Loretta Goff journeys into Soulsmith, which screened at the Cork Film Festival.
Introducing the premiere of their debut feature at the Cork Film Festival, writer-director Kevin Henry and producer Séamus Waters spoke of two years earlier when they were working in a DIY shop talking about making a film. Soulsmith was a passion project for them both and they, along with the many cast and crew who made the trip to attend the screening, were happy to see the finished product on the big screen.
Soulsmith follows the journey of playwright Ed Smith (Matthew O’Brien) who, once successful in the Dublin theatre scene, has become frustrated with his work, his life and the state of contemporary society, critiquing everything from social media to ineffective politicians. After his father dies, Ed returns home to Mayo, taking this time to clear his head and rediscover his path. His search for meaning is aided by a reconnection with his friends and family, who offer honest conversation, and through solitary time spent reflecting on himself and his choices in the beautiful scenery of Mayo (captured by Stephen Walsh in some stunning shots). Realising he can’t tackle all of the world’s issues in his work, Ed is once again able to meaningfully articulate himself by focusing on those close to him.
Ed’s journey of self discovery in the film quietly confronts a number of issues relevant to modern Ireland. These range from the generation of highly skilled young people who cannot find jobs to a mentality being out for yourself or your own area but not caring beyond that, especially in terms of politics which leave some places and people largely unrepresented. The subject most powerfully dealt with in the film, however, is the association of masculinity with machismo and the inability to express or discuss emotion.
Though Ed is a blunt, outspoken character, much of his frustration stems from his inability to truly recognise and give voice to all of his emotions, particularly regarding his father’s death. The play he writes by the end of the film is a catharsis of this, and the result of his time spent with friends and in self-reflection. By presenting emotionally honest conversations between male characters as beneficial and necessary for moving forward, the film effortlessly breaks down the stereotypical archetype of the Irish man who can’t talk about his feelings. The advice—“don’t ever be afraid of a bad day, we all have them”—during a particularly poignant scene expressing male openness is something that should be spoken aloud more, especially given that the rate of suicide among young men in Ireland is one of the highest in Europe. Soulsmith effectively deals with death, grieving and the feeling of being lost through its characters, normalising emotional frustration and making these acceptable and necessary topics of discussion.
The film feels very observational in nature. From close shots of people walking in Dublin, pigeons, rippling water and characters’ faces to more expansive shots of mountains, lakes, beaches and group gatherings, we are like a fly on the wall throughout Ed’s journey and during his interactions, allowing us to fully relate to what he is going through and also to place our own emotional journeys within the context of the film. Further supporting this is the very natural acting from the entire cast, which deserves recognition, and the seamless weaving together of moments of brevity and seriousness.
Ultimately, Soulsmith takes the simple story of a playwright struggling to find the right words and makes it much more. Ed’s lost path stands in for broader societal and generational searches for meaning, equally reflected in the musings of his mother, friends and locals in pubs. His ultimate articulation and self-reflection is mirrored by the film’s own important reflections, philosophising and subtle commentary on modern Ireland. Soulsmith ends with Ed’s comment, “to me, it’s not about finding the right answers anymore, it’s about asking the right questions”—something which this film does successfully.
During the Q&A following the screening Henry, Waters and O’Brien noted that having the character of Ed be a writer was important as it offered a great way to tackle ideas and reflect on society. O’Brien was mindful of the contemporary situation in Ireland (especially in terms of joblessness) as he acted the role and enjoyed playing a complex character that was able to explore important issues, particularly masculinity. In addition to discussing Ed’s journey in the film, Henry and Waters (who met in college) also discussed the journey of the film itself. Starting out small, the film grew and the story developed with the huge amount of support received from family, the cast and crew, and the community (the film was primarily shot in Mayo, but also Dublin and Roscommon). Soulsmith is an intelligent film with a lot to offer and marks an accomplished debut from the pair.
Soulsmith screened on 20th November 2016 as part of the Cork Film Festival 2016 (11 – 20 November)