Tim Robinson: Connemara

Scannain Talks Tim Robinson: Connemara with director Pat Collins

“I start at the eastern end of the island” began Tim Robinson in his 1986 Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, the first volume of writings in an eventually life-long task of mapping the coasts and inlands of the Aran Islands and Connemara embarked upon in 1972. By the time he died, almost half a century later, Robinson had dedicated decades of research to recording the antiquity of this quiet corner of Ireland. The erstwhile mathematician and visual artist’s turn to a comprehensive cartography of these sites has itself become part of the lore of these lands; salvaging fading Irish placenames from the threat of historical obscurity, Robinson’s decades-long project of research and recording was a labour of uniquely obsessive inclusivity.

In tribute to Robinson, whose life was lost to CoViD-19 on April 3rd, TG4 tonight screens Pat Collins’ 2011 documentary Tim Robinson: Connemara, based on the writer’s late-2000s trilogy. Scannain took the opportunity to discuss Robinson’s unique legacy with Collins.

How did you come to make a film about Tim Robinson? Was he someone you were well aware of at that point, had you read a lot?

Well, I first read Tim’s book Stones of Aran after I moved to Galway in 1990. I’d never really read anything like it. The language and the descriptiveness of it, that amount of detail about one small place, it was inspiring. It was the cross-over of geography, history and folklore—it was a way of writing I hadn’t really experienced before. And then years later, around 2007 or 2008 I read Listening to the Wind, his first Connemara book and I contacted Tim about potentially making a film. But he wasn’t really interested to be honest. He didn’t want to do a documentary ‘profile’ type film—he didn’t want to be filmed explaining himself and walking across Connemara and all that—and that kind of put a stop to it. Then, about a year later I heard about the Arts Council Reel Art scheme and I contacted Tim again and asked him if I could base the film on his written work. And he was happy with that approach. I think he was challenging me to do something more adventurous. And if it was as much about the place as him he’d be happy with that. So we were commissioned to make the film by the Arts Council and then Tim and myself worked together closely to sketch out how it would look, how we would achieve it, where we would focus. We weren’t going to go to the Aran islands cos it was just too—even Connemara itself is too vast. He did all the maps and everything on a bicycle, so his undertaking was immense, even to track what he did in a car, it was incredibly difficult. But yeah, he was very much kind of across it, he still didn’t want any interview even though I’d asked him a couple of times if he’d change his mind. Then there was a public interview with him in London, and I said I’d go and film it and he said look I can’t stop you from doing that, so I got around it a small bit. That was good, that he was actually testing me—well I wouldn’t say testing, cos I don’t think he was that kind of a person. I think he was more pushing me to come up with something that was kind of more than the usual TV profile.

It’s interesting that you say some of that approach was allowed by the Reel Art funding. Would it have been hard to make this without an initiative like that?

I think it would have been impossible actually. I think the very fact that it hasn’t been broadcast on TV before proves that point. I didn’t want to skip broadcast or anything but I think TV would look at the documentary and say that it was too slow and there’s not enough of a narrative I suppose. Isn’t there a maxim in TV that you tell the audience what they’re going to see and what they’ve just seen every three minutes? You don’t ever know what’s coming next really with this. I think that’s what’s really valuable about the Reel Art scheme, it does allow for unconventional things. I suppose it gives filmmakers the chance to prove themselves as well, or maybe to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do and I think that’s very valuable. It’s unfortunate really cos it’s very difficult for a director to find their voice working in modern TV. Everything is pushed through the same structure of voiceover and turning things around quickly, most of the documentaries that are made are similar. I think they’re produced first, they’re ideas that a producer attaches a director to, and some of these documentaries could be made by any director. And that’s unfortunate, because I think the vast majority of directors have an individual voice and want the opportunity to make the material they want to make. It’s that thing of trying to repeat a success as well on TV, people try to make documentaries like other documentaries that were successful, that kind of culture is a creative cul-de-sac.

And that kind of structure hems you in—I know a lot of your work is determined in the edit, are those production structures something that would take away from that kind of freedom?

