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


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.

“I was trying to stay clear of people in the media. But, yes, John Waters would have been very important to me when I was coming into my 20s. I came from a small village in Ireland. He was writing great stuff about that. He really was onto something with Jiving at the Crossroads. That did give you confidence in small places you grew up in.”

Pat Collins did not take the traditional route towards film-making. Raised on a small farm in west Cork, he had no early ambitions in that area and didn’t make his first documentary until he was nearly 30. At the risk of being reductive, one can, perhaps, detect the hand of an autodidact in the movies. The rhythms are all his own. No obvious influences announce themselves.

“I didn’t apply to college. I never even filled in a CAO form. I don’t say that as a badge of honour. I wouldn’t have gone to the cinema more that once before I was 15. But that’s just because the cinema was 12 miles away.”

After school, he drifted towards Galway and found himself sucked into that city’s vibrant cultural community: “It was a good place to be unemployed at that time. Collins spent much of his time reading and slowly “gravitated” towards the world of film. A foundation course at the Galway Film Centre led on to a period working as an editor in Dublin with Arthur Keating. Eventually he embarked on his first film, Michael Hartnett: A Necklace of Wrens, a study of that poet. Along the way he found himself programming the already thriving Galway Film Fleadh in the late 1990s.

“I think when I gave up the Fleadh I didn’t watch a film for two years. I was watching maybe five or six films a day for a month. I got over-stimulated.”

Pat is modest to a fault. He clarifies that, when he first embarked on his Abbas Kiarostami documentary, he didn’t know much about the Iranian film-maker. But that experience did change his creative outlook.

“It’s not just cinema you see differently,” he says. “It opens up a new way of looking at the world. Once you see that, it’s hard to go back to plainly narrative cinema.”

Silence may have a narrative, but there is nothing plain about it. Following a sound recordist as, searching for a particular class of silence, he travels from Germany to rural Ireland, the picture is as close to documentary as a drama can get (or maybe it’s the other way round).

One gets the sense that Collins – as firm in his opinions as he is civil in their expression – is not much at home to artistic compromise. Yet he has somehow got nearly 20 eccentric films onto screen.

“I make a fair living, but not a great living,” he says. “Will I stick to my guns or do something more commercial? There are times I am struggling and I wonder whether I might need to do something drastic.”

Oh dear. What might “drastic” mean in this context?

“I don’t know. Would I ever really be able to do commercial TV work? I don’t know.”

I sense a slight shiver in his gullet.

yyy Living in a Coded Land opens today and is reviewed on page 11