Over the last twelve years I have made a number of films and bookworks about my hometown of Eden, Northern Ireland. I was drawn to the paradox that this Eden was not an earthly utopia of peace and beauty but a rundown and half-forgotten village that exists around the perimeter fence of a large coal and oil power plant. In this landscape the Garden of Eden is a small cul-de-sac that is overshadowed by the power plant’s 700ft chimney. Wherever you walk in Eden you can see the power station’s tower, which dominates the coastline casting a shadow on the landscape like the pointer of an enormous sundial. There is an interesting tension between the rural, industrial and domestic within Eden. Situated around the perimeter fence of the power station are a number of small cottages that are a reminder of Eden’s past as a seaside town before the power plant was built in the early seventies. Some of the wooden cottages have been preserved well, painted yellow and red, while others have been weathered by the sea air and years of neglect. I wanted to see beyond the fronts of these cottages and encounter the lives behind them so I started knocking on doors and chatting with folk. The result was a series of chance encounters with neighbours I had never seen before and soon I had a collection of anecdotes on swimming, drowning, superstitions, murder, fairy bushes and American Presidents, which became the first film in the series, Eden.
Over the years I have walked around Eden in search of anecdotes and characters yet the strangest story was literally on my doorstep. In 2005, the elderly lady next door started posting odd, cryptic notes through the privet hedge that separates our two neat bungalows. At first my Mum thought it was kids but soon realised that they were from her next door neighbour. In these notes my Mum is accused of conducting an affair with the neighbour’s son, a middle-aged bachelor who never left home, and warned to stay away from him. Over a five-year period my Mum collected 150 notes not including the ones she had thrown back over the hedge. The notes were ripped crudely from the backs of envelopes recycled from long forgotten gas and telephone bills. The notes would read, ‘stay in own house at night this is not a funhouse’, ‘There are no men here your age, you are a granny’, ‘we will tell a policeman today as this is not a funhouse’.
I started the research for the first Eden film with no real agenda or narrative in mind yet felt strongly about not viewing my hometown through the lens of the conflict in Northern Ireland. My hometown was largely unaffected by the IRA campaign but like many Loyalist towns in Northern Ireland the kerb stones of the main road are painted red, white and blue and Union Jack flags fly from lampposts. As a filmmaker who has grown up in this place, I could see a very different set of stories that have little to do with the violence and hatred created by the violent conflict. With regards to my hometown I was interested in the visual irony and strangeness within the roads, lanes and tracks that cut across this rural and industrial landscape. As a starting point, I simply set out to document the curious details within the town in the hope of finding something beautiful and unique about Eden. In 2003 I wrote in my black notebook, the film should respond to the ebb and flow of the place. It is the quiet geometry of the houses, power station, perimeter fence and neglected streets, which is important. You need to refine your eye and ear and search out the secret places.
Then the notes started and became a big part of Mother’s life. The situation was impossible to ignore and slowly the film came together. While making the film I found something in the words of the poet Louis MacNeice who lived in the neighbouring town of Carrickfergus during his childhood. In his unfinished autobiography, ‘The Strings are False’ he writes about his relationship to the hedge that surrounded his childhood home. This soft yet hard boundary that keeps us private but also holds us prisoner to our domestic and everyday routines is explicit in MacNeice’s writing:
‘In the beginning was the Irish rain and marshalled by a pious woman described as a mother’s help, I pressed my nose against the streaming nursery window for a glimpse of the funeral procession on its way to the cemetery the other side of the hawthorn hedge. Our life was bounded by this hedge…. our damp cramped acre was our world’.
While making the films I wrote down the things that people told me as well as my own recollections of Eden in a series of notebooks. These were the fragments of conversations that were missed on camera or told in passing and hung in the air long enough for me to jot them down on paper. Keeping notebooks has become central to my practice as a filmmaker and is the thread through my work. The notebook is a necessary companion to my filmmaking, which has become increasingly more personal and subjective. The process of making this work is an on-going routine of gathering and collecting, observation and reflection. I enjoy the physicality of using notebooks, the flicking through pages, cutting and pasting, scribbling notes, returning to rewrite or cross out, underlining and ripping out. In this process of open roads and dead ends, the pages throw up new narrative possibilities and associations that often reveal hidden themes and concerns. The notebooks are a live document allowing ideas to come in and out of focus. Over the years another Eden started to emerge among the fragments of text and images; a kind of shadow of Eden within the books. I have collected the bits and pieces of Eden like flotsam found at high tide by the sea. Within these notebooks, my walks and encounters make up a fragmented story. Therefore, I am not interested a straight oral history of Eden but producing a kind of oral fiction in the form of an anecdotal vignette.
My working process is a kind of ad hoc collecting, which tends to be slow and happens over long periods of time. Therefore compiling scrapbooks, journals, and notebooks has been an integral part of my filmmaking practice from the beginning. The process of making this type of work is an on-going routine of gathering and gleaning, observation and reflection, which becomes then visible within the journal. I enjoy the routine to keeping journals, flicking through pages, cutting and pasting, scribbling notes, returning to rewrite, underlining, crossing out and ripping up. Within this process the pages throw up new narrative starting points, associations and reveal hidden themes and concerns.
As a starting point, I simply set out to document the juxtapositions and curious details of the place in hope of discovering something beautiful and unique about Eden. This starting point enabled me to carry out a slow reading of the landscape, its history and inhabitants. I’m looking for the overlooked and half forgotten stories in a place.
I thought I was going to be a painter until the day I went to Belfast Art college and realized very quickly that I wasn’t very good. I liked photography but loved the combination of moving image, sound and editing, which film and video brings. I went to Newport Film School and grateful for learning the craft of filmmaking and went on to study Fine Art at the University of Wales institute, where I developed an interest in Artist Moving image. Since then I have made dance films, experimental films, Installation works and Television documentary but feel happiest when I’m working on a self-initiated project, which has some personal connection or truth. I make a living lecturing on BA Film Production and MA Documentary at UCA, Farnham, which enables me to keep on practicing as a filmmaker and keep a roof over my head.
A friend once said to me that Ireland has no Philosophers but lots of Poets. I’ve always been drawn to writers and go back to poets like Paul Muldoon, Brendan Kennelly and Ken Smith but also reread, William H Gass, David Markson and Rebecca Solnit. The filmmaker who comes to mind would be John Smith, who was a very early inspiration.
EDEN (Selected films, 2004 to 2016) are on exhibition at Format International Photography Festival, Derby UK