Dissolving The Secret of Roan Inish is a short videographic study of the 1994 Irish children’s film and its layered and polyphonic storytelling and aesthetics. It was made by Birkbeck, University of London, Professor Catherine Grant for the College’s annual Arts Weeks events, online in May 2020.
The Secret of Roan Inish is U.S. writer-director John Sayles’s much-loved Irish children’s film-story of return, recovery and reconstruction. An adaptation of the 1959 novel Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie K. Fry, it tells of Fiona, a girl transplanted with her father and older brother to an East coast city in the north, after the death of her mother and the disappearance of her younger brother on their ancestral West coast island of Roan Inish (Island of the Seals). Through Fiona’s return to Roan Inish and the loving care of her grandparents and cousin, she grieves her loss, solves its mysteries, and reunites her family with their ancient home.
In my short video essay, Sayles’s magical film is here distilled and studied through the digital editing technique of chronologically collecting its numerous dissolves (transitions between shots in a film ‘that [superimpose] a fade-out over a fade-in,’ to use David A. Cook’s technical definition)*. In setting out to do this, my work aimed at producing a new, sensuous, affective and concise audiovisual experience of the centrality of the dissolves to this film-story, in relative isolation from many of the movie’s other components.
This is a compilation technique I have used for research purposes before, for example in my 2016 video essay about Brief Encounter (David Lean, UK 1945), another film with extensive and inventively used dissolves. For those interested in this methodology, I wrote about that experiment and the resulting video Dissolves of Passions: A Film Within a Film at length here.**
While I will also go on to write a longer reflection on my creative research into Sayles’s film, in short, what I earlier concluded of my experiment on Brief Encounter is largely true of my new exploration as well:
Gathered together and joined up, the dissolves […] disclose the extent of their storytelling load and function in the film […]. This being the case, their compilation has resulted in the production of a narratively meaningful piece of ex-cinema,*** a videographic rendering of a ‘film within a film’, excised and re-sculpted from its digital host. […] But they also point to the more general insight, which I arrived at through the making of this work, that dissolves—as intrinsically composed audio-visual durational material (a little like fades and wipes, but unlike hard cuts)—are always short films within films. Indeed, they can often be (as they are in [this film’s] not always so brief dissolving encounters) highly affective kinds of microscopic and kaleidoscopic movies.
When concentrated in this way, experiencing the transformative and transitional power of dissolves might even be quite therapeutic, especially given the utopic, magical-thinking narratives they convey, both for the child protagonist and the spectator of The Secret of Roan Inish. It was certainly the case that making this new video for Birkbeck’s 2020 Arts Weeks events, and the return to and immersion in Sayles’s film that this entailed, was a very welcome focus and distraction for me while enduring the troubling times of COVID-19 lockdown.
Uncannily, yet comfortingly, this creative scholarly research also coincided with finally dis-solving, or settling, an island of Ireland family mystery of my own, after many, many years of searching. Time and time again, stories of selkies — seal folk who change to human form by shedding their skin — are vehicles for explorations of genealogical and genetic concerns. As Henry Bradford writes of Sayles’s film and other instances of this mythological tradition, these kinds of narratives are often ‘deeply tied to longing, displacement, and an appeal to otherworldly origins to explain traits in families.’**** I know this was why I was so drawn to The Secret of Roan Inish, as well as to Sayles’s filmmaking more generally, for this is not the only work by this Irish-American director that displays a keen interest in, and highly original take on, deeply buried family secrets. Sayles’s very next film Lone Star ) is also a favourite of mine on that subject, and one I would equally highly recommend watching these days.
This video is dedicated, with much love, to my Irish family – it is so good to know you at last
* David A. Cook, , A History of Narrative Film (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996). P. 963.
** For THE VIDEOGRAPHIC ESSAY: Practice and Pedagogy, a website edited by Christian Keathley, Jason Mittell and Catherine Grant (2019). Online: http://videographicessay.org/works/videographic-essay/dissolves-of-passion-1
*** ‘Ex-cinema’, as Akira Lippit describes it, refers to remix or found footage based works of revisionary re-assemblage, ones that destabilize the original movie’s ‘correct syntaxes’ (see Lippit, EX-CINEMA: FROM A THEORY OF EXPERIMENTAL FILM AND VIDEO [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012], p. 165).
****Henry Bradford, ‘Selkies’, THE CELTIC FRINGE April 30, 2014. Online: https://blogs.haverford.edu/celticfringe/tag/folktales/
Maureen Turim and Mika Turim-Nygren, ‘Of Spectral Mothers and Lost Children: War, Folklore, and Psychoanalysis in THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH’, in Diane Carson and Heidi Kenaga (eds), SAYLES TALK : NEW PERSPECTIVES ON INDEPENDENT FILMMAKER JOHN SAYLES (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006), pp. 134-157.
Epigraph from “Never give all the heart” by William Butler Yeats
Film: The Secret of Roan Inish
Written, directed and edited by John Sayles, USA/Ireland, 1994
Cinematography by Haskell Wexler
Music by Mason Daring, and traditional
Closing song excerpt: Selke Song (An Mhaighdean Mhara), sung by Eileen Loughanne
For other Birkbeck Arts Weeks 2020 events and activities, visit: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/annual-events/arts-week/arts-week-2020
CATHERINE GRANT is Professor of Digital Media and Screen Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, where she teaches and researches online audiovisual cultures, audiovisual essay practices and digital forms of analysis and criticism. She makes short films as part of her research, runs the Film Studies For Free blog and is a founding co-editor of [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies.