REMEM- Magic and loss

In The Secret Of Roan lnish, John Sayles, America’s greatest independent filmmaker, leaves his homeland for Ireland and the myth of the Selkies. He tells Trevor Johnston about making cinema for children.

A sense of place has always been significant in John Sayles‘s movies as writer~director-editor. The bayou in Passion Fish. the West Virginia mining town that gives Mlllt’lt'all its title. the New York urban decay we see in The Brother From Another Planet. even the fictional New Jersey burg that is the City OfHope all these movies show a filmmaker alive to the environment and to the cultural history and traditions that pass between it and its people.

Shot as far back as the spring of I993. his delightful Celtic fantasy The Secret Of Roan lnish runs from the same well-spring. Ostensibly it's a children’s movie about a young girl sent to live with her grandparents on the coast of Donegal who discovers an unexpected family connection with the local legend of the Selkie - a magical creature who‘s half-woman. half-seal and whose presence holds a strange sway over the fisherfolk. Nevertheless. Sayles’s characteristic intelligence. wide-ranging human sympathies and practised storytelling craft make it far. far tnore than something to quieten brattish nephews on a wet afternoon.

John Sayles: storytelling cratt

‘I liked movies when I was a kid. so I sat down and tried to think whether I'd actually have liked any of the movies I’ve made.‘ explains the godfatherly stalwart of America’s independent movie scene of this unexpected change of career trajectory. ‘Apart from the baseball stuff in Eight Men Out. I came up pretty much a blank. Now I don‘t really care much at all about the “return to family values" nonsense that‘s been going on in the US; what I do care about is people who really love movies having movies out there that they can go and see.‘

Having badgered him for about ten years. Sayles's producer and partner Maggie Renzi finally succeeded in getting him to write a screenplay adaptation ofa book she'd always loved. Rosalie K. Fry‘s Secret Of The Ron Mor Skerry. changing the location in the process from the Scottish to the Irish coastline. at least in pan because of an awareness of the untapped potential market among the substantial Irish-

American community.

‘In the literature and the songs that we hear from the Irish in America there's a constant theme of loss.‘ Sayles points out. ‘and so. in a way. it made more sense for The Secret ()j'Rou/t lnish to take place in Ireland because it's about this idea of losing the island that’s the former family home. being pushed off by the British. losing the language. and having to make a new life with all that behind you.‘

While master cameraman Haskell Wexler beautifully captures the quality of the Donegal light and Sayles's screenplay structures itself around the country's tradition of oral tale-spinning. it‘s the combination ofsubtly put-over natural tnagic a combination of wild-life footage. strategic animatronics effects and a lot of patient waiting for seals and seagulls to behave exactly as required and abiding respect for the workings of the local way of

‘We weren’t going to bring over the lemale Macaulay Culkin and try to get her to do the brogue. Hell, it you’re going to make an Irish movie,

make an Irish movie.’

life that gives the movie a satisfying integrity rarely encountered in the work of visiting Americans.

Even ifthe very lrishness and careful pacing the film‘s major strengths as it happens brought caution from US distributors that has slowed down its overseas exposure. Sayles deserves his quota of respect for sticking to his guns. ‘It's like that thing where ifa tree falls in the forest and it doesn't fall on an American. did it really happen at all‘." he adds with a caustic grin. ‘This picture wasn‘t about that. it wasn‘t about going to or coming frotn America. And we weren‘t going to bring over the female Macaulay Culkin and try to get her to do the brogue. Hell. if you're going to make an Irish movie. make an Irish movie.’

The Secret ()j'lt’omi lnish opens at the (father). Edinburgh. on Mon 26 Aug and the Glasgow Film Theatre on Fri [3 Sept.



It’s taken .lohn Sayles’s wisttul Celtic lantasy so long to reach these shores that his next til. has already screened at the Film Festival, but that shouldn’t disgqu the tact that the Secret 0! Roan lnish is a wee sweetie ot a picture in its own right. Although

fiafiam:gy:;¢nfizglrm experience and proof that the Yanks lack ot comm.“ Hy; hrou M70 can cross the Atlantic without thl Irish g " inllicting another Brigadoon on us. 80'8“” It: 41:8“ story ot the the Secret Oi ltoan lnish: ‘rlchly satistylng experience’ (7'0"! Johnston) - man, halt-seal . spinning and close communication The Secret 0! [loan lnish (P6) (John

creatures ot myth and legend - that (:on and Mick l8"! 8 90"" mixes it so My. mg 9mm IN acres up hay with the natural world are simply Sayles, (IS/Ireland, 1994) Jen]

there’s no condescedsion or tel iron the enigmatic isle oi lloan lnish “*9" '0' granted 88 PM Of local lilo. 000ml. Eileen 0019811. John lynch. FIMIII hero but - as Jeni 60.89:.“ (a loner tally hoine vacated under “"0 "'0 “803"" ”II: It: tresh- 103 tntns. From Mon 26 Aug: smart when u i m - g. laced protagonist to unravel just what Edlnoorgh canoe. Front Fri 13 Sept:

young heroine discovers myste ous c rc cos) 0'“! y did Roan lnish in ears Glasgow Film theatre.

she’s sent to live with grandma Eileen magic, a living tradition oi tale WP" 0' v

gone by, the restrained pacing, avoidance ot cheap ettects and over- riding intelligence ot the approach are tar removed from the inanity ol what passes tor a lot oi children’s movies these days. In tact, its portrait oi a Celtic community struggling to hold onto its cultural identity In the lace oi the modern world and political upheaval is done with more sophistication and cratt than you’ll iind in many a grown-up title.

All in all, a richly satistying

The List 23 Aug-5 Sept I996 77