Cracking the code of the Irish midlands

Cork-born film-maker Pat Collins is peering into the nooks and crannies of Ireland's centre ground. “The midlands are, maybe, more conservative. But... it’s actually hard to make an interesting film about liberals,” he says

Fri, Apr 25, 2014, 00:00

People who know about film know about Pat Collins. The Cork-born film-maker has long been respected for his original, thoughtful documentaries on such figures as Michael Hartnett, John McGahern and Abbas Kiarostami. A former programmer of the Galway Film Fleadh and editor of Film West Magazine, Collins has also acted as a vertebra in the backbone of the Irish film establishment (though he would surely reject that last word).

Over the past two years, however, Collins’s profile has properly surged. Silence, his extraordinary 2012 film, received breathless raves across the world and established him as among the most admired Irish directors of the current generation.

Has the critical success of that experimental quasi-drama made life easier for him with funders?

“I’d say that it certainly made things a little easier as regard the Irish Film Board,” Collins laughs. “But that’s the only place it has got easier. I am still getting the refusals from Irish TV stations. It is still very hard to develop as a film maker in Ireland. Very few are getting freedom to develop.”

Fear not. A self-effacing, quietly determined man, Collins has now followed up Silence with a superb, slippery, characteristically original documentary called Living in a Coded Land. The film begins as a sort of psychogeographic biography of the Irish midlands. By the close it has taken in the Protestant ascendency, the betrayal of the Republic, the music of Séamus Ennis and some vintage pontificating by Conor Cruise O’Brien. Its genius lies in its seamlessness.

“I think the first thing was the phrase ‘living in a coded land’,” he says. “It was from a series of essays by Patrick O’Connor. It was about trying to understand Ireland through place names and the poetry written about it. He got the phrase from an Australian poet called Vincent Buckley. He argued that the Irish live without a key in a coded land. It’s a sad notion: that the Irish are walking around not understanding their own territory.”

Collins addresses the nation’s conundrum – and offers a few solutions – through a combination of original interviews and fascinating archive footage. There is something of Patrick Keiller, director of London and Robinson in Space, in his constant interrogation of location. There is a little of Adam Curtis in his promiscuous hunger for ancient footage. No easy answers emerge, but Collins clearly thinks we need to pay more attention to the island’s interior.

“The crashing waves against the shore is a real cliche,” he says. “I was trying to stay away from all that. I had a rule that there should be no shots of the sea. The midlands is ignored. Carlow, north Westmeath: these are useful places. The people just get on with their lives. Meanwhile, the establishment and the media have their own attitudes about how life should be lived.”

The film raises an interesting issue. This is not the only country that ignores its midland. The English can be very snitty about Birmingham, Nottingham and their satellites. The US commentariat famously refers to greater parts of that country as the “flyover states”.

“The midlands are, maybe, more conservative. But that is interesting from a documentary film-maker’s perspective. It’s actually hard to make an interesting film about liberals.”

One is reminded of a writer who is much in the news these days. Was it not John Waters (you may have heard of him) who, in books such as Jiving at the Crossroads , attracted attention by standing up for the values and traditions of Ireland’s small towns? Yet he makes no appearance in this film.