9th Jameson Belfast Film Festival review
Ditching is the debut film from Factotum, a collective known primarily in Northern Ireland for their free newspaper publication of essays, comment and review, ‘The Vacuum’. Expanding into filmmaking and making use of local acting talent, it’s not surprising then that their interest remains firmly within the province, but what is impressive is not only how the filmmakers manage to create a film language that is specifically their own, avoiding the tired old familiar subject of Northern Ireland cinema, drama and television – the troubles – but they also even manage to avoid conventional cinema narrative and resist any attempts to “decode” symbolism in a subject that just seems to be demanding a deeper reading.
Specifically, it’s the placing of the film within what seems to be a post-apocalyptic Northern Ireland with sick and troubled characters roaming a deserted countryside of ruined buildings that would seem to indicate some kind of agenda or commentary on the current state of affairs. It’s in this strange environment that two such travellers, John (Lalor Roddy) and Maeve (Mary Lindsay), seek answers. They turn to Paul (Jonathan Harden), a mapmaker and passport manufacturer with troubled memories, to guide them and help them avoid the various tribes and dangers that are at large in the countryside - tribes with strange rituals and rivalry that exists between the sparse population of the provincial counties. The film simply follows this small group as they make their way through this strange landscape. John however is seriously ill, his condition unspecified, and he is deteriorating rapidly, but on the journey they encounter a member of one of the tribes in the province, Alan (Paul Garret), who may be able to set them in the right direction.
It’s tempting to draw comparisons with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf or Albert Serra’s Honor de cavalleria in the film’s emphasis on a civilisation left with nothing else but the land and the ruins of society around them, desperately looking for answers, but not really knowing what questions to ask. But Ditching avoids any attempt to associate it with contemporary arthouse cinema, and it would be a mistake to take the film either too seriously or indeed too lightly in this respect. There may be some commentary on local issues, on the depopulation of the countryside, the ailing condition of the farming industry, but no obvious parallels are drawn. More likely, you could associate the post-apocalyptic circumstances of the film’s setting with a post-troubles Northern Ireland, the inhabitants suddenly finding that their sense of who they are as defined by old religious and cultural divides no longer holds meaning. In Time of the Wolf, Michael Haneke similarly stripped his characters and society of the trappings of class, civilisation and any semblance of laws, rules and conventional morality in order to examine what lies beneath the surface of humanity and found that people aren’t really all that nice – in Ditching the filmmakers use the post-apocalyptic setting to similarly strip away the beliefs and traditions that Northern Ireland people have held onto for decades and underneath they find... culchies.
Culchies - provincial minded but fundamentally decent country-people who act and speak strangely, are superstitious and afraid of the world outside, fearing what lies outside their little community, believing the cities to be inhabited by cannibals, where some locals have ventured and never come back. And, in many ways, there is something convincing about this worldview – or to be more precise, it’s not so much a worldview as a very narrow provincial viewpoint, one whose meaning will probably elude anyone not from Ulster, but it would appear to be an accurate one nonetheless.
Coincidentally, another film opened at the 9th Belfast Film Festival where Ditching also premiered, a film that also took a look at a post-troubles Northern Ireland, and it did it in a very different manner indeed. According to Cherrybomb, conveniently wiping out any trace of underlying characteristics or historical past, the new generation in Northern Ireland is a much more cultivated, sophisticated global community, one not really all that different from anywhere else in the UK. Ditching seems to be much more perceptive and honest in its observations, its low-key grainy digital photography dwelling inconspicuously on the sodden-damp earth of the land, its premise and presentation in the rhythmic music and evocative set design stripping away any false veneer and finding underneath essential qualities that are thoroughly Northern Irish in its humour, in its attitude, in its simplicity and its quiet contemplation - not seeking to ingratiate or impress, just simply getting on with it.