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VARIOUS ARTISTES - descendants

VARIOUS ARTISTES - descendants
Flat 36 Ltd LTDV9012

I have Mr. Fisher singing in my head as I start this review.  “I’m a man you don’t meet every day”, sings Archie.

How apt that this lyric should fill my head as I write this.  Because, beyond a peradventure, this is emphatically a DVD that one doesn’t meet every day.  Or meet even every year, come to that.

Normally, when I write a review, I have my ideas about what I am going to say, fairly firmly in my head.  Not so here: despite having watched it three times, I have not a clue what is going to result from the movement of my fingers in the next half hour.   But let’s get started and find out.

First: this whole thing is a work of art.  But hey, stop there: I don’t use that phrase in the popular way to mean “this is a masterpiece, of sorts”.

No, I use the term descriptively, and I think accurately: for had director Otto Schlindwein simply wanted to present us with six traditional singers delivering a couple of songs each, he could have done so in a familiar way of filmed stage performance and the occasional interview linking each song.

But no, he embarks instead on a rather striking individualistic approach.  Let the DVD cover notes explain what was intended:

“A poetic documentary featuring wholly raw solo performances of unaccompanied song recorded throughout Ireland.
The film explores a tradition that continues to have a handle on both past and present as performances give pause amid a journey through ambient imagery of the everyday – unexpected and atmospheric.
Part love song, part adventure; the interaction between the tradition and the contemporary cultural landscape it inhabits is acutely observed in a hypnotic series of song and image.”
Gosh.   Hang on a moment, while I read those words again.   I have to try to take them in properly.

[Five minutes later.]   Yes, I think I have got it.  It is just when one sees words like “ambient imagery”, one’s defences go up.  It is language redolent of arts councils (and indeed, those in the UK and Ireland were amongst the sponsors for this film).   And indeed, this little movie is seemingly deliberately designed as “arts cinema” fare. 

I don’t know Mr Schlindwein’s past, but if someone told me he’d worked as an assistant director to the great Wim Wenders, I would not be surprised.   There is the same uncanny ability to make the most ordinary of places seem exotic; the same naked honesty that jumps out of the screen at you with every frame; and above all, the same ability to capture silence.   I swear there are times in this film that you can hear the grass grow.

Now that ought to bore the pants off you, but it won’t.  Instead, you will be transfixed by an evocation of a largely rural Ireland: parts of it that seem not to have changed in half a century.  I promise you that the characters of an Edna O’Brien novel could be put down in these settings and swear that it was still 1957.

And instead of Ry Cooder’s slide guitar (which did the business for Wim in Paris, Texas), Otto relies on six rather fine singers delivering songs roughly 50/50 Gaelic/English.  The songs are part traditional, but Rosie Stewart plumps for a contemporary song: Sean Mone’s Rosalita and Jack Campbell (set in The Troubles of the early 1970s).   And her second song is more redolent of the Music Hall than Cecil Sharp: Down Our Street.

The high water mark comes in the singing of the one Scot on display, the remarkable Sylvia Barnes.  There she is sitting on the edge of her bed and singing “Lonely Waterloo” with a searing intensity that makes you swallow hard.  And even though you have heard the song a hundred times before, her magic lies in the fact that she makes you feel you are hearing it for the first time.  And you go into every line hanging on her every word.  Just like the film maker, this singer is all about bringing you the Truth.  You do not doubt her for a nanosecond.

But if she is the artistic acme of the film, perhaps the most memorable image comes with the last performer.  Whereas Sylvia is famous in traditional music circles, nobody I know has ever heard of a young girl living on Tory Island called Niamh Duggan.  She does not look more than about twelve, but boy, can’t she just sing!  She sings her heart out here in her native Gaelic.   She is filmed standing rigid on a dirt track.  “Rigid” is an apt word to use, as it does not just describe the stance of just about all the singers, it describes the fixed camera too.

If you like tracking shots and jerky hand-held cameras à la cinema verité, then this is not the film for you.   But I have to tell you I was soon won over by the relentless, searching, unblinking gaze of Otto Schlindwein’s camera.

And the chances are that you will be too.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 89 of The Living Tradition magazine.