Gemma Creagh sat down with Alan Maher of Marcie Films to discuss the ins and outs of producing Pat Collins’ Song of Granite, the life story of traditional Sean-nós singer Joe Heaney, from County Galway.
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.