Fionn Warren enters Twilight, Pat Collins’ latest documentary.
Acclaimed filmmaker Pat Collins (Silence, Song of Granite) returns to his documentary roots with Twilight, a beautiful collection of images that vividly capture the passing from daylight into darkness. Having spent two years filming across the breadth of Ireland, the images Collin’s ultimately selected for Twilight were all filmed in West Cork, mere minutes from his home. And it is no surprise as to why. We watch the orange light gradually fade from the still Baltimore sky as the darkness slowly creeps over the screen. Dark, grey clouds rush ominously past us as the last of the light is sucked away. We see all the vivid pinks and blues of the setting sun framed against the rugged Cork landscape.
At just under half an hour, Twilight is a meditative experience which combines beautiful visuals with a naturalistic and soothing soundtrack. The field recordings of sound artist Chris Watson reveal the noise of the clouds gliding by, a gull cawing in the distance, the gentle hum of a countryside uninterrupted by the modern world.
In Twilight, Collins has managed to capture the sense of stillness and calm that comes with the dwindling sunlight. Having undertaken the project to convey a world that is not so much holding its breath, but “breathing peacefully,” he has created a film in which the viewer is given time to do the same.
DIR: Pat Collins • WRI: Pat Collins, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride • PRO: Jessie Fisk, Alan Maher • DOP: Richard Kendrick • ED: Tadhg O’Sullivan • DES: David Blanchard, David Blanchard, Padraig O’Neill • CAST: Michael O’Chonfhlaola, Macdara O Fátharta, Leni Parker
Bobbing lights of humble fishing boats shine against the dark monochromatic backdrop of open water. A new Mother’s brow is patted dry as she breathes through the pain of childbirth. This is the beginning of Song of Granite and the beginning of Joe Heaney’s life story. The biography of the legendary sean-nós singer, Heaney, is told in three parts by director Pat Collins through breathtaking visual poetry and traditional song.
Song of Granite, directed, co-written and co-produced by Collins was selected by the Irish Film & Television Academy to represent Ireland as a submission to the 88th Academy awards. The film has been shortlisted for nomination in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, along with eight other entries from around the world.
It is a uniquely executed film that is difficult to define by genre. Song of Granite is mostly a dramatised account of Heaney’s life from birth to old age with a sampling of archive footage and voiceovers woven in. It is shot exclusively in black and white, blending the dramatic with the archive footage. This gives the entire film the look and feel of a documentary glimpse into the life of a pre-war rural Ireland. Scenes of a young Heaney scavenging for periwinkles and cutting turf with his father could easily be mistaken for remastered outtakes of the 1934 documentary Man of Aran.
The photography in Song of Granite is nothing short of enchanting. The composition of each shot is a picture perfect tableau. Scenes of Carna villagers gathered to share stories or to listen Heaney’s father could be on a vintage postcard or the subject of a Paul Henry painting.
The script, co-written by Collins, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride and Sharon Whooley, does not play out as a traditional plot. Instead, we are presented with a realistic look into the authentic life of an ordinary Irish man with an extraordinary talent. It is a refreshing take on a biopic, true to Collin’s documentarian roots. It is free from the obvious fact twisting and hyperbole that so often corrupts true stories to fit into classic cinematic narratives.
Most of the dialogue is delivered in Irish with subtitles. However, not much speaking goes on at all. This will be a relief to any viewers who, like myself, have regrettably lost every word of Irish since leaving school. The film is slow paced and peaceful. Only music seems to pierce the silent, calm nature of this film. In a tiny pub heaving with revellers, Heaney takes part in a trad session filled with so much raucous and immersive energy that the viewer feels incomplete without a pint in hand. The story is about Joe Heaney but it is the music that stars.
Collins has already proved to be a master of soundscape with his 2012 film Silence. Dozens of traditional Irish songs are heard throughout Song of Granite. Sometimes the mood is spirited and exuberant and other times the sound and focus are unbroken creating an incredible intimacy that allows the audience to fully engage with the moment. The poetry of these ballads will resonate with the audience for quite some time after viewing. Even those who are not fans of traditional music will surely feel the poignancy of these songs and will walk away humming some sean-nós to themselves.
In the first act, a young Heaney, portrayed by newcomer Colm Seoighe, spends his days exploring Connemara, doing his chores, playing with friends and spending time with his father. It is from his father that Heaney learned how to master his own gift of song. Throughout the first act we watch him gradually building up his confidence and his talent so that by the time we enter the second act and meet a now middle-aged Heaney played by Mícheal O’Confhaola, he has mastered the art of performance.
