Duncan Campbell, The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy, 2016, HD video, black and white, sound, 31 minutes.

Duncan Campbell, The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy, 2016, HD video, black and white, sound, 31 minutes.

Duncan Campbell

Duncan Campbell, The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy, 2016, HD video, black and white, sound, 31 minutes.

Duncan Campbell’s breakthrough film, the remarkable mini-documentary Bernadette, 2008, is an inventively intimate portrait of a public figure. Focusing on the life of left-wing activist and politician Bernadette Devlin—a magnetic, motivating presence in the Northern Irish civil rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s—Campbell constructed an unorthodox, and perversely intrusive, style of filmic biography. Principally assembled from fragments of news footage, Bernadette shows its young protagonist (born in 1947) rallying crowds and railing against authority with astonishing, beyond-her-years composure and off-the-cuff oratorical flair. But bookending this pacey, cut-up compilation of interviews and public speeches are two strange, newly produced sequences that point, by contrast, to moments of fraught privacy. In these “faked” passages, Campbell pushes the apparent limits of documentary propriety. First, in several borderline-creepy shots, the camera is allowed to linger, with fetishistic indulgence, on the hands, hair, and feet of a Bernadette stand-in. Then, in the film’s more abstract concluding section, a ruminative first-person voice-over aimed to represent the private doubts and memories of a woman who was once a prominent public personality. 

Tensions between documentary detachment and immersive access—and between on-the-record declaration and undisclosed, interior reflection—are felt again in Campbell’s most recent film, The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy, 2016, commissioned by the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, with the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands, and Western Front, Vancouver, as part of an exhibition series addressing legacies of Ireland’s postcolonial independence. Campbell’s contribution to this series comes as a belated coda to his 2014 survey show at IMMA—which included Bernadette and the Turner Prize–winning It for Others, 2013—and this compact, one-work exhibition employed the same black-box installation style as the earlier presentation. Unlike Bernadette, the title character of Campbell’s new film is an entirely nonspeaking presence: a mute, enigmatic figure unaccustomed to the probing gaze of the camera. Tomásis a young boy from a remote coastal village in 1960s Ireland, a member of a deeply traditional County Kerry community struggling to sustain itself in the modern era.

Campbell invites us to view this threatened world from the perspective of two American researchers: external observers eager to document the disappearing forms of daily life in this locality but also concerned about the extent of their potential influence—positive or negative—on the society they are filming. These fictionalized visitors—unseen but speaking presences in the film, their inquiring words voiced by actors—record the locals fishing, farming, busy with domestic chores, or packed into a bustling pub. When interviewed, some villagers are defensive or evasive, wary of questions. Others, such as the grandmother of silent Tomás, are marginally more candid, hinting at the constraints, conflicts and unspoken hardships of this largely closed world. 

The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy is a work of fiction, scripted by Campbell and filmed on location in Kerry during the summer of 2016. But it is also a documentary “reboot,” staging situations similar to those captured in rural Kerry by two Californians, Paul Hockings and Mark McCarty, an anthropologist and a film professor respectively, in their 1968 documentary The Village. Campbell mimics the period look of the earlier film, but he also inserts short excerpts from The Village into his newly made drama. The effects of this editorial fusion are uneven—deliberately so. Textural discrepancies between contemporary and archival footage foreground an unavoidable temporal discrepancy: the unbridgeable gap between then and now. Campbell’s is an emphatically unsettled film, characterized by tonal inconsistencies and internal contradictions. Black-and-white scenes of austere, eked-out existence might, for a moment, bring the films of Béla Tarr to mind—until comic subtitles or surprising, incongruous imagery force a rethink. (A sequence relating to a psychologist’s “projection ambiguity test,” for instance, partially focuses on a classical bust rotating on a pedestal.) At one point, the visiting American researchers debate film’s potential to construct or affect reality. At another, as the camera excitedly closes in on a shark drifting near the shore, there is a sense of documentary immediacy, as if reality is simply out there, waiting to be recorded. For Campbell, it seems, such perpetual movement between positions and perspectives—such unrelenting artistic agitation—is now vital to the hard work of putting history on film. 

––Declan Long