It’s set in post-apocalyptic Northern Ireland where walking is once again the only mode of transport. There’s no mains electricity. Food is used as currency. It’s a feudal society, with military brigades dotted around the countryside. Derelict buildings lie in ruinous disrepair. Animals are scarce.
The film follows Maeve (Mary Lindsay) and John (Lalor Roddy) as they slowly journey across the landscape, pushing a trolley containing their few possessions and supplies. The man’s health is failing. Along the way they pick up a troubled mapmaker and a soldier.
“You’re looking for medicine? It would be a shame to die looking for it.”
In many ways it’s like time has rolled back several hundred years. Except that objects from the present day remain in the landscape: pylons, tea pots, Osrams (which we tend to know as “bulbs”). But the context of how to use them and what their purpose was has been lost or at best confused.
It’s not just objects that remain visible in a decontextualised state. There are tell-tale glimpses into practices and events from the past that live on in new adapted customs and rituals. Prayer is still part of life, but despite lying on the ground in a star shape, it’s no longer directed at God. There’s a great scene when the couple come across a rag bag army with hedge sheer blades mounted like bayonets on their improvised weapons. A game is organised.
It begins with two men challenging each other to interpret their riddles. Then it moves on to a bout of outrageous name calling. And finally, the two men stand either side of an improvised barrier (a big green sheet) and fling ever-stranger objects over at each other. The aim is to catch them. A man wearing a balaclava sits in the middle and calls out “foul” or “catch”. An old telephone is heaved over first. Later a dead
dog fox. A burning branch is chucked over. All the while the observers cheer on the two men by banging on metal objects.
Clear references to the political, prison and paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland over the past thirty or more years, knitted into a new situation.
Ditching’s plot proceeds at walking pace, helping to reinforce the slow pace of life in the post-modern world. Humour is rare. The characters don’t perceive the humour that audiences will find in their situations. It’s a laborious existence. The morning after crossing paths with some cannibals, the following conversation ensues:
“Isn’t it good to be alive in the morning?”
“So far ...”
“Aren’t you happy not to be eaten?”
“It’s not enough not to be eaten.”
The cinematography feels like a rural version of urbex photography. Where did the Factotum find so many derelict buildings? The imagery – particularly pushing the trolley along lanes and through fields – reminded me of the journeying found in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and the mother and son trudging through the countryside in Katalin Varga.
There are countless nods – perhaps not all intentional! – to other films and programmes. As John and Maeve pick up travellers along their way and end up with the house of the Priestess it’s very Wizard of Oz without Toto. The characters who wander across the shot pushing a huge tractor tyre (“there’s good burnin’ in it”) are very Monty Python. And there’s definitely something of Blake’s 7 in the cannibals clothed in red knitted wool from head to foot as well as the woeful incidental recorder music near the end.
It is obviously a film made on a low budget, with a small cast, but high production ideals. Despite the odd jump between shots, and unexpected changes in sound level, it’s very well constructed, and the lack of complicated plot (basically, he’s dying, they're on a quest to find medicine, and everyone they meet is disturbed) is a deliberate device rather than a failing.
As a film, Ditching begs to be analysed. How much of today’s customs and rituals across Northern Ireland are misunderstood and no longer contextually accurate reflections of past events? How much are we slaves to our past without realising? And like the not so hungry Aran-clad cannibals in the film, does our fear of others come from what we’re told rather than what we actually experience?
Ditching has previously been screened at the Belfast Film Festival and run in the Queen’s Film Theatre. Hopefully it’ll get other opportunities to be seen by a wider audience and the future can be used to ask people questions about how the past influences our present.