The silver branch

- Review by Patrick Byrne

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Katrina Costello’s The Silver Branch must be understood not as a documentary but as a video essay, following farmer and poet Patrick McCormack as he relays the troubled history of his native patch in the Burren, Co. Clare. This caveat is very important; the best and worst things about this film stem from the fact that it is a one-man-show.

The Burren hosts an abundant of wildlife, ancient forts, famine villages and a sprawling network of modest family farms, long established within indeterminate criss-crosses of dry stone walls wherever the rocky landscape will allow. McCormack narrates the film, elaborating on his intimate connection with the unforgiving terrain, showing his love, and mourning, for the archaic form of pastoral living which it hosts and represents to the world. He discusses his family life, the joy of raising children to have a respect and appreciation of the natural world that supports them. He checks in on neighbours to show us how their way of life reflects all he loves most about the area. The narrative and thematic centre of the film is McCormack’s retelling of a legal battle fought in the early nineties between an alliance of local residents and developers and politicians who planned to build a tourist centre in the heart of his arid idyll.

And that is all there is to it. The Silver Branch is 75 minutes of McCormack’s musings, played over Ken O’Sullivan’s mollifying shots of the wildlife, land and people, all with the narrative through-line of a development scuffle.

What sells the movie is the sincerity and depth of feeling in McCormack’s voice-over, and the convincing case he builds against the developers. It’s not maudlin, it’s hardly even earnest; not the M&S ad for the Burren that the trailers portray.

The film simply takes all the time it needs to portray the life, cause and poetry of a sincere man, but this is also the problem with the film, which ends up being about McCormack and not the contentious events at its centre.

I had said that this film is not a documentary, but perhaps it needed to be. Perhaps the controversy at the film’s heart deserved a film of its own. We learn of a case that went to the high court, divided loyalties and split friendships. The development plans were apparently very popular with many of McCormack’s neighbours. It clearly constitutes a case where our responsibility to the environment was in potential conflict with the responsibility we have to community development; and the politicians, lawyers and developers would all be eager to vindicate themselves.

Costello and McCormack can of course be committed to one side of this issue, but more work ought to have been done to explore the matter if they wanted their message to be secure. Regrettably enough, the same might just be said about McCormack’s view of the farmer’s life. One can make a movie about the joy a single person can get from this work and lifestyle, but I for one could not shake the thought of other farmers, perhaps also inhabiting a harsh and frugal holding, perhaps injured or infirm at the hands of the land and animals McCormack sees so much in; farmers who aren’t born romantics, and who can’t see the beauty in it all. I giggled more than once at the thought of giving the film the Werner Herzog treatment; “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder”, and of all the small farmers who’d agree.