Well, first of all, this film was a long edit. For some documentaries, you could shoot a hundred hours and end up having a five-week edit, and you just can’t make a film in that kind of way, especially if you haven’t that time to watch all the footage and let it all soak into you. I think productions to a certain extent are becoming very producer-heavy from what I hear, with pressure on the duration of the edit, saying that edits should only be six weeks for a one hour film. For me, I wouldn’t be able to do documentaries if the edit was that short, I’d prefer not to do it. You obviously can do a documentary justice if you’re only editing five weeks but it’s a very stressful situation with so much pressure put on the director and editor to come up with the goods in quite a short space of time. I actually don’t even understand it from a commercial point of view, it’s one of the cheapest parts of the process and the difference between a documentary that did five weeks and eight or ten weeks in the edit is huge. It’s only a couple of grand a week whereas a shoot might cost fifty thousand. I don’t know why there’s so much pressure put on the edit by TV and production companies. I think it kind of leaves everything looking pretty much the same—I’m not saying everything does—but it can lead to the director and the editor not being able to find the right rhythm and tone to a film. But then everything has to be in place, it’s not just the edit, the shoot has to be right, the main thing is the idea.

Right, and how you conceive the film initially. I’m curious about that in relation to this film because of course there’s so much material to choose from in the Connemara trilogy. What was the process of deciding what went in there, was it collaborative between yourself and Tim?

It was very much collaborative. I did the first draft of different sections I’d pulled out from the three books, sections that stuck out for me imaginatively. It’s probably more the folkloric element I was primarily interested in, and the sound, I was very interested in that idea. He’s very good at writing about sound, that was one of the main parts of it. And then as well you’re trying to find a visual language for it, so it’s the sections that you can visualise, I wouldn’t have picked out sections that I wasn’t able to visualise. The budget was relatively small, but sometimes I think those restrictions are actually quite good, if you’ve got too much of a free-range it can be very oppressive. I prefer certain restrictions to do with resources—I don’t mind those restrictions, time is the one that I don’t like giving up. It was just myself, Colm Hogan the cameraman, John Brennan on sound. We spent a lot of time in Connemara, we could get off the beaten track and we had time to wait for things to happen. But it was collaborative with Tim—I mean there was no way you could get Tim to read something that he didn’t want. I suppose he was reassured as well by the fact that he could see the shape of it, there were a lot of emails back and forth, we both knew the structure of the film, the broad strokes before we started.

It’s interesting what you say about restrictions being a help because, aside from those close-ups of him narrating, he’s largely just framed in silhouette against Roundstone Bay, or in faded-out mid-shot on a forest trail after you’ve had his own POV. It’s a different way to present character. I was reminded of the short film you made about William McKeown, where the skies you shoot fade into his canvasses and the audio edit seems to blend the two together—there’s almost a similar approach here with Tim’s maps, those extreme close-ups. You’ve made quite a few portraits of different creative personalities now, is there a process where you try to reflect something of them in your presentation?

First of all, the main thing is that you have to love the material that you’re working with. I couldn’t make a documentary about somebody I didn’t admire, somebody whose work I didn’t love. I think it would be horrible to make a documentary about someone that you didn’t like.

That’s Errol Morris’ job.

Yeah! I’m sure you could make a great documentary about the modern world by making a documentary about Michael O’Leary but could you actually spend that time with people you didn’t like? Unless you’re trying to make a political point. But if you’re making a profile of somebody you have to listen to them, to talk to them, and you have to take your lead from them, that’s my approach anyway. I’ll give you an example: when I was making a documentary on John McGahern, he didn’t really listen to music and he lived in a very quiet place, and he said he never really danced—he couldn’t dance. So I made a decision that I wasn’t going to use music in the film, because music wasn’t important to him. It is important to me, but I felt I could get to a greater truth of his life by listening to him and not using music. And I spoke to him about two or three people I was going to interview about his work, and he said to me “I think you’ll find that I have enough to say myself”. And again, I decided that I’m not going to get anybody to talk about him—I’ll take him at his word that he’s got something to say. I don’t like the idea much of making a documentary about someone who really wants to have a documentary about them. They have to be a little bit reticent about it I think, if they really would love to have a doc made about them, what kind of person is that? You’d have to question that, what’s the motivation for it? That’s basically how I approach it in terms of their work and their life, I can’t make a film about a writer let’s say whose work doesn’t in some way reflect my own life, my own views, or my own outlook on life.