O’Confhaola plays Heaney with an apt subtlety without much outward emotion but a distinct touch of melancholy. Each incarnation of Heaney is superbly cast. Despite not bearing much of a physical resemblance to each other or the real Heaney, each actor delivers several electrifying traditional songs that recreate and capture the enormity of Heaney’s talent very well.
The third act of the film shows Heaney living in New York. Now in his 60s, played by Macdara Ó Fátharta, he recounts elements of his life history to an American interviewer. As he grows older and weaker he desires to return to his homeland where he can reconcile himself with his past and younger self
Song of Granite will be a very important film this year and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Irish culture. However, it may ask too much of its audience. Unless you are a die-hard trad music fan, the long sean-nós performances could be a bit of a workout for the attention span. Also, characters appear without much introduction and actors change with the passage of time, which is a tad confusing but not distractingly so. This is the story of a fragmented, tortured artist told in three fragmented parts. Song of Granite is a film that will sing to the heart and soul of any Irish person home or away.
Deirdre de Grae sings along to Song of Granite, Pat Collins’ portrait of the life of the great traditional singer, Joe Heaney,which screened at the 29th Galway Film Fleadh.
Song of Granite, was the opening film at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh. The film was introduced by the producer, Alan Maher (of Marcie Films), and the director, Pat Collins, who reminisced about his time as the Fleadh programmer in the 1990s. As this was the opening film, it screened to a full house, including cast and crew, as well as the featured musicians Lisa O’Neill and Damien Dempsey.
The black and white, lán Gaeilge, Song of Granite is a portrait of the sean-nós singer, Joe Heaney. It is difficult to define the film, and perhaps there is no need to try to do so – to fit it into clearly labelled folders of ‘genre’ and ‘format’. But there is a human tendency to desire classification, and an unfortunate necessity for entering film festivals, marketing and distribution. Although it was in competition with the feature films in the Galway Film Fleadh, it could just as easily be labelled as a documentary.
The dramatic portions of the film could be termed reconstructions, common in drama-documentary. The film also incorporates archive film and audio footage, so in this way, it could be billed either as feature documentary or a feature film. The archive footage of Irish emigrants in Glasgow and the reconstructions of the lives of Irish-speaking men in the UK reminded me of two previous screenings: the documentary, Men of Arlington (dir. Enda Hughes) and the feature film, Kings (dir. Tom Collins). Both of these films address the lonely, lost lives of single Irish men who find themselves turning to drink while living in London. In Song of Granite, the images of sad urban lives in the UK contrasted with the freedom and open air of Connemara. There is a physical feeling of relief to get back to Connemara and breathe the open air again, after watching the pub interiors, and the UK.
The 13-year-old Colm Seoighe gave an impressive performance playing the young Joe Heaney, and reminded me of both a young Domhnall Gleeson and Cillian Murphy: Domhnall Gleeson in his colouring and his screen presence, and Cillian Murphy in his eyes and expression. Colm did not appear to be fazed by the camera and crew, perhaps due to the small crew size, but also likely a testament to the director’s skills in putting him at his ease. He is a fantastic young actor and I hope that he is encouraged to pursue acting as he gets older.
The most notable aspect of this film was the soundscape – the sound recording team and the sound editing team need to be commended. As is evidenced in Pat Collins’ previous film, Silence, sound is intrinsic to his work and sound design is key to Song of Granite also. There is a wealth of atmospheric and ambient sounds used, with the focus on the sea, nature and song – whereas dialogue is kept minimal. By suppressing the visual elements (dark scenes, suppression of light, monochrome), the senses are focussed on sound instead.
At the same time, this is a highly cinematic, photographic film, deservedly winning an award for cinematography at the Fleadh this year for Richard Kendrick. There is a dream-like quality to this film: it is beautifully shot, there is a wonderful atmosphere, it is restful – you can get carried along with the film with your imagination and drift away – however, there isn’t a narrative, in the traditional sense of a feature drama film. The viewer would nearly need to know the story of Joe Heaney before watching, to understand what’s going on. The reconstructions are particulate and bitty, they don’t string together in a narrative structure – they are isolated reconstructed dramatisations. If you are a person who likes to watch a film for story, this might frustrate you. However, for me, the impressive acting of Colm Seoighe, the beautiful cinematography and the wonderful soundscape made this an enjoyable experience, and rose above the lack of a traditional narrative structure.
