In the latter half of 2019, Frank Sweeney spent six months in the National Folklore Collection, at University College Dublin (UCD), researching his latest film, All I Believe Happened There Was Vision.
Archives are a place of interest for the 31-year-old Phibsboro native. “I guess it’s because they’re like institutions of preservation. The inclusion or absence of materials within archives can tell us about the conditions of their creation,” he says in his space in Jigsaw on Belvedere Court in Dublin 1.
He combed through books, audio recordings, and transcripts, but there was no precise method to his research. Instead, he allowed himself to go down a research rabbit-hole, following threads of ideas that interested him.
“I think pretty early on I got interested in the descriptions of the Otherworld. They were beautifully strange and displayed the kind of imagination I felt was lacking in the contemporary Irish state,” he says.
The Otherworld is a reference to utopia in Irish folklore, a mythical realm, home to the dead and the supernatural, and the focal point for Sweeney’s new film.
But, instead of focusing on Ireland’s ancient past, Sweeney revived the myth of the Otherworld through a contemporary lens, exploring data centres, financial institutions, and housing projects as modern-day spaces of reverence.
“The idea is that these spaces are sort of modern Otherworlds and held with magical status in our contemporary society,” he says.
All I Believe Happened There Was Vision is composed of archival footage of Ireland’s history such as religious ceremonies, the burning of the Four Courts and country life. This is intertwined with documentary-style shots of contemporary Ireland as passages from folklore tales are read over the film.
Originally made for the St Patrick’s Festival, the film is being exhibited online now because of Covid-19.
“The film starts with the public records office fire,” says Sweeney. A sculpted hand made from clay rests beside his desk, behind him sits a keyboard.
It opens with archival shots of the Four Courts, which was attached to the public records office, ablaze at the start of the Irish civil war in 1922.
“The whole purpose of that archive was kind of a material legitimacy for the British state,” says Sweeney.
When that legitimacy was burnt it almost made a clean slate for the new Irish Free State, he says.
The film then moves to grandiose shots of the Ardnacrusha power plant on the River Shannon. Sweeney and a crew of five other people headed out on a boat in February to film this.
The hydroelectric scheme was one of the new state’s first major projects. It’s filmed from low angles making the enormous walls of the plant look like some mystical cathedral.
“[Filming] it was very very stressful and complicated as the budget was very small, I needed to find someone interested enough to drive us up the river for petrol money,” he says.
The film then progresses chronologically through certain milestones in Irish Free State.
From early housing projects to religious ceremonies through to modern-day data centers and financial districts.
Throughout the film, Maria Oxley Boardman narrates the piece.
The narration blends historical information and mystical passages taking from a range of sources, from memoirs to and folklore collections.
It gives the film a dreamy utopian feel which juxtaposes the stark film footage.
Researching The Past and Drawing On Influences
The themes of folklore and Irish history in this film are drawn from a lifetime of research, says Sweeny.
“As long as I can remember, I have been reading a lot of history books,” he says.
Beside him sit a stack of books, among them is a book on Irish politician Éamon De Valera and another on the Shannon hydroelectric scheme.
He was also inspired, he says, by cultural theorist Mark Fisher’s critique of capitalism.
“In the Mark Fisher critique, there is a lack of imagination in modern-day capitalism,” says Sweeney.
Fisher suggests this lack of imagination could be attributed to the way we all receive the same media, he says.
Says Sweeney: “As I view it, much of our economic model is based on extracting wealth like data from other nations and processing it here.”
The film explores this idea when it focuses on the Shannon free zone, a business district set up by the state in the 1950s which sold itself to foreign direct investment (FDI) with tax incentives.
“It was the first model of attracting foreign direct investment[…]some people allege that it was the first free trade zone in the world,” he says.
“It seems that the ideology was based on rural industry, self-sufficiency, and catholicism which was slowly replaced a sort of spiritual belief in a low tax economy attracting foreign investment,” he says.
Alongside making films, Sweeney works as a sound designer in theatre and as a musician.
He’s no stranger to tackling political and social issues, having worked with the company THEATREclub for the past ten years.
“I always wanted to make films and the sort of stuff that I was working on in theatres influenced the stuff that I wanted to make,” he says.
He worked with drug addicts and sex workers, with THEATREclub.
Working with people’s real-life experience is important, he says.
“These people know best so you try to share creative ownership with them,” he says.
The conversation turns to art in Dublin today. Sweeney is slightly optimistic.
“At the moment it is the first time, maybe in the history of the state, when people are hanging around a lot more,” he says.
This is exactly what is needed for creatives in Dublin, he says.
“Firstly so we can kind of organise ourselves based on shared experience and then secondly we can create proper localised scenes,” says Sweeney.
[Correction: This article was updated Wednesday 26 August at 10.09am to add that Maria Oxley Boardman narrated the film. We apologise for the initial error.]