I can see a pretty clear through-line from a film like this to say Silence, is that part of why? For example, there’s a passage where Tim narrates the idea of ‘white noise’ that seems to nicely chime with that film’s loose narrative, but is it just a shared interest rather than a direct impact?

Yeah, I would have been working on Silence for maybe five or six years before making the documentary on Tim. I was trying to get funding off the ground and it was going very slow, myself and Sharon Whooley and Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde were working on the script, it just took a lot of time to get funding for it because it wasn’t a conventional script, it wasn’t a conventional narrative, so it was quite difficult. But then as I’m working on Silence I’m tuned into sound, but when I pick up Tim’s book Listening to the Wind, he writes so beautifully about sound coming in and hitting the shore, and obviously I’m tuned into that, I’m very open to what he has to say. I think I might not have made the documentary on Tim if Silence had gone the year before, but it didn’t get funding until the year after, so I had a year where I could work on the documentary. And Tim is part of Silence as well, his voiceover is in there. We actually shot with him for a few days but it just didn’t make it in. Actually, if you look at the trailer, which is made up of a lot of shots that aren’t in the film, there’s a shot of Eoghan and Tim walking up from Derryclare wood. So I’d have to be drawn to some of that material, it’s to do with that crossover between sound, geography, history, folklore, music, all those things crossing over is where I feel it.

Have you revisited the film yourself since Tim died? I rewatched it last night and there’s a really lovely line in there from him on death that I found really moving in this context.

I haven’t actually. I read it. There was a subtitle version and I had to read it, but I haven’t watched it.

It’s when he’s telling the story about the dead man and the hare and he says that death is “uniquely inconceivable, a metaphysical darkness as incomprehensible as the light of consciousness it extinguishes”. It’s that beautiful way with words he has, and it chimes with something in his last book [Experiments on Reality]—that there doesn’t need to be an afterlife because there’s quite enough in this life. It’s a strange comfort for somebody who’s gone.

Yeah, he was a confirmed atheist but was still very much alive and awake to the spirit, of people and place. He was an amazing writer and had such style. I don’t think there’s a writer alive who writes like him. He could have very strong views about belief and atheism, but he never really preached it. He did write about it but he didn’t really feel the need to. He very much respected what was around him, and he wasn’t judgemental. Apart from environmental subjects, he never wanted to but sometimes he felt he had to speak out, about wind turbines, although you’d imagine he’d be for them.

Yeah, he makes an interesting argument in that book about the destruction of a place, maybe the necessary destruction to save all places, but it’s beautifully put in that essay.

He genuinely wasn’t in favour of them, but it’s a very complicated argument in that essay, “A Land Without Shortcuts”. That’s such a great term for Connemara that can be adapted to anything that’s worthwhile. He had such wisdom and you’d ask him questions but he’d never answer in a way to reassure you. He was the truest artist I’ve ever met I think: the way he lived his life and the way he treated people and the way he worked were completely unified. It’s very rare to come across that. His house in Roundstone he gave over to NUIG for studying and his council flat in England he donated back to the state again, not judging whether the Conservatives or Labour were in power, he just thought the right thing to do was give the flat back to the country. There’s not too many of those kind of people around now.

Tim Robinson

There’s a real generosity there, and that comes through in the writing. The way he repeats these stories and amplifies every small drama of Connemara on the same scale as these landscapes he surveys.

What I like about his work is that he puts the people back into the landscape. From living in the country, you feel that you’re an annoyance to people who stroll out on a bank holiday into the countryside—those pesky locals getting in the way. It’s one of the big problems the environmental movement has, actually bringing people who live in the country along. It can’t be done by pointing the finger, everybody has to work with each other. That’s what was great about Tim, he was always listening to people, he very often knew the people living there knew the answer before anyone else, if they were just listened to.

