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In its earliest moments North Circular feels more like listening to a sound collage than watching a motion picture.
Its black and chrome photography is static. Its first subjects, the deer and trees near the Wellington Monument, stand still as well. The sound of chirping birds and rustling leaves suggest movement, but the impression is of an experimental still image film.
Movements are at first, imperceptible, but eventually, they do come – in the form of the rhythmic swaying of a group of musicians serenading the local wildlife from the steps of the monument. The animals bob their heads in approval.
Luke McManus’ documentary follows the North Circular Road from Phoenix Park through to the Docks. But that description is too plain for a film like this.
The narrative is shaggy, prone to digressions and interludes. At times unwieldy, but always interesting, and what’s more interesting is the people, places, and the place in history of the North Circular Road.
At first it’s hard to grasp how the Army Pipe Band relates to Gemma Dunleavy, but McManus manages to tie the many disparate subjects of his narrative together through their songs and spirit.
North Circular went from conception to completion during a pandemic lockdown. The 5km restriction on movement meant McManus was forced to explore his surroundings like never before.
The resulting film is like taking a walking tour with a magnifying glass strapped to your face. McManus is interested in the minutia, the “hows” and “whys” of the area.
Much of the film’s content and context relate to the history of the areas it explores. Where another documentary would opt for archival footage, McManus instead tells these stories through first-hand accounts or drilled-down photography of the locations in question.
North Circular’s episodes and diversions are bookended with musical performances filmed in a style that’s somewhere between verité and pick-up shots for a forgotten Dublin-set film noir.
McManus cites Pat Collins’ Song of Granite as an inspiration for the treatment of performances in the film. The players are framed with an unmoving camera and though there is frequent intercutting, the feeling is of witnessing an unbroken performance.
In all of the musical sequences, the feeling is that the singer bears the weight of a ballad’s history in their expression – there is a solemnnity to the treatment of the music. A caption at the end of the film is a slightly sugared variation on a Frank Harte quote: “Those who struggle write the songs.”
One section on O’Devaney Gardens intercuts footage of a haphazard fireworks display and bonfire with interview footage of a former resident. The footage does an admirable job of approximating the “chaos but fun” that the interviewee tells us about.
In this sequence the musical number is the crackling of burning pallets and the booming snare and bass from the fireworks. This scene is one of the most beautiful in a film full of astonishing imagery.
No matter the subject, North Circular’s photography calls out to the audience, every inch of the frame demanding closer inspection. Its depth and richness is emphasised by the use of a 4:3 aspect ratio.
The images are even more remarkable considering that five cinematographers worked on the film: Evan Barry, Jamie Goldrick, Patrick Jordan, Richard Kendrick and McManus himself. That the film looks as coherent and measured as it does speaks to the keen eyes of McManus and the film’s editor John Murphy.
There are many memorable sequences in the film, many of them tinged with a wistfulness but capped with sparks of hope and humour.
The Army piper from the start of the film tells McManus that there’s no interest in piping from his kids or grandkids. “Too many Pokémons …”, he concludes. In another sequence, an audience of two confused children offer up golf-clap style applause to an outdoor performance of “Old Bangum”.
Likewise, McManus’ extended sequence with local tin-whistle player Séan Ó Túama balances comedy and tragedy from one line to the next, as with the musical sequences there’s never a sense of McManus’ intervening in the action. He is a curious observer, the same as the audience.
Ó Túama, talks about his time in and out of psychiatric institutions as a teenager and an adult, speaking plainly about the tragedies that he’s experienced but always with a smile or joke cued up. Open but guarded. Toward the end of our time with Ó Túama, the camera hangs on the man as he takes short, nervy drags from a cigarette illuminated by the glow of a television set. The unmoving camera and the long suspended take suggests admiration, and a certain sort of pity.
The last section of North Circular focuses on celebration. Lisa O’Neill sings “Rock the Machine” as we cut to Kellie Harrington returning home an Olympic hero. The credits roll over Gemma Dunleavey performing at a packed-out show at The Academy.
Initially, North Circular looks like still life, a photo essay, but as the movie progresses so too does its sense of movement. The soundscape expands as well from birdsong to the whir of machinery, from the drone of the pipes to the electronic beat of a drum machine. Life overruns the frame at the close of the film.
McManus has fashioned a remarkable contemporary document of places, people, lives and times with North Circular, as past, present and future smash together in front of our eyes. Black and white rarely looks as colourful as in that final sequence.
North Circular recently screened at the Galway Film Fleadh a wider release is forthcoming.