The first feature from Cork filmmaker Pat Collins continues his documentary style of evoking a strong sense of place, says Alan O’Riordan
IN THE films of Pat Collins, you can sometimes see at work Patrick Kavanagh’s distinction between the provincial and the parochial. His films are often set in the quiet places, but there is nothing provincial about them: there is, instead, a cosmopolitan conviction about the importance of places, even out of the way ones.
Whether exploring Connemara with its great cartographer Tim Robinson, or recording John McGahern in his still, rural world, Collins never fails to make clear that wallowing in the habitual need never be banal. As he says himself, “A sense of place is almost a way of life”.
Even the Drimoleague, Co Cork-born director’s first feature film after two decades making documentaries, Silence, is continuous with this meditative, psycho-geographical aspect of his work. It follows a sound engineer who leaves Berlin for Ireland in search of soundscapes free from human intervention. Silence has a beguiling, almost meandering quality, as if, in the way of a documentary, it is finding out what kind of film it is as it goes along. Indeed, though the film is scripted, the dialogue is not, so there is a kind of elliptical, understated quality to it that is extremely life-like.
Yet, says Collins, there are things he did in Silence that were only possible through fiction. “I wanted to make a contemporary fiction film in Ireland that was free from a lot of the baggage that is usually associated with Ireland, where I could film the landscape head-on, not shy away from it,” he says.
“People often use landscape as a backdrop but I wanted it to become a major part of the film, the way that landscape is a major part of life. It sounds highfalutin’ but I wanted to take the themes that many Irish people ridicule Ireland for and put them out there as worthy of attention and consideration. And I felt that I could only do this through fiction.”
To coincide with the release of Silence, the IFI is running a retrospective of his work. Collins admits he is loath to spend time dwelling on his films, but he does admit that the backward glance makes one thing clear: “Ireland is important to me.”
He’s not sure why, though. “I bring most things back to it,” he says. “I think growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, young people like myself were encouraged to hate what was around us and I was never comfortable with that. The small village, the small farm, the conservative nature of the society. We were supposed to even hate the notion of a united Ireland.
“But the place where I grew up was only conservative in terms of mass observance and general disapproval of ‘loose morals’. The people themselves were much more complex. It could be bitter and cruel but it could also be gentle and full of vitality. And opinion was much broader than is given credit for. All of life was in the small villages. People singing on street corners. The local guard quoting Joyce. Punk bands in the parish hall.
“At a certain point I spent some time in England and visited Scotland, mostly for the music, I think, but when I went to Galway and read certain books, spent time in the Burren, Connemara and the Aran Islands, heard Irish spoken in the streets of Galway, it did have a big impact on me.”
Books and the Irish language are to the fore in some of Collins’s most affecting films, his portraits of the poets Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Michael Hartnett, and of the writer John McGahern, each of whom, says Collins, is a reflection of aspects of Ireland.
“Though I was much younger than Hartnett, I did feel a connection in terms of the society that we were raised in,” he says. “The world of my upbringing wasn’t that much different. Even with McGahern, the society that he wrote about was very familiar to me. The role of the church, neighbours and so on. That They May Face the Rising Sun was uncanny for me in terms of recognition.”
Perhaps it is because Collins can recognise McGahern’s world of unsentimental country people that he is such a great depictor of rural landscape. There is an anecdote in Silence, told by a barman in Baltimore, about an uninhabited island on which the starlings still mimic the noise that was made by lawnmowers decades before, when people still lived there. For Collins, it seems, the search for sounds free of human interference is doomed. “I don’t like the notion of a countryside kept pristine for the holiday home owners who visit twice a year. Our landscape owes its look to human occupation. People have realised that in the Burren and it is true elsewhere too.”
* Poetic Truths: The Cinema of Pat Collins is at the IFI until Aug 21. Silence is at selected cinemas and available to download from www.Volta.ie
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