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Rural Ireland seen through its sounds and its silence in Pat Collins’ enigmatic film about a sound recordist’s travels in his native home.
Silence – a feature film, a documentary, a thoughtful essay on exile and returning home, or all of the above – director Pat Collins has made an enigmatic and melancholy film that defies categorisation. It opens quietly, with a soft song on tape and a look through a broken window at a windswept rural landscape. When the landscape switches to the big city with its screeching trams and rumbling cars, it is jarring, and it establishes the rare filmic use of sound as its primary medium.
Sound recordist Eoghan, played by co-writer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride, lives in Berlin, where trams squeal and thunder, and conversations are drowned out by the city noise. He is about to start a job in Ireland, a place he left some 15 years before, to record landscapes free from man-made noise.
It’s a quirky kind of job, and watching his journey across the Irish countryside is oddly compelling. Against a backdrop of low cloud, forested hillsides and long grass bent low by the wind, he records the almost incessant sounds of birdsong and wind and water – despite what the film’s title may suggest, silence itself is rare. The wind sighs and howls, the sea crashes, the rain drips, when the film does have a silent moment, it’s unsettling.
His progress marked by wrinkled maps and unsentimental black and white footage of an Ireland long past, Eoghan tries to keep himself to himself, yet he encounters people in the most remote places. The stories they tell pull him, almost against his will, it seems, back to the island where he grew up.
There’s a melancholy feel about Silence. As the film progresses, it is less obviously about sound, and more about history and transience. Director and writer Pat Collins expressed a concern that the film wouldn’t translate, that it was very Irish, but he needn’t worry. There’s a universal element to it, with its underlying exploration of the theme of exile, both from home and the past.
Collins is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and Silence is his first foray into fictional territory. It was inspired by his long-standing fascination with folklore collectors such as Seamus Ennis who travelled Ireland in the 1930s collecting stories for the Irish Folklore Commission, an Irish government department set up to study, collect and instill Irish cultural traditions. But he wanted to make something contemporary, something that avoided nostalgia, so hit on the idea of a sound recordist.
“I wanted someone who was moving through the landscape and meeting people,” he said in an interview following the screening. “He is trying to get away from people, which is the opposite of a folklore collector. But he is drawn to people who want to tell him stories.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given Collins’ background, there is a strong documentary format to Silence. The film moves at a languorous pace, the camera lingering on the landscape and Eoghan’s encounters with the people he meets. As they tell him their stories, the camera remains static, rather than flitting between them, Collins wanted to give the viewer the time to look and listen.
He employs a cast of mostly non-professional actors, who are essentially playing themselves, in a refreshingly naturalistic and unselfconscious way. Collins cites Abbas Kiarostami’s theory of the “half-made film”, the idea that the filmmaker needs to only complete 50 percent of a film as the audience will bring the other 50, filling in the gaps with their own ideas and interpretations.
For a film so focused on sound, it’s the images that have stayed with me – Eoghan getting drenched by the pouring rain; Eoghan striding past a lighthouse on Tory Island, silhouetted by the setting sun; Eoghan dwarfed by the waves crashing down on a rocky coast. If nothing else, Silence is a sensory treat.