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Friday 20 September 2019

Collins's Irish song is heard in Tinseltown

Pat Collins's new film is Ireland's submission for the Foreign Language Oscar. Hilary A White meets the visionary West Cork filmmaker

Filmmaker Pat Collins. Photo: Arthur Carron
Filmmaker Pat Collins. Photo: Arthur Carron

'People don't pay any attention to me at all, really. Most people I know in West Cork probably don't know what I do." The films of Pat Collins trade off an elusive quality that approaches its subjects from unassuming angles. It's something of a comfort, therefore, to find the self-effacing Drimoleague native reflecting these traits off set.

He's still, he says, "not used to this", pointing at the dictaphone, and muttering about feelings of mortification when reading back his own quotes. He is, however, coming to terms with the fact that Song Of Granite, his newest work, may make flying below the radar a bit harder.

As Ireland's official submission for the Best Foreign Language category at next year's Academy Awards, this typically spectral, hypnotic portrait of sean-nos legend Joe Heaney may just pull the 50-year-old into a loftier limelight.

While he may not be thrilled at the notion, those who have followed his career as one of the most unique and visionary filmmakers in Europe feel this is where he rightly belongs. It's already begun, in fact.

"I was over in Los Angeles last week for a screening with some Academy voters," he says, "a meet-and-greet with people who were at the screening. It was interesting to see the film from an American perspective. They were all industry people, either editors or directors or production designers, people who have the vote. And what's interesting is that they meet it purely in terms of cinema, not culture - they don't find the sean-nos singing off-putting."

Hollywood, as far as Collins is concerned, is an entity that has produced some of his favourite films of all time. It is not, he insists, a destination that has been pined over as it is for so many.

"It was interesting in the same way as it's interesting to go anywhere," he reasons diplomatically. "I didn't feel part of it but I didn't feel outside of it either. You try to engage with it and see it how they see it.

"If this film gets into the shortlist of the last five then it becomes something else. People say it changes everything but no one's been able to tell me how. It's not like I'm trying to get into working in America."

Whatever Collins has been doing, it's working. Song Of Granite is already turning heads on the international film festival circuit and is his second dramatised film after 2012's award-winning Silence. Both films locate a woozy territory somewhere between documentary, film essay and feature drama.

He is perhaps better known, however, for his documentaries - two dozen to date. Some offer gilded, prismatic portraiture of individuals as diverse as cartographer (and author of the Connemara series) Tim Robinson, the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and Hibernian literary guru John McGahern.

More thematic works, meanwhile, such as What We Leave Behind and the mesmerising Living In A Coded Land have marked Collins as the most inspired film essayist of Irish society and culture operating today.

Even he can't deny his work is steadily attracting more and more interest.

"I made a conscious decision a few years ago to make stuff I'm completely interested in," he says. "It wasn't always like that - sometimes I had to take TV jobs that would definitely get off the ground. Irish subject matter is what I'm most driven by and there's an accumulation of work there. But now, with Song of Granite, I'm trying to hone it so that it's Irish but universal at the same time.

"As well as that, whatever talent I have, there's no point in making films like anybody else. But that's difficult as well because if you're trying to do something different, it can be hard to get funding."

Maybe it's down to the relative lateness of film's arrival on his radar that has led to Collins's uncontaminated style. Growing up in Drimoleague, arts and culture very much played second fiddle to politics and sports in the household. GAA and soccer were keen, community-wide obsessions while the Collins family were "non-discerning" telly addicts ("We had only one channel. In some ways, I wonder if my style was influenced by Dallas!).

"It was a small farm," he says of his childhood home. "I did think of the whole lifestyle as being just very slow and even-paced. I remember talking about this with [singer] Iarla O Lionaird about bringing the cows home for milking on a summer's evening, how you can't rush the cows, you have to walk at their pace. I don't know if that lifestyle fed into how I look at the world, but I try not to be too conscious of it really."

By the time he was 18 or so, as his friends were heading off to college, Collins had declined to fill out a CAO form and instead set the City of the Tribes in his sights. There, he hoovered up literature and cinema. In his early twenties, he took courses in foundational filmmaking and editing before finding himself as the editor of Film West magazine (this role would later lead to Collins being named programmer of the Galway Film Fleadh in the 1990s). Finally, at the age of 30, he set sail in filmmaking with a documentary about Limerick poet Michael Hartnett.

Collaboration and intuition have been ever-present elements. Along with regular foils such as Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride and Tadgh O'Sullivan, his wife and long-time creative partner Sharon Whooley is an integral part of Collins's methodology of teasing-out scripts scene-by-scene.

"I'm lucky in that she is very much the same as me," he says of Whooley. "We're very much in tune that way. Sharon makes her own films as well. We're next doing something on JM Synge on the Aran Islands."

The couple live with their school-going children in Baltimore, not 12 miles from where Collins grew up. From this vantage point, he has been able to view the universal in the local and continue to produce films that pan back enigmatically to illuminate hidden layers of this complicated little island. Until that shortlist is revealed, Tinseltown might as well be a fairytale. All Collins needs is right here.

"It's very easy to live in a bubble of Dublin or Cork. It's still a very varied, complex country, and it's still very tribal too, especially in the countryside. But it doesn't matter where you are from - what's most important is how you engage with that place. You have to find a way to love the place you're from, or else you're only half living."

Song of Granite is in selected cinemas nationwide from December 8

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