We take so much for granted. We assume the way things are is the best way things could be. This problem is so grave we tend never to even question the structure of our lives and the societies that shape them. Indeed, most of us find it impossible to imagine a life not built around corporate work, the acquisition of consumer goods, and the atomistic, self-centered pursuit of pleasure. In short, a life built around place, family, faith and tradition is literally unimaginable.
Seeing an example helps. Here, take a look at this:
I discovered the film above a while back on YouTube. It aired originally on Irish television in 1980. Produced by famed Irish filmmaker David Shaw-Smith, it is truly a joy. Everything about it, both in form and content, is counter-cultural.
The quietness it captures is striking. Unlike most contemporary films, even documentaries, there is no attempt here to gin up excitement through loud music, flashy transitions or weird camera movements. Instead, we see half an hour of people speaking almost in whispers. Quiet people are now such a rarity that they still draw us into the film almost 40 years later.
The placid soundscape is mirrored in the simplicity of the shots: lots of simple, locked down, eye-level images, beautiful landscapes and cutaways. The world we see seems to offer silence and stability and rest. The feeling of the piece is captured about two and a half minutes in when, in her voiceover, Dolores Hogan says “There isn’t much more you’d want than a lake out in front of you and mountains all around you…freedom to walk up the mountain, freedom to walk down by the lake, nice people. There’s peace, peace.”
The content is, of course, even more important than the film’s form in making that peace tangible. The movie is a profile of former philosophy student Joe Hogan who, after graduating university, decided to move to a rural part of Ireland to farm a small holding. To supplement the family income, Joe decided to take up a trade and turned to basketmaking. He’s still working. Buy a basket from him here.
This is a life most people now can’t imagine: a life of independence where the family income depends on the work of one’s hands. For most of us, work has become a meaningless exercise. We are alienated from the activities to which we devote the majority of our time. Work is just something we endure to pay the bills.
The rootedness of the life the Hogan’s have chosen is equally hard for most of us to understand. Early in the film, Joe speaks derisively of the modern habit of uprooting oneself from time to time. That kind of commitment to place is profoundly anti-modern. By tying himself to one place, Joe traded off opportunities and excitement for the deeper rewards of stable connections and a fuller knowledge of land and neighbor. That’s a gamble almost nobody today has the guts to take.
One feature of the Hogan’s lifestyle is that families spend time together, especially parents and children. In the film, the Hogan’s son Daragh plays around his parents’ feet while they work. While such an older style of life may not yield the same level of riches as a life of corporate slavery, at least children know their fathers. And that, everyone knows, is itself a kind of wealth.
The Hogan family chose this life, the narrator says, because even in the late-1970’s, the rest of the world was accelerating toward conflict and chaos. How much further we are now down that road! The more the modern world collapses in upon itself, the more urgent and desirable is the kind of life we see in this film.
Joe repeatedly says that his farm is no utopia. No sensible person would imagine otherwise. But, the life Joe Hogan and his family model in this film offers possibilities modern people yearn for: the possibility of stability, of independence, of connection. For all the gadgets and baubles modern life affords us, millions crave these other, more profound satisfactions.
Unfortunately, the system of modern life traps us. Joe Hogan, at least in 1980, didn’t appear to have the pressure of student loan payments or cable bills. Perhaps he had a kind of freedom we now deny to the young. Who knows?
What is obvious is that he made a decision for a certain kind of life when he had the chance. Most of us are not so wise. For us then, the film is valuable insofar as it makes us mindful of what opportunities for improvement we do have, makes us mindful that a different kind of life is even possible. If you doubt me, watch the film and see for yourself.