Sound recordist Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride sits alone with a microphone in the most isolated of Ireland’s scenic locales. When asked what he is doing, he explains he is looking for areas free of “manmade sound.” “But you’re here,” says a local who stumbles across him. “I’m being quiet,” his deadpan reply.
Silence, a landscape film charting vistas both visual and aural, is about Eoghan’s search, primarily for a place of total quiet, but equally a search within himself. His reason for returning to Ireland – an ex-resident, now a sound recordist located in Berlin – is work related, but his homecoming becomes as much a personal journey as an audio assignment.
Indeed, Eoghan doesn’t seem to realise quite how emotionally impacting the work will be, until he decides, hesitantly, to return to the place of his birth, the even further isolated Tory Island, and the site of his abandoned childhood home. That this is both the place of greatest silence, in the empty, desolate environment; and the greatest noise, in the layers of memory and sound that play in his headphones and in his head, is particularly telling of how far he has come, or rather how much he has returned to a place he had to this point distanced himself from.
This journey, sees Eoghan moving from one isolated landscape to another, many of which are fantastically serene and beautiful, recording the natural sounds of the environment and talking to locals. Though a fiction feature (the first from Ireland’s most active documentarian Pat Collins), Silence invites placement into the popular descriptor of the docu-fiction hybrid (the strand that it played in at Open City Doc Fest), through its realistic tone and unscripted interviews. So believable is the on-screen depiction, actor/writer Bhride says he is often asked how the sound work is going, or how life is in Berlin.
Inspired by the tradition of folklore, Silence is preoccupied by an understanding of the importance of personal and communal histories, the emotional character of sound, and the nostalgic value of documentation. Collins says that the story of a sound recordist is a contemporary transcription of Irish folklore collectors of the 1930s and 40s, men who walked door to door collecting songs and stories. As such, Silence is interspersed with 16mm archival footage and some historic recordings, including songs sung by writer Bhride’s mother, imbuing its contemporary observations with a sense of Ireland’s past, something that the conversations with the locals, especially those on Tory Island, a remote island willingly locked in the past contribute to.
It is in a conversation with a teenager, who is at the point of deciding whether to stay local for his studies, or to move to more exciting communities, Dublin or further afield, Eoghan’s internal conflicts become more apparent. As he encourages the boy to travel, his guilt over his own abandonment of his roots seem to come to the surface. Once you see the big wide world, its hard to go back to little old Ireland. In returning though, and putting himself through the contemplative introversion that sitting listening to the “ghosts in the wind” for hours on end allows, he appears to remember what he values about his homeland. The bearded, dishevelled Eoghan certainly looks more at home sitting amidst a giant valley with a boom mic, or swimming, undisturbed in a lake, than he did in Berlin at the start of the film, his supposed home. This conflict between the allure of urbanity, and the celebration of the supremely rural seems central to Silence. ”It’s nice here. There’s not a lot to do though,” says the boy with similar tentativeness.
In this image of rurality and it in its fascination with remoteness and isolation, Silence is easily compared to a number of recent films, and this familiarity is perhaps its weakness. Firstly, as a fond portrait of a rural area, Silence is for Ireland what Gideon Koppel’s Sleep Furiously was for Wales a few years ago. Both treat the relative backwardness of their communities as a factor of endearment, Sleep Furiously tracking the rhythms and pace of farming life through measured digital compositions, eventually mourning the arrival of industrialisation in the rural Welsh town through a series of pointed shots of out of use farming equipment, and Silence cataloguing both the sounds and images of rural Ireland as Eoghan moves around them slowly, allowing for plenty of time spent soaking them in. Both films celebrate the beauty of their isolated environments through a leisurely, well composed capturing of the natural environment, and while Sleep Furiously does it all a little more precisely and clinically, Silence does it with more emotional resonance.
Secondly, parallels can be drawn with Ben Rivers Two Years at Sea, another meditative portrait of extreme isolation, following a hermit who lives alone in a homemade hut deep in an unknown section of Scottish woodlands. The similarity is at its greatest when bearded Eoghan sits by a fire, Collin’s camera resting on him protractedly during a moment he appears to have achieved a particular natural oneness.
It is also, inexplicably, the second British film made about a sound recordist in 2012, after Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, another story in part about a working man haunted by the ghosts of audio. Whilst neither film is likely to cause any great resurgence in the popularity of the sound recording industry, they do both paint light on a peculiar and insular profession.
Despite familiarity then, Silence is a work of its own, mainly due to its focus on sound. In a medium decidedly visual, it is unusual to see a film so preoccupied with the mechanics of listening. Collins understands the power of the senses in relation to memory, and in dealing with the idea of the role of personal recordings in collective memory and shared histories, manages to create a film that feels both personal and universal. It is certain that the feelings evoked – especially in the most powerful section of the film, where Eoghan’s wanderings conclude and his feelings about the land culminate – are more intense for someone who knows this specific land, but they will still register for anyone who has experienced returning somewhere familiar and important after an absence, and the unique and incalculable emotional registers than come with that.
Viewed as part of the Open City Docs Fest. Silence will be released in the UK on the 9th August.