Pat Collins is the director and co-writer of Silence: a film about Eoin (Mac Giolla Bhríde), a sound-recordist returning to Ireland from his German exile to bear recorded witness to spaces free from man-made sound. Released theatrically on July 27th 2012 and available online through Volta.ie, the film occupies a formal space between documentary and fiction: a daring project in the context of world cinema and particularly within the Irish film industry, from a director whose concerns are both global and immediately, distinctively Irish.
“There’s a sense nowadays, in Ireland, that history is history, you know? ‘Let’s not bother talking about it and just keep going’. It’s all about progress, and it’s been that way for a long time now,” Collins remarks of the immediacy of modern Irish life: “In Ireland, we’ve been very good at getting rid of things that were once dear to us. In that sense, maybe we’re very non-conservative. I think there are a lot of things, in our history, that have gone unexamined. For example, it’s only in our recent past that we’ve really started talking, digging deeper, into the Famine, and how that affected the country. I made a documentary about the Famine in West Cork (2009’s Famine In Ireland: Remember Skibbereen), and I get the sense that we haven’t emerged from it all unscathed. It affects how communities, towns, consider themselves. We’re constantly talking about the positive effects of colonisation, with no popular examination of its real effects.”
It’s strange, I say, then, that Ireland is never really referred to as a post-colonial society, despite being less than a century into its autonomy. “I think it would be foolish for people to think that there are no consequences, psychologically, to colonisation. I just can’t understand that.” The examination of such echoes seems to be fundamental to Collins’ project.
The “haunting” qualities of sound are touched upon often in Silence, with a soundtrack that sometimes almost seems independent of the film, or has Eoin listening back to previous recordings made hyper-real in the context of third-person listenership. “There’s something desperately sad, you know, about sounds, natural sounds, disappearing or going extinct. Like the call of the corncrake or whatever it is. They’re disappearing all the time,” Collins sighs. “There’s this great book by David Toop called Sinister Resonance, and he talks about sound being ‘a haunting’, and I think it’s often used in film that way.” At one point, Eoin observes a wall of photographs of previous residents on Inishbofin in the local museum, while the conversation he has with the curator, a young woman, slides in and out of synchronicity with the visual diegesis, as she describes how the onset of modernity affected the lives of the island’s residents, and her own family’s history.
There’s a story told in Silence about an island off the coast of Scotland, which has been deserted for nearly 30 years, but the sounds made by lawnmowers, from when human life was present, have been preserved through generations of starlings, today mimicking a sound they never heard directly themselves. “That story is from Chris Watson, actually. He was a sound recordist on set. I thought that was a wonderful story, you know: birds keeping the sounds of man alive. It doesn’t necessarily just go away, you know?”
Collins’ formal approach is comparable in some ways to that of Abbas Kiarostami, whose blurring of the lines between documentary and fictive filmmaking is said to create a “half-made film”, which is completed by the viewer. “You’re constantly questioning, you have to constantly question, watching something like Life and Nothing More… (Kiarostami, 1992), whether what you’re seeing is real or not, whether its characters are actors or not. And when I’m doing something like that, I’m not trying to trick people or mess with their heads or anything: it’s looking for a new sort of authenticity, or a new sort of truth.”
Reactions to screenings, at the Galway Film Fleadh in particular, have been extremely positive. “I think it’s really interesting, how people have interpreted the film, or noticed things that I hadn’t, even after six months in the editing suite.” At one point, Eoin records the sound of the wind through the windows and walls of an empty house: “You know, I hadn’t considered at all, until I was watching it last night, that that is a man-made sound, you know, recording through a wall or a window.” This self-examination, of both the project and the means by which it is accomplished, is fundamental to Silence as a story, and as a study of filmmaking, of recording in general. “Eoin is, on some level, trying to record a present atmosphere, but it’s impossible to do that, really, without the past encroaching.” This encroachment, of old documentary footage, individual sound recordings and, indeed, memory, renders Collins’ work an extremely provocative, touching and conscious cinematic bricolage.
Silence is in cinemas from Friday 27th July.