Today: May 18, 2024

Director Pat Collins On Silence

Shelley Marsden speaks to Cork director Pat Collins about his unique feature film, Silence.

Silence follows the physical and psychological journey of Eoghan, a sound recordist from Tory Island who has lived in Berlin for the past fifteen and now returns to Ireland.  He’s back to carry out a job – capturing noises in areas which are free from man-made sound. His quest takes him to remote terrain, away from towns and villages. Though his aim is to get away from it all, he is drawn into encounters with locals, and conversations which gradually divert his attention towards a more intangible silence, bound up with the sounds of the life he had left behind.

Influenced by elements of folklore and archive, Silence uses poetic images of a barren Irish landscape and old archive footage to explore themes of history, sound and silence, memory and exile. As films go, it’s a slow one, almost an indulgence to watch. For those used to the cut and thrust of modern life in a metropolis, it’s almost a forced eighty minutes of quiet meditation.

Its creator Pat Collins has made some 25 documentaries since 1998 and his first foray into feature film – ten years in the making – is daring in its remoteness and snail-like pace. “Some of it comes out of my documentary experience, going to remote places and filming landscapes, making films about islands… but originally, about ten years ago, I wanted to make a film that was someway related to folklore collectors. In the 1940s in Ireland, people like Seamus Ennis would travel from house to house, recording stories and music. I always thought it was a romantic notion, someone travelling around on his bike, stopping in on people. I wanted to do something like that but in a modern setting, and I hit on the idea of a sound recordist trying to record sounds that aren’t man-made. In a sense, it’s the opposite of a folklore collector – he’s trying to get away from people but is getting drawn back to them.”

The natural landscape depicted in the film is almost a central character. Collins also drew inspiration from the book, The Hidden Island by Daniel Corkery, about Gaelic Ireland, which got him thinking about how landscape is thought to be clichéd in an Irish context.  Pat reflects: “It sounds very grand to be saying this, but I was trying to ‘reclaim’ landscapes and say, there’s more to it than that, present it as itself.  A lot of Irish filmmakers tend to run from a certain kind of Irishness, whereas I am trying to do the opposite. Irish people always try to make films which are somehow getting away from the past, or represent a rather sanitised version of it. They tend to make it a very bland place, and Ireland is anything but bland.”

Silence is also preoccupied with themes of exile, the difficulty of going home after being away and what you’ll find when you go back. “The person that leaves is changed by the experience, and the place that they left is either frozen in a certain time by that person, or when they come back it’s moved on. That’s why it’s so hard for immigrants to come back.  It’s an internal exile too, you can be exiled from your own past.”

Though the format of Silence is reminiscent of world cinema and its epic landscapes might be recreated well by a US director in, say, the North American Mid West, for Collins it could only have been made in Ireland. “I see myself for better or worse as an Irish filmmaker and my raw material is Ireland.  It’s not influenced by other Irish film either, except maybe the Irish documentaries of the 70s. I didn’t see documentaries from anywhere else at the time.”

Casting co-writer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride, as the strong, silent lead (he won the Dublin Critics Circle ‘Michael Dwyer Discovery Award’ 2012 for his role) was a masterstroke. Mac Giolla Bhride was someone upon whom Collins had had his eye,  since meeting him on Tory Island a decade ago: “I was making a documentary about the island and he was helping me with translations, things like that. We kept in touch over the years, and I had always thought he’d be great in this film. Eoghan is a writer in real life, not a sound recordist, and he’s from Gweedore in Donegal. But he brought a lot of himself to it.”

Some of the minimal dialogue was scripted but many of Eoghan’s conversations with locals were improvised around a rough theme and the original script was only thirty pages long. The locals Mac Giolla Bhride meets on his travels were only contacted a matter of weeks before filming, and when he meets them on screen, he is meeting them for the first time.  “I couldn’t have seen a more established actor playing the part. Actors would always be trying to ‘do’ something, whereas Eoghan was able to relax and be himself. It was an unusual experience, in that respect. In a way, he does so little, but an actor might not have found that so easy. It’s hard to understand what he’s thinking from his expressions, but that’s the intention. The audience has to work hard and bring themselves to the process.”

You could say it’s ‘hard’, but it’s also very meditative. Will there be people out there who will come out of a screening of Silence scratching their heads in frustration? The director has no doubt that will be so. “That’s a definite. One woman came up to me after a screening recently and said “I found Silence excruciatingly boring – but in a good way.” What she meant was that it was meditative rather than exciting. That’s what it is, it’s very slow – there’s no point selling it as something that it’s not. There are thousands of people who won’t like it, but a lot of people have liked it back home – people I wouldn’t have expected to like it. And that’s fine by me. You either dig that, or you don’t, you know what I mean?!”

Silence (New Wave Films) is in cinemas from August 9 (including the BFI Southbank)

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