While I imagine the previous screenings at Karlovy Vary and SXSW took on an ethnographic-cultural tone (for example, the filmmakers had to explain what sean-nós was in U.S. interviews), in Galway, there was very much a sense of the film ‘coming home’. The Irish language was not a barrier to this audience, comprising of the film crew, Connemara-based cast and a who’s-who of the film and television industry in the west – with whom the landscape and lives portrayed resonated. The crowd was very responsive to the traditional music ‘sessions’ on screen, and some older audience members around me sang along to ‘The Galway Shawl’, which was a very sweet moment. After one long sean-nós session, the cinema audience applauded along with the on-screen audience, as they felt intimate with the scene.
Pat Collins’ Song of Granite transcends genre and strict, static definitions. I hope that he, as an Irish auteur, will be included in the canon of Irish filmmakers, and to see his work in ‘Irish film’ courses across Ireland and internationally.
Song of Granite screened on Tuesday, 11th July 2017, as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (11 – 16 July).
Song of Granite will be released in Irish cinemas on 24th Nov 2017.
National Film School Lecture Series [in association with Bord Scannan na hEireann / The Irish Film Board] present Pat Collins, IFTA Winning Documentary Maker
Pat Collins is one of the best documentary makers working in Ireland today. A former editor of Film West magazine, he has won multiple awards for his work, including: Michael Hartnett: A Necklace of Wrens (1999); Oileán Thoraí (2002); Abbas Kiarostami; The Art of Living (2003); Marooned (2004), John McGahern: A Private World (2004); Gabriel Byrne – Stories From Home (2009); Tim Robinson: Connemara (2011); and Living in a Coded Land (2014). In 2013, his first fiction feature, Silence, was widely acclaimed.
Date: Wednesday 12th November @ 12.00 noon Venue: C036, Carriglea Building, IADT, Dun Laoghaire
Stephen Totterdell deciphers Living in a Coded Land, Pat Collins’ film essay that makes unexpected links between events and locations, history and contemporary life. The film screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
This film tries too hard. It’s extremely self-indulgent.
And yet, it offers sound analysis of Irish society in a way that most films don’t. It makes no concessions to its audience, and can come across as preachy; but if its viewers can stick with it they will find value. It excavates – slowly – some of the ideology at the heart of modern Ireland. It offers a vocabulary for liberation in a thoughtful manner, rather than a shouty manner.
There has been much talk about the reasons for Irish artist’s disinterest in critiquing Irish society during the financial crisis. Most writers and filmmakers seem content to ignore what has been happening, and write about tea instead; or the power of sticking together or whatever. A few, such as the poet Dave Lordan or the novelist Julian Gough, do their best to shoot from the sidelines. It is still rare, though, and that makes this film a welcome manifestation of concern.
The code of the title is the set of behaviours, mannerisms, social rules that one learns to manipulate in order to rise to the top. Those who achieve it aren’t necessarily the best or the brightest; they just know the right things to say in order to slip through. More often that not, this is due to an accident of birth; they were born into a “good” family or they went to a certain school. They learn to latch onto the part of society that rises to the top. Whereas in the past it might have been the world of oil (or milkshakes), today it is finance
What the film achieves is that it makes explicit the mechanisms at work, so that laymen can understand them. It demystifies the processes at work, which will hopefully help the population to feel more confident in criticising those processes. It is easy for those in these high status positions to accuse the “lower” classes of being overly passionate or not knowing the specifics of a situation, but, as with the many violations of the last few years, we can see that these “higher” classes don’t really know the specifics either. It’s a power system, and this film attempts to teach people to navigate it in order that they can begin to dismantle it.
That is an ambitious and admirable project. That Collins indulges in too much arthouse imagery is forgiveable, but I hope that he improves on this front in the future. This is one of the few contemporary Irish artworks that tries to say something important.
DIR/ PRO: Pat Collins • DOP: John Conroy • ED: Tadhg O’Sullivan • Camera: Colm Hogan, Feargal Ward • Sound: John Brennan
Ambitious, intelligent and beautiful to watch, Living in a Coded Land marks an impressive follow-up to Silence for director Pat Collins and his talented team. The film investigates the Irish landscape, people and their culture, making interesting links between past and present.
