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KARLOVY VARY 2017 Out of Competition

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Song of Granite: Celebrating a life in song

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- KARLOVY VARY 2017: Pat Collins recounts the life of great traditional Irish singer Joe Heaney, against the backdrop of a stunning black-and-white Ireland

Song of Granite: Celebrating a life in song

After its world premiere in the 24 Beats Per Second section of the Austin-based SXSW Film Festival, Song of Granite [+see also:
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 landed in the official selection of the 52nd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where it promised to leave its audience speechless with its meticulous black-and-white cinematography and dulcet Irish traditional music. The director, Cork native Pat Collins, recounts the life and work of great traditional Irish singer Joe Heaney, interweaving his story with the landscapes, the culture and the hallmarks of the Gaelic community inhabiting the Irish region of Connemara. 

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Far from being a biopic per se, Song of Granite feels more like an ethnic observational documentary blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. The first act of the film follows the childhood of Heaney, a key figure spearheading the Sean-Nós tradition, as he grows into a man in the remote, poverty-stricken village of Carna in the Irish-speaking district of Connemara, on the west coast of Ireland. A stunning high-contrast, black-and-white landscape made up of the mountains and fields surrounding the area sets the mood for a highly stylised film that dwells on the cultural identity and practices of the people of Ireland over the course of the last century. One scene in particular shows Heaney at school during a Religious Education class, as the teacher indoctrinates the kids, asking them to repeat definitions of God and how to behave. This is also the point when he discovers his love for singing, but he tends to shy away from performing in public. Distancing itself from most traditional biopics, Song of Granite is a heartfelt tribute to Heaney’s roots and the music becomes the guiding thread that connects the episodes of the movie. The audience is welcomed inside houses, London pubs and Irish courtyards to participate in what is nothing less than a love letter to the director’s island.

The singing throughout the film is hypnotic and meditative – especially when the songs are in Irish. In conjunction with this, Richard Kendrick’s dexterous cinematography enhances the suggestive and cathartic function of the music. The visuals and the score are what have the power to captivate even an audience unfamiliar with Heaney’s work, luring them into his magical world of folksong. The multifaceted personality of Joe Heaney, aka Joe Éinniú or, in Gaelic, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, is reflected by his musical production, and it is portrayed in the film as a powerful yet necessary condition for his success. A skilful and well-balanced mix of fiction and archival footage gives the feeling of being as close as one can be to meeting Heaney in the flesh. 

Staged by Irish outfit Marcie FilmsSong of Granite will surely attract the attention of the Sean-Nós song-loving audience, but thanks to its artistic value, it will most likely remain in the festival circuit a while longer before hitting theatres.

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