March 27, 2019
Katrina Costello whose first film, Silver Branch, has been nominated for a Best Feature Documentary in the IFTAs. Photograph by John Kelly.

Irish philosopher, poet, and fifth-generation farmer, Patrick McCormack lives in harmony with the natural world. He becomes a reluctant fighter when the fate of this iconic wilderness is threatened by encroaching development in THE SILVER BRANCH directed by Katrina Costello.  

SFF program director Jeff Schmidt caught up with Costello ahead of the film’s New England Premiere at the Peabody Essex Museum on Sunday, March 31 at 3 p.m.


Jeff Schmidt: What is your background as a filmmaker and what is the origin story for THE SILVER BRANCH? How did you come to meet Patrick McCormack?

Katrina Costello: It is my debut documentary, which I shot, edited and directed. I am self-thought in all disciplines, guided by some wonderful friends.

I grew up farming in the 60s and 70s, a time in Ireland when the pace of life was slow and easy BUT as John Moriarity, Irish philosopher, said, “We were the generation who were educated out of the land” What a shame that was – but even though I qualified in Electronic engineering, my love of nature and culture was always very strong.

I left Ireland in the 1980s to work in trading room computer software…That allowed me the opportunity to do what I love; to go alone… photographing and living in far off reaches, from the mountains of Asia to the basin of the Amazon. I was especially drawn to rural communities, to the people who live close to the soil or the water. I am always compelled by the elders, for their stories, their honesty, acceptance and knowledge of themselves.

My husband and I returned to Ireland to raise our family in 2000. I realised that The Burren was as magnificent a landscape I had ever seen and, walking there with my children, I started filming there in 2011. That was my first time to use a video camera – and it went from there.

The desire to make this film has grown out of my feelings for the wilderness, the moments of magic on the hills and my memories of farming with my father… but equally to evoke our connection back to the earth, to allow ourselves freedom and time to ponder those questions of the soul; our nature and our acceptance of light and darkness in our search… and finally to give our unique Irish landscape and the stories of our lost agrarian culture a place in our modern society.  

I did not know Patrick growing up – but many people had told me he was an extraordinary man, poet, visionary and grounded in the landscape. The first time we met, he opened his door, with a lamb under one arm, a child under another, and two bottles of milk – one for each. I knew he would be the single voice of the creative film I wanted to make.

JS: Can you talk about the process of making such an intimate film?

KC: The funding process took 3 years – they were hard times, with many rejections from broadcasters and distributors – and Weetabix for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Looking back on that now, it was a blessing in disguise. I got to learn my craft, but more than that, I got to know sides of Patrick’s character, which are only revealed through spending time talking and even from experiencing those lows of rejection. As Patricks says, “Often, it is out of those deep wells of darkness and despair that the greatest creativity grows.

JS: Your visuals are quite stunning. What is your approach as a cinematographer working in documentary film?  Do you also work on other types of projects?

KC: Wildlife, rural landscape, and people, in natural light are all I know. My approach is spending time in awe of nature – be there when the first embers break forth and when the stars start to twinkle.

JS: Did you encounter any challenges or surprises during filming?

KC:  Money, money, money. Hard to get it, and easy to spend it. I did most of the editing–with the help of Andrew Netley, who finessed it. The biggest problem was the edit suite crashed a lot, due to the different formats that I had within the project, a problem caused by the project growing over 5 years, with different versions and upgrades and incompatibilities.

JS: What do you hope people will take away from THE SILVER BRANCH?

KC: As in Patrick’s poem “To walk the fields a dreamer”–in wonder and awe that there is magic in each moment if you really look at it. And as the myth of The Silver Branch goes – “to Find your place in the world is to let Nature work on you.”

In this age of convenience and rapid development, more and more people live in the city. But, whether we live in a city block or a mountain, the natural world is part of all of us and people do feel that, deeply and instinctively. Sadly, in our modern lives, I often feel we get disconnected from our soul, who we really are, and what we really want, because we have lost our stillness. Anybody who wants to connect with nature and culture and ponders the relationship between man and landscape, between tradition and spirit, between body and soul; and how nature and culture can help us inhabit what is asked of us in our everyday lives.

On the face of it, this documentary is about a farmer, Patrick McCormack, a man who has an extraordinary connection to the land, history and nature around him, and has the courage, humility and words to describe it, in such a way as to move those who have neither knowledge nor appreciation for these things.

There is another and even bigger picture to this —the UN says that realistically, the earth has 60 more good harvests left in it if modern day farming methods continue. Intensive farming is killing the land, which is a large and universal problem that effects everyone. There are many reasons for this but one of them is that many of us think all food comes from Tesco rather than a vegetable patch and that farmers are commercially squeezed using pesticides and over fertilizing which is leading to Biodiversity Oblivion, not to mention climate change. As renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking said, “right now, we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity”.

We need to reverse this if the human race is going to survive.

It’s hard for people to appreciate a thing you have no connection to and no sense that we need to protect it, or that it is a finite resource, which is why THE SILVER BRANCH is an important documentary for these times.

Tickets are on sale now for THE SILVER BRANCH and can be purchased online at  https://salemfilmfest.com/2019/movies/the-silver-branch/

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