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Declan Clarke

A woman patiently cleans her chimney and tidies up her domestic space: this is a daily toil, endlessly reiterated, yet not alienated. Around her unfolds an Irish landscape, and a superimposed text unveils its still topical story, marked by England’s domination, that even Thatcher’s death will not erase. A voice-over refers to a tale by the Grimm brothers, The Bremen Town Musicians. And from this childhood memory is delineated an analysis of its libertarian subtext, as well as a history of its avatars in the context of the upheavals of 19th century Europe. These are so many threads and approaches that piece together, explicitly or surreptitiously, the itinerary of an awakening and of a political awareness.

Nathan Letoré

The title of your film is given as an answer, not a question. How did the film originate ?

The title is more a statement that an answer, as nobody asked the question.

The idea for the film originated in a couple of chance occurrences.  Firstly, discovering the book ‘The Case for Communism’ as I absentmindedly skimmed the titles of a small collection of books – perhaps six or seven – that I found stacked neatly in the corner of a cabinet in my mother’s family home. The book had clearly been there for decades, and would have been present in the room when I was a child. I knew almost every centimetre of the room in total recall, but somehow,
had never noticed this, which was astounding to me.

The second occurrence was also with a book, this time a retelling of the Grimm Brother’s story The Musician’s of Bremen that I found in my mother’s house around the same time. It was my favourite book as a child. Upon rereading it, I was struck by how brutal and exploitative the humans were to their animals, and how the animals were right to revolt. It made me wonder if the book had had a greater impact on me than I was able to remember, as 30+ years later I still felt a deep
connection to the animals and their endeavour to set out on their own.

I grew up in a very political household in a very political time: Ireland in the 1970’s and 1980’s. While no one in the history of my family was a Communist, or even leftwing in an orthodox political sense, the news was always on when we ate meals, and the news was always reporting significant political events – from coverage of the Troubles to the miner’s strike in the UK to commentary on the Cold War. All these things combined to forge my political outlook.

It seemed to me that the chance finding of both books reflected the chance manner in which our outlooks are formed. We see the connections that make sense to us, even if others, also present in the same location and time, see other connections, that make a different sense to them.

The film starts with a twenty-minute wordless sequence devoted to the works and days of an unidentified old woman. What is her relation to the rest of the threads ? Why did you choose to open with this figure ?

The woman is my aunt, my mother’s sister. We spent a lot of time with my mother’s family in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The environment and the people had a big impact on me and I remember it vividly. Independent farming people. They say little and work hard. Leisure time is a very
abstract notion in such a context.

My aunt has been fulfilling the days work each and every day for the last 70 years. It’s what was done. I wanted to document this, but also to capture the routine of working and living in such a manner, in such a place. It’s a portrait of my aunt, and how my mother’s family was raised, and how my grandparents lived, but it is also a portrait of all places where people live like that, a manner that is closer to how the world was 150 years ago, and still very much is in many non urban places. It’s a way of being that is not commonly depicted or acknowledged.

Once you start discussing the place of The Musicians of Bremen in relation to European politics, you use several modes of addressing the audience : voice-over narration, the old woman reading out loud, onscreen text, shots of book covers and newspapers… Why these multiple ways of integrating text to your film ?

The voiceover deconstructing The Musician’s of Bremen is mine; the woman reading the story is my mother, reading it as she read it to me as a child, before I had learned how to read myself; the newspapers and books present a printed record of the changing public attitudes to people, events and ideas over a long period of time. Nothing is fixed, and no voice is wholly reliable. Our understanding of ‘texts’ change as our understanding of the contexts in which these perspectives emerged changes. Sometimes this is down to a shift in public attitudes and morals, sometimes this is down to — in both a national and an individual sense — self interest and self serving cynicism.

I always try to vary the voices (and the sources of the voices) in my films, particularly in relation to my own, as I trust that least of all.

Throughout the film, shots of the landscape play an essential role. Why was it important for you that the film be visually articulated around the Irish landscape ?

That landscape is very familiar to me. Its great beauty and expanse contains many narratives and voices within it. It is located in the middle of what was one of the most violent areas in Europe during the 1970’s and 1980’s, and many people were killed in the region, not that you’d think that to look at that landscape now. What you think you see and what you are actually looking at are often vastly different.

I wanted to do two things. Firstly to depict a place I knew well, where people who influenced me enormously lived. A place and people I owe an unpayable debt to. I also wanted to show from as unobstructed a viewpoint as possible a landscape after armed conflict. Just because the soldiers and helicopters are no longer present, it doesn’t mean that they were never present, that their former presence is forgotten, nor that they may not be present again. This is true of all landscapes. 

Interview by Nathan Letoré

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Technical sheet

Ireland, Germany / 2023 / 55’

Production: Declan Clarke (N/A)