* Ongoing project, film and video, 2019 *
I am currently developing a new film project around the myth, the literary legacy, and the enduring thematic resonances of the Buile Suibhne — the medieval tale of Ulster’s mad pagan king Sweeney and his wanderings through a new Christian Ireland in which he no longer feels either human or at home.
Unsettled by the ringing bells of the slowly encroaching religion, Sweeney abandons his throne for a birdlike life alone among the echoes of his exile and anxiety. Ambiguously airborne, Sweeney leaps from forest to forest, reciting lyrics to himself on the various trees and only locatable once a year when he returns to Glen Bolcáin, the valley of lunatics, in which all the madmen of Ireland instinctively converge “once their year in madness is complete”.
Haunted by private ghosts and increasingly estranged from the changing world around him, Sweeney at last makes a cautious reconciliation with the religion that has replaced his own as he returns, morning after morning, to the monk St. Moling, who lures him with milk left in a hollowed pile of cow dung. As the fearful Sweeney returns each day for the milk, Moling records his story and it is in that form that the early narrative explains its own creation.
Written in prose cut with verse interludes and Sweeney’s own lyric ruminations, the Buile Suibhne first appears in the Annals of the Four Masters, by which time both its political tensions and the Middle Irish of its language were already anachronistic.
Although the text only received wide Anglophone readership in the 20th century (most recently through Seamus Heaney’s translation, Sweeney Astray), the image of the nervous bird king among the trees has attracted writers from Flann O’Brien to T.S. Eliot, while the essential anxieties of Sweeney’s flight remain eerily tonal to contemporary ears.
I intend to follow the traces of the bird king and establish a narrative de-ambulation, with scattered records and literary excerpts, in an eclectic form playing on the boundaries of documentary.
With a formal imagination drawn from both his literary influences and the manuscript’s own fractured mix of intrusively “documentary” prose and distracted lyricism, the film narrative gets lost in its own structures following the wonderings of the tale, while attempting to anchor itself in historic record and analysis.
As fleeting reality enacted before a lens, Sweeney is allusive, untrusting, and incurably stray. He is an unwilling subject whose unwillingness is the subject.
By usurping the all too trusted structures of documentary in echo of Moling’s attempt to record the memories of an unconvertable self-exile, the film lures Sweeney out from the untrackable glens of a resolutely private wilderness as the narrative, visual, and even sonic stabilities of documentary corrode, and Sweeney himself might just become viewable in the margins of modernity.
A combination of digital video, analogue photographic images and super8 footage would be used to create a formal diversity across its sequences.
Anser Anser is a parallel video work created from the archive of birds for Sweeney.