Right. I love the line he starts with in the film, he’s got a very sceptical take on Synge’s journey to the Aran Islands. He doesn’t like the idea of romanticising, he sees it almost as condescending. Is that a view you share? I know there’s a similar notion in the film you made on Kiarostami, he’s very much a modernist but he doesn’t like to belittle these people.

Well, we’re working at the moment on adapting Synge’s Aran Islands into a feature film, trying to recreate the world of Inis Meáin in 1900, which is taking a little time. But it depends on who’s romanticising or if it’s being romanticised, or if it’s true, and I think Synge’s book is very much true in the sense that he was on the right side. His book is an amazing work of folklore. The best work came out of when tradition and modernity crossed over. Tradition is hugely important to modernism: the documentary I did on Henry Glassie recently [Henry Glassie: Field Work], he talked about how Kandinsky went back into Russian folklore to come back with something truly modern. Picasso did the same when he went to Africa and came out with something that’s really new and I think Synge did something very similar as well. And that’s true of the American painters, Rothko and Jackson Pollack, they were very much influenced by Native American art. And I think the same happened in Ireland, that mix of Irish and English, swimming between the two streams of Ireland. Very often I think what happens is that Irish people can make the mistake of ignoring tradition. Let’s say the idea of making an Irish film which could be set anywhere, that’s usually seen as a good thing in Ireland. I can’t see how it’s a good thing. I think films should be universal, but I think they should come from as specific a place as possible, and express something about that particular place. All American film expresses something about the place, whereas it’s seen as a virtue if an Irish film could have been set anywhere.

Is that something you were trying to achieve with Song of Granite, which is of course very specifically Irish, including in the use of language, but did play well in America right?

Well yeah, Oscilloscope picked it up for distribution. I’m not sure how well it did, it screened in NY and LA and Chicago and places like that. But for me, I couldn’t possibly make a film about sean-nós singing if I wasn’t dealing with the Irish language. If you’re true to what you’re making the film about you have to deal with the language as well, it’s such a crucial part.

I presume there’ll be a lot of Irish in the Aran film you’re working on?

Synge mightn’t have been fluent, but he studied Irish in Trinity and the Sorbonne, and he was struggling with his material. There is a sense that before modernism, to go back to modernism, that the culture was washed out, it hadn’t got any energy in it in terms of writing or music. And I think a re-engagement with the tradition is what gave Irish writing its energy and it is still there in Yeats and Joyce and Beckett to a certain extent. It’s a very specific point in our culture, it was to do with that clash, and, for Synge, hearing these stories gave him the energy to come up with something that was quite novel or new. And you can actually even see influences of Synge on Beckett from things like The Well of the Saints, that bleak outlook. If you were going to make a Béla Tarr film you could make it about Synge’s Well of the Saints. That harshness and bleakness is there in Synge’s work. I suppose I’m always circling around those, all the material that I’m working on is to do with Ireland and it’s out of Ireland. If I’m going to make a film like someone from Colorado would make a film, I don’t see the point. I can only work out of my own experiences, being Irish and engaging with the culture here, the experience of this country and the history of it.

We’re starting to see a bit more of that in Irish documentary over the last few years. It’s interesting that two of the editors you’ve worked with closely have gone on to direct in their own right: Tadhg [O’Sullivan] with The Great Wall and Keith [Walsh] with When All Is Ruin Once Again, both really beautiful films that use that sense of identity to say something unique and specific. Is there something of a new school there almost?

I’m not sure, because everyone is individual, I don’t really see it like a movement or anything. If anything there’s a movement towards genre. Not that I’m criticising genre, but there seems more of a movement that way.

Sure, but is it happening differently on different budget levels, at the lower end of the spectrum getting more focused on aspects of Irish identity? That’s one of the things that I love about Living In a Coded Land, and a few others in recent years like Donal Foreman’s [The Image You Missed].

