Thursday, July 03, 2014

Oidhche sheanchais / Night of the Storyteller (2014 Harvard Film Archive preservation)

Michael Dirrane listening to the ancient yarn.
GB/IE 1935. D: Robert Flaherty. ED: John Goldman. P: Gaumont-British Picture Corporation Ltd. 35 mm. [20' announced]. B&w. Gaelic version with English subtitles. From: Harvard Film Archive
    Restored by Harvard Film Archive from a 35 mm nitrate print discovered at Harvard University in 2013
    Presented by Peter von Bagh. Introducono Sunniva O'Flynn e Haden Guest
    Actual duration: 12 min + restoration credits.
    C: Maggie Dirrane (the singer), Michael Dirrane, Seánainín Tom Ó Dioráin (the storyteller).
    Screened with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, 3 July 2014

Haden Guest, Sunniva O'Flynn (Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2014, catalogue and website): "The short Oidhche sheanchais affirms Flaherty's belief in cinema as a mythopoeic and folkloric art. Ireland's first government-sponsored film, Oidhche sheanchais was funded by a modest £ 200 budget assigned for the production of an Irish language talkie enshrining a vital element of the national heritage. Flaherty directed the film while in London recording the post-synch sound for Man of Aran, using that film's cast together with Seáinín Tom Ó Dioráin, a renowned Aran island storyteller. Unlike Man of Aran, Oidhche sheanchais was recorded entirely in Irish. Prior to the film's release the Irish Press distributed a dialogue transcript to ensure that "children will... not miss any of the beauty and subtlety of the story it tells"." Haden Guest, Sunniva O'Flynn (Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2014, catalogue and website)

Haden Guest in his introduction told us that this is the first public screening of the preservation, the answer print flown directly from the lab today from L.A.
    Oidhche sheanchais was the crystallization of the folkloric in Flaherty's work.
    For the first time in the cinema Irish language was spoken.
    It was Flaherty's first work in direct sound.
    In the film-to-film preservation the guideline was to respect the print - to keep the texture, the grain, and the truth of the photochemical image - within that patina, the true beauty of the photochemical image.

Sunniva O'Flynn reported that little had been heard about Oidhche sheanchais since it was distributed in Irish cinemas in 1935. From Man of Aran, Maggie Dirrane sings the sea shanty of loss of lives. Seánainín Tom Ó Dioráin, the storyteller, lost his life in a boating accident not long after the making of this film. (My notes of the introductions.)

AA: Four years ago when we did our Robert Flaherty retrospective I was aware of the title Oidhche sheanchais appearing in some filmographies, but none of the authoritative sources I consulted then could say anything about it, not even if the film had actually existed. Now we know.

Bought at the time for language teaching purposes by Harvard University, the film had survived there, and was identified in 2012.

It is a simple record with Maggie Dirrane singing, Seánainín Tom Ó Dioráin telling a story, and Michael Dirrane listening. The spelling of the name of the storyteller sounds like "Johnny Tom O'Dirrane"; he might be the grandfather? "It is a story that was old a thousand years ago".

It is the story of Martin Conroe and his children in Connemara. It was reported that fish shoaled in Blacksod Bay. Boats would come to fish there. That was the night when a storm grew. Martin Conroe's children collected nets. They used pitchforks to light the sod, put embers in front of the pitchfork to put glowing sod into the ballast. A great wave was approaching, and every boat was sinking, and the tail of the wave was so big. But pushing the pitchfork with the sod against the wave the wave flattened out. There were 78 widows with orphaned children.
    Then came a nobleman with a white horse to Martin Conroe. He asked his son to "accompany me for one hour". The son no longer knew where he was. There was a castle, a royal residence, they went from room to room, and there was a room with beautiful young women. One was in bed, and a pitchfork protruded from her belly. "Pull this out". She was the queen of the palace. And he pulled the pitchfork and the sod from her side. "I am the great wave that arose and killed so many people. It was I who raised the gale and the swell." The son found the horse again, and there were three years of prosperity. The Conroes bought Blacksod Bay, they could have bought the entire parish. There was a long life for the brothers. (I apologize for misunderstandings in the notes I scribbled during the screening).

Yet another expression of the Flaherty philosophy: catch the person when he is totally immersed in what he is doing.

A treat for a Finn, from the land of Kalevala, a fellow land of ancient storytellers and oral legends that have lasted millennia, also our most ancients legends being those of sailors and fishermen.

Flaherty documents here the oral storytelling circumstances: it is like song-lore, the yarn having a structure and rhythm like a song, the listeners repeating keywords like a chorus.

The faces are glowing. With his cinematographer, Flaherty is documenting the inner light of the storytellers.

The print conveys the true grit photochemical quality.

P.S. Harvard Film Archive website: "Robert Flaherty’s lost Irish Gaelic film found at Harvard. - Documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty directed the first film made in the Irish language, Oidhche Sheanchais (“A Night of Storytelling”) in 1935 during the production of his now classic film Man of Aran. - Cited in nearly every history of Irish cinema, this short (11 minute) film has been missing, believed lost, since a fire destroyed the only known copies in 1943. A nitrate print of the film, purchased by the Harvard College Library in 1935 at the request of Harvard’s Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures, was rediscovered by Houghton Library curators during a cataloging update in 2012." (Harvard Film Archive website, 3 July 2014)

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