that was intentional. We had such talented camera people and their framing was really beautiful. There’s that lovely pan from the darkness onto Willa when he’s getting the tattoo and that’s beautiful.
Film is such a collaboration. You know how people say ‘Claire did that film’, or ‘a film by…’ I really don’t like that because everyone, Hugh Drumm the composer, all the guys shooting it, Nodlag Houlihan who produced it, Guy Montgomery who cut it, we all made it.
Broken Song is released on Friday, 15th November 2013.