It is good if Irish people are making documentaries about subjects that aren’t Irish. I can’t see any reason that Irish people can’t, but I think it’s always better if it’s coming out of your own experience. I would have misgivings myself about dealing with subjects that I don’t know from the inside. I’d like to make something on say colonialism in Ireland, but I’d like to be able to relate it to other cultures. If you look at the Indian reservations, those were tried out in Ireland in 1600 before in America. It’s dangerous ground in lots of ways, but if it’s done carefully it can be very constructive. There’s the cliche of 800 years of British rule or oppression, but no real engagement with it, the follow-through has never been dealt with. But I wouldn’t make a film about the colonial experience in the Congo, that should be made by someone from the Congo. But for instance Tadhg’s work, that’s the kind of thing we should be doing. If you’re coming from a point where you’re confident in your own abilities to take a subject on. So I think the Irish identity stuff can get very wearisome sometimes if you’re following Twitter. You have to really be excavating the material to come up with things that are new. Every generation should be looking to engage with the present through the past. The identity of the country is a deep identity, all of those things you have to deal with: religion and language, property and power, all of those things that were there in the 1600s still send waves over the way we live today. That’s the importance of dealing with it. There’s something very interesting happening at the moment in the world, even with the statue being toppled in Bristol, that’s hugely significant. People are sick of the inequality of it. It feels significant.

It does, it’s palpable and tangible, and it feels difficult to see how you could try to go back to the status quo.

Yeah. It’s partly to do with people in lockdown as well, sometimes you can feel foolish about the way we do things. Going to Dublin for an hour-long meeting, drive five hours for a meeting and drive back the next day. It’s a day and a half gone. What was that about?

Is the new film caught up in all this, just wait and see what happens?

Yeah, we had great plans for it. Hopefully, we’ll do something, maybe next year. But as soon as it comes back we’ll try to get a small release, and it’s going to screen online, Grasshopper Films in America are going to take on distribution, but it’s all up in the air. It screened in Toronto anyway last year, so people have seen it, and at Glasgow in March.

I saw Twilight [a short film shot close to Collins’ home in West Cork] at the Dublin Film Festival two years ago, have you been tempted to make anything similar while stuck there in lockdown?

I live by the sea, I’m here ten years, and that last thing was looking out the back window toward the land, but for the last six months I’ve starting looking out the front toward the sea. I might do something very short on the sea, I’m not sure what shape it’s going to take yet. I might do Dawn. When you’re living someplace in the countryside, and the older you get—it’s like that Patrick Kavanagh quote, a lifetime to get to know one field. And the more time you spend in the field, the more you can love it and see in it, in the grass and that tree. That’s where my life is headed anyway, single objects in a field.

The same kind of bearing witness that Tim spent so long doing?

The way he did it was phenomenal. He saw everything, every road that he drew on the map of Connemara, he’d walked down those roads. Every house he put on the map, he’d seen that house. I don’t know how he did what he did, to be honest. It’s a phenomenal undertaking. I can’t see it ever happening again. For someone with his knowledge and his intelligence—and genius, I’d say really.

And to be able to dedicate so long a time to it.

And he didn’t make any money out of it. It was pure and utter dedication. Plus the fact he learned Irish as well so he could communicate better and go into the archives. And the people he met that were still living, that were able to take him back generations. That will never be possible again.

There’s that beautiful line he has in “A Land Without Shortcuts” about recovering all these original forgotten placenames as much as possible: “To undo a little of this damage has been for me, an Englishman, an act of reparation”.

It’s an amazing thing to say. When you think of all the placenames of the country—like a scar, in a way. Literally the words of all the places we live in are meaningless in their present form, they’re just made-up words. I suppose he felt an obligation to do something about it. But if you’re living in Galway, like I was at the time, and you have the Burren on your doorstep and Connemara and the Aran Islands and Galway city itself, it’s an incredible collection of places, so individual and unique in their own right. There is no place else like them. He still didn’t—there’s an awful lot spoken about sense of place, and I remember asking about sense of place and he said: “if I have to do something on sense of place again I’ll kill myself”. A sense of place wasn’t what it was about for him. You could almost say he just dealt with what was in front of him. If somebody was trying to do something equal it should be done in a place off the beaten track, in Longford or something. It doesn’t have to be exotic like the Aran Islands or Connemara, every place is interesting. There’s a lot of work to be done, but someone like Tim Robinson isn’t going to come along again.

Tim Robinson: Connemara screens Wednesday 10th June at 21.30 on TG4