Despite attracting plaudits in its native Ireland and playing the London Film Festival (where it earned further acclaim and a place on Geoff Andrew’s top five of the year), Pat Collins’ first work of fiction is yet to find a UK distributor. Perhaps our cinema screens had only the room for a single feature about a sound recordist in 2012 and that spot was to be taken by Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. Certainly, and for all its quirks, Strickland’s was the more commercial of the two: a psychological revenge thriller anchored by Toby Jones’ commanding performance and peppered with bouts of Lynchian black comedy. Collins, on the other hand, seemed to have taken his cue from Abbas Kiarostami, employing non-professional actors and offering up a more contemplative vision. Whereas the tone of Berberian Sound Studio was anxious and increasingly nightmarish, Silence was calm and meditative, as its title no doubt suggests.
Before he was a filmmaker, Collins was a film critic. He edited Film West, an Irish quarterly that ran from 1989 to 2001, for a period and also had a two-year stint as the chief programmer of the Galway Film Fleadh. His first film emerged in 1999 – a 40-minute documentary on the Irish poet Michael Hartnett entitled A Necklace of Wrens – and set the template for much of the work that would follow. In the years prior to Silence Collins made more than 20 shorts and features, working exclusively in non-fiction and almost entirely on Irish subject matter. Oileán Thoraí (2002), for example, focused its attentions on Tory Island, the most remote inhabited island off the Irish coast. Marooned (2004) followed Westmeath football team and their fortunes in the GAA over the course of an entire season. Rebel County (2006) was both a behind-the-scenes account of Ken Loach’s making of The Wind that Shakes the Barely and a look at the War of Independence which had inspired it. Most recently, the author and cartographer Tim Robinson was explored for Connemara (2011). Occasionally, Collins would branch out into non-Irish areas of interest, as with his documentary on Abbas Kiarostami, The Art of Living (2003), or into more experimental territory. Pilgrim, made in 2008, was a wordless short detailing the annual tradition of climbing Croagh Patrick (a 2,500ft mountain in County Mayo) which some participants undertake at night and others choose to do barefoot.
In terms of influence, both The Art of Living and Pilgrim appear to have made their mark on Silence. The narrative construction, in particular, has a distinctly ‘Kiarostamian’ feel about it. At the film’s centre is Eoghan, a sound recordist based in Berlin who makes a trip back to Ireland for his latest project. The intention is to capture environments undisturbed by man-made sound, which secluded areas along the north and west coastlines (including Tory Island) should provide. Yet in seeking isolation he only succeeds in communicating: with the landscape and the memories it holds; and with the people he encounters along the way. Like Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry or Ten, Silence is framed through these disjointed conversations, each of which brings Eoghan closer to his past. Though he may not immediately know it, his journey becomes something a pilgrimage and Collins responds to this idea by filming it in much the same manner as his earlier short. The focus is on landscape and texture and the beauties therein, whilst the soundscapes are suitably sedate: birdsong, the weather, the hum of nature.
Eoghan is played by the author Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Collins and Sharon Woolley and (as preparation for the film) worked as a sound recordist on Pilgrim. Despite having no previous experience in front of the camera, he acquits himself well and makes for an intriguingly barely-there presence. When we first meet him he is quite literally consumed by the Berlin cityscape that surrounds him; his softly spoken dialogue rendered inaudible by the traffic and hustle-bustle of everyday life. There is the suggestion, perhaps, that Eoghan will remain unknowable and yet that only makes him all the more fascinating. Masked by his beard and greying hair – not to mention his environment – we have only his eyes to rely on plus the occasional muted reaction to the people and landscapes around him. Is this seeking of solitude and “collecting the quiet” a personal as well as professional quest? One of his first encounters warns him that too much silence will drive a man crazy, although Silence never once threatens to become a tale of obsession akin to Blow-Up, Blow Out or The Conversation (all of which, incidentally, could form touchstones to Berberian Sound Studio).
As though to prevent even the possibility of any generic underpinnings, the shooting script consisted of a mere 25 pages and contained no dialogue whatsoever. Once again taking his inspiration from Kiarostami, Collins chose Mac Giolla Bhríde’s succession of encounters from real life and had them effectively play versions of themselves. They’re acting, but only just, and in doing so create a tension between drama and documentary. Their conversations fall somewhere between interview and improvisation with Eoghan oftentimes taking control of the situation, but never to the point where the authenticity disappears. Such techniques are also fully complemented by Collins maintaining the documentary rhythms of his earlier work. Silence offers its viewers the space to contemplate the images, the soundscapes and these intermittent exchanges. The delicate tempo is such that it invites us to participate in the picture, to consider the meaning (and the history) of this landscape and how it connects with Eoghan and those he meets along the way. Interestingly his recordings could be deemed almost ahistorical – removed from man-made influence, his chosen locations sound just as they would have done decades or even centuries ago – and yet there is a definite sense of a past that is being responded to. Eoghan arguably feels this more keenly than most thanks to his subsequent life as an ‘exile’ in Berlin. But it is also true that everyone he comes across is in some way indelibly tied to their surroundings, unable or (more likely) unwilling to leave owing to myriad layers of personal resonances and significances.
Such themes of home and homecoming brought Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool to mind whilst watching Silence. The two films have a great deal in common – the journey-like structure, the minimalist approach right down to the contemplative pacing, the ability to sneak up on the viewer unawares having slowly accumulated their emotional punch – with one key exception. Whereas Liverpool eventually earned a British release in early 2012 (almost four years after its Cannes premiere) thanks to the Second Run DVD label, Silence is still without a UK distributor. Which is a massive shame as this is a film which deserves to connect with audiences and no doubt will. Of course, given the Alonso connections I suspect that the audience which Second Run has cultivated over the years would be especially attuned to its pleasures, in which case I direct them to Irish disc released by Element Pictures and available to UK buyers via the Irish Film Institute’s webshop.
UPDATE: New Wave Films announced in February that they will be handling the UK distribution of 'Silence'.
Though somewhat light on extras (only the theatrical trailer puts in an appearance), Element Picture’s DVD at least does full justice to Silence’s distinctive visuals and, especially, its soundtrack. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and looks as spotless as you would expect from such a new production. Colours are strong, detail is excellent (the couple or so softer shots would appear to have been inherent in the production) and any technical issues are rare. Some of the darker scenes do demonstrate some compression blocking, though this is barely apparent in motion. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is as flawless as you could hope for. DD5.1 and DD2.0 options are available, both of which show off the precision Collins and his sound department have put into this aspect of Silence. (Some passages of dialogue are in Gaelic Irish and come with burnt-in English subtitles.) The only disappointment is the scarcity of special features. Given Collins’ extensive work in the documentary field, it would have been nice to see an example or two alongside the film itself.