Part documentary and part fiction, Pat Collins’ Silence is an Irish evocation of one man’s long journey home.
Into The Wild by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Let us take a moment to consider. A man stands with his back to camera. We see the landscape he sees and an impenetrable percolation of thought, the tilt of a head, a sudden turn. From Gus Van Sant’s Elephant to Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines, this modern cinematic framing is a risky device, either drawing us in and aligning us with our hero or coldly observational, shutting us out. But having directed countless documentaries, Pat Collins’ debut feature is a prime example – its open-ended, non-professional and anti-dramatic acting includes the spectator in creating story, in direct opposition to the entertainment value of a traditional, scripted film with professional actors and a closed story. It’s a question of audience involvement – intellectual puzzles versus emotional catharsis, an irreconcilable dialectic between heart and head.
A sound recordist living in Berlin, Eoghan (Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride) is hired to capture silence on tape. Escaping the urban noise of the German capital, he returns to Ireland to record the noises of drumlin, lough and esker. But unable to escape man-made noises, he’s driven around the country towards his island home, as slowly his journey becomes a search for peace. Interleaved with archive footage, photographs and traditional sean-nós songs, his sound recordings evoke the spirit and lost time of the places he visits, the island drawing him back to his roots. Eventually, he returns to Tory, the isolated islet he grew up on. And, singing folk tunes and speaking Irish Gaelic, Eoghan contemplates the empty, derelict isle of home.
Like the starlings on a remote Scottish island that pass on the sound of Fifties’ lawnmowers from generation to generation, Pat Collins’ Silence is an eerie evocation of a lost world. Archive footage of Irish men and women leaving the Emerald Isle, along with traditional lamentation songs of exile, create a sense of what once was in the desolate and abandoned places Eoghan visits. With over 25 documentaries to his name, Pat Collins’ feature debut is in essence a film about the documentary process – the search for story encapsulated by Eoghan’s search for silence. Even Eoghan’s rebuff of the chirpy publican’s starling story with a declamatory “I’m looking for quiet not stories” draws a parallel between the ephemera filmmakers and sound recordists are looking for. Setting up his mic in empty meadows and walking off, quiet becomes almost mechanical within Collins’ empty frames of landscape and furry microphone – an absence where man is not. And it’s a rather antisocial quest to escape people, but gradually, after a chance encounter with a writer in retreat in his mother’s house, silence takes on a more personal meaning, less the absence of noise, and more a soul-stilling peace. The Irish words for silence – thost and ciúnas mark the difference, ciúnas suggesting a velvety stillness, a hushing that evokes the sounds of the past. Like ghostly voices carried on the wind, Eoghan’s quest mutating into a search for a very Irish kind of peace.
With the wind revealed in ripples on a river’s surface or rain drops caught in the splash on tarpaulin, Silence evokes the manifestations of sound. It’s not always accurate – a kind of beauty found in the slippage between the sight of a dog barking and the delayed noise. But there’s a documentary realism to the dialogues and locations, which gives way to a poetic realism of disassociation – grass and birds singing in an ordinary hotel room. Throwing his mic underwater or attaching it to glass, Eoghan tries to find different kinds of silence – a trajectory from the S-Bahn announcements and car tyres crossing Berlin’s tram tracks to a textured stillness. Like Eoghan’s Gaelic rendition of A Pháidí a Grá – a Donegal lament about a woman urging her lover leaving for America to stay, lest she drown herself – the first note always comes out of silence. And silence evokes song – a melody of photographs, archive footage and traditional sean-nós that conjure the spirit of a soundless place. Instead of being drowned out by urban noise, the journey into silence, through Donegal Bay, Mullaghmmore and Letterkenny all the way to Tory is a return to roots, like Hölderlin’s Lebenslauf. A self-affirming silence, which in Eoghan’s family home, wrecked by time, is a cacophony of clamouring memories – corncrakes, voices, footsteps, singing and the sea.
Summoned up through sound, image and song as well as maps and the curves and lines of landscape, Pat Collins’ Silence is a very Irish film. And Eoghan’s journey, moving from English into Irish, is linguistic as much as it is personal – moving into the Irish landscape and singing in Gaelic at a campfire Is Trua nach Bhfuil Mé in Éirinn – a song about the vastness of Ireland and the emotional importance of home. It’s thought-provoking and challenging – as any ruminative anti-dramatic film on the spiritual texture of silence is likely to be. But in its evocation of an abandoned country and the rooted nature of peace, Pat Collins’ Silence is deafening in its defence of the quiet life.
Silence is released on 9th August 2013 in the UK