The film makes a sustained argument, explaining contemporary Ireland through its past, so Living in a Coded Land plays as an essay film. It develops an original idea of historian Dr Patrick J O’Connor, taking places such as the Hill of Uisneach, the site of the Battle of Aughrim (1691), Castletown House and Dublin’s former tenement buildings and interrogating them for possible meaning or codes. It traces the emergence of an influential middle class in Ireland that acts as intermediaries for foreign capital. Historians Conor McCabe, Heather Laird and Tony Farmar provide the commentary.
The nature of the relationship between art, culture and politics forms another strand that runs through the film. Folklorist Henry Glassie talks about “the universal of the contextual … of the local”. Collins weaves particular places and artworks into a grander narrative. He even matches discussions of culture with contemporary scenes from GAA matches and practice sessions, expanding the cultural realm to include the national sports.
Living in a Coded Land boasts poetic qualities that make it an enchanting documentary. Collins fills his film with characteristic long takes and striking images (notably a stark moon shining over a still lake). His use of music and archival footage is particularly effective, indulging in sequences in which Séamus Ennis plays his pipes and accordion player Tony McMahon entertains a hall full of students. Austere piano accompanies a sequence in which Dublin’s Georgian buildings decline into the slums. Poets Seamus Heaney and Michael Hartnett read their works, complementing the film’s carefully composed images, rhythms and sounds.
Living in a Coded Land presents an imaginative and thoughtful look at Ireland’s past, an explanation for its present and hopes for the future.
Living in a Coded Land is released on 25th April 2014
The Irish Film Festival London has been presenting the latest and greatest of Irish Film and Animation to a London audience since 2011. This year Harrison Drury attended the festival to see how it promotes the best of Irish creative talent in the UK.
Here Harrison reports from the second night’s screening of Pat Collins’Silence, with the director participating in a post-screening Q&A, plus a screening of Ruth Meehan’s short Men and Women.
Silence, Pat Collins’ meditation on the themes of sound and silence, history, memory and exile, brought Ireland’s pure green countryside to Hammersmith, last Thursday, 21st November 2013 for the Irish Film Festival London.
Sound recordist Eoghan (Eoghan MacGiolla Bhride), returns to Ireland, after many years, on a job capturing noises in areas free from man-made sound.
He seems to represent migration, and the empty silence; the depopulation of the countryside.
He is like a monk on a pilgrimage with his long hair and beard or even a wizard. He wanders alone through the woods and over the bleak yet beautiful landscape. He has a heightened sense of hearing, achieved through a microphone and a pair of headphones.
The sound in his headphones makes up the soundtrack, for the most part. This trick lets the audience in on his world where everything is amplified. Cars sound like spaceships, the wind like howling ghosts and the sea like a tempest.
At points the sound seems to come from his memories too, swirling in and out into extended silences in a style similar to Terrence Malick.
Collin also holds a shot, like Malick, capturing the way the wind blows in the grass or the rain falls on the water.
Collins likened the experience to prayer and there is something spiritual about it. As Eoghan is seeking out areas free from man-made sound he is effectively seeking out solitude. He seems lonely, desolate even. And when he finds relative silence and with it solitude, it became uncomfortable to watch. It was as though the place he was in physically reflected the place he was in spiritually. So, his physical search for these areas may be seen as a spiritual search as well, but for what?
Collins commented: “It’s about yourself, a younger version of yourself or of how can people can lose touch with themselves.”
I am aware this all sounds a little vague but it was, and I think that was the intention of the filmmakers.
Collins cited “Abbas Kiarostami the Iranian filmmaker and he has this theory of a half-made film and in a way that was kind of a thing that we wanted to explore. The audience would have to bring themselves to the story.”
Silence successfully explores this theory in that it is half-made or unfulfilled. Unfulfilled in the sense it alludes to various themes but does not explore them in earnest. It is also so slow. Though this all contributes to the meditative qualities of a very beautiful film.
Silence was preluded by Ruth Meehan’s Men and Women, a sombre piece about an unhappy couple over the Christmas of 1979.
This short film is shown through the eyes of their nine-year-old Roisin (Sophie Scully), and also with her eyes which grow cold as her own tragedy of lost innocence plays out.
Sad and gloomy, Men and Women has been put together delicately by Meehan. Subtle scenes direct the audience while not spelling it out for them. There are well judged performances all round but Scully steals the show.
Based on a short story of the same name from Clare Keegan’s award-winning collection Antarctica.
The Irish Film Festival London took place 20th – 24th November 2013