Friday 18 August 2017

Sound of silence stills

Film of the week
Silence (G, limited release, 84 minutes)

Beauty: The wild landscape of rural
Ireland forms the backdrop to Silence
Beauty: The wild landscape of rural Ireland forms the backdrop to Silence

Paul Whitington

Pat Collins seems drawn to silence, and the interesting things that happen when one removes oneself from the furious clamour of modern human life.



In his outstanding 2005 TV documentary on the late John McGahern, A Private World, he used ticking clocks and soundless long shots of McGahern striding through country lanes with his dogs to get to the heart of the life, work and formidable concentration of that most dedicated artist.

And in his 2002 film Oilean Thorai, high winds and buffeting seas formed a constant aural backdrop to an insightful portrait of Tory Islanders.

This new film expands on themes explored in both those documentaries, but also delves deeper into the rich and mysterious possibilities of stillness.

In Berlin, a young Irishman called Eoghan O'Suilleabhain (Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride) packs a bag and prepares to travel home to Ireland. Even in the city, he seems obsessed with the sounds around him, and stands at his window listening to the competing rhythms of cars, trains, footfall and human voices. Sound is his work -- he appears to be some kind of recordist -- and the journey he's about to embark on will be an almost Quixotic search.

He's been commissioned to wander the western coastline of Ireland recording landscapes free from man-made sound.

A task much trickier than it sounds, and one compounded by Eoghan's brooding emotional turmoil: it later emerges that he hasn't been back to Ireland in 15 years, and that his journey has personal as well as professional motives.

He moves from the southwest through Mayo, Sligo and Donegal, seeking out places beyond the range of public transport.

In lonely, windswept plains, on battered coasts and in half-forgotten woodlands, he sets up his equipment and puts on his cans and listens, but time and again pristine natural sounds are disturbed by distant mechanical murmurs -- humming cars, roaring jet planes, the ominous thump of an invisible lump hammer.

But Eoghan seems unperturbed, even grimly determined: he camps out in all weathers and spends hours on end standing still in one spot like a heron waiting for the unsuspecting fish.

As he delves deeper into the unexplored recesses of the west, he draws closer to his esoteric goal, and meets the odd kindred spirit.

In what looks like Mayo, he runs into a middle-aged writer who lives alone and is equally in tune with the natural landscape. He invites Eoghan back to eat, and in one of this film's rare moments of conversational conviviality, the writer tells him how he once yearned to travel but ultimately realised that all that was valuable about human experience could be gained from staying in one spot.

Though Eoghan says little and gives even less away, this theme of belonging and homeland is for him a vexing one. And as he continues his quest he inches ever closer to the tip of Donegal and the boat to Tory, his own long-lost home place.

Silence is a remarkable film: daring, original, even groundbreaking in its way. Though my -- or indeed any -- description of the film will make it sound pretentious and offputtingly arid, in fact it's anything but. Eoghan's task might be ethereal, but Collins grounds his film deep in the western soil.

At an interview during this year's Dublin Film Festival, Collins said that Silence had been inspired by the folk archivists who travelled Ireland in the 1930s and 40s recording songs and stories that might otherwise have been forgotten. In a sense Eoghan is after something even more elusive.

In Patricio Guzman's recent documentary Nostalgia for the Light, a scientist explained how modern technology allows us to record the distant echo booms of the Big Bang.

If that is doable, Eoghan and Collins seem to be arguing, isn't it also possible that lost generations of people have left traces of their songs and voices in the air?

In ways Silence is the exact inverse of your average multiplex blockbuster, that uses loud noises and fast editing to cow the brain and make thought impossible.

In Collins' film, beautiful slow shots of our solemnly gorgeous western landscapes are accompanied not by lush, manipulative music, but by the painstakingly recorded sounds of winds and trees and moving water. In this open cinematic space, Eoghan's search becomes everyone's search, for what is lost, missing, lamented.

And fittingly, Eoghan's painful journey home is mirrored by a slow linguistic drift from German to English to the high courtly rhythms of Tory Island Irish.

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