NOT content to rest on their laurels, the filmmakers behind two of the most remarkable Irish films to emerge last year have been awarded production support for their next projects in the most recent round of Irish Film Board funding decisions.
Renowned for the documentaries What We Leave In Our Wake and the portrait of Iranian auteur filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, The Art of Living, Pat Collins’ fiction debut Silence, garnered much critical acclaim and was fêted abroad at events such as the London Film Festival.
Imbued with Collins’ documentary-style approach, Silence followed a sound recordist’s journey through the Irish landscape.
Also rooted in the Irish landscape was Listowel native Gerard Barrett’s feature debut Pilgrim Hill. Made on a shoestring budget of €4,500, his touching portrait of a middle-aged bachelor farmer secured him a Rising Star Award at the IFTAs. With Pilgrim Hill receiving its theatrical release next month, his next project, Glasslands, is still at the development stage but it will be intriguing to see what Barrett does with the €55,000 he received.
Also benefiting from funding is the feature-length debut of Cork filmmaker Pádraig Trehy. Titled Shem The Penman Sings Again, it promises to take a unique look at James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, one that will eschew conventional filmmaking styles.
“It isn’t a documentary and it isn’t a drama,” says the filmmaker, who maintains a film such as this would not be possible without Film Board support. Rather than being an academic work or a dramatisation of the book, which would be nigh on impossible, Shem The Penman Sings Again springs from a moment of fancy worthy of Joyce himself.
“The idea came through a rediscovery of John McCormack and a sort of faint memory of there being this apocryphal story of McCormack beating Joyce in the Feis Maitiú in 1904, and the realisation that that was completely false,” says Trehy.
Both McCormack and Joyce did indeed enter the competition, but in different years. McCormack, though, had encouraged Joyce to participate.
“So they had become friends in a very short space of time and I became fascinated with the idea of what if Joyce had decided to become a singer when he left in 1904 instead of becoming a writer. Was there even a pull in Joyce as to a career path? So it started literally with that.”
The film takes its title from one of the characters in Finnegans Wake. Alongside Shem is his twin brother Shaun the Post. Both are understood to represent Joyce and McCormack respectively. The Shaun character’s name comes from an incident in McCormack’s life when his father wanted him to sit an exam to become a postman. The writer and the singer first met in 1904 and kept in sporadic contact throughout their lives.
Trehy, who lectures on film at the CIT Crawford College of Art and Design, sees Joyce’s interest in opera as an important prism through which to view his work.
Noting that Shem and Shaun are twins, Trehy supposes the split in Joyce between writing and singing isn’t actually a real split at all; they’re pretty much the same thing. As Joyce’s blindness took hold throughout the 1920s and early ’30s, he became more dependent on performing the book out loud for his scribes, who included Samuel Beckett.
“They would literally transcribe his performance of the book. So the whole idea of performance then became a way for me to figure out an unlocking of Finnegans Wake. I kind of saw it as a book that needs to be sung as opposed to a book that needs to be read,” says Trehy.
Describing the film as an attempt to get inside Joyce’s head, Trehy is inspired also by the fact that the writer’s Volta cinema championed less mainstream films: Trehy proposes to take his cue on the visual style of the film from the styles or forms of cinema that would have existed during Joyce’s lifetime.
“I’ve always had this crazy notion that Irish cinema should follow Joyce, not other cinema. He’s really visual, and sound and vision in his books are unique.”
As evidenced by Silence, sound and vision are key considerations in Collins’ work. Silence will be released in Britain in August but the Cork filmmaker is ready to commence shooting his next film, Living In A Coded Land.
“I’m very happy with what we achieved with Silence,” he says. “I enjoyed working with fiction while maintaining the documentary sensibility. Sometimes the facts can hold you back when you are making a documentary. You are depending on others to say the words for you, so it was great to have more control of it. But that is why essay docs are more appealing for me now, making connections and links.
“The best part about making Silence was being able to put the way we viewed the country up on screen and explore subjects that may not have been explored before. Often Irish filmmakers spend a lot of energy trying to make Ireland look like anywhere else in the world, whereas I come from the opposite view. For me, that sense of place; in this case, the west of Ireland, is central to the film.”
For Living In A Coded Land, Collins brings his gaze to bear on the midlands, a place he contrasts to some of the more gentrified coastal areas. Those familiar with his essay approach will delight at his heady concoction of ideas: “For this film, I’m most interested in topics like the legacy and impact of colonialism, privilege, the residue of paganism, our disconnection from and our connection to the land. But the task is to create unexpected links between the past and the present, to look at the past to illuminate the present.”