INTERVIEW WITH CLAIRE DIX, DIRECTOR OF BROKEN SONG
“This place is crazy, babies having babies, teenage mothers who raise a new wave of drug pushers…” Just one of the powerful lyrics heard in director Claire Dix’s faultless feature documentary Broken Song, about three of the leading lights of Ireland’s ever-changing hip-hop scene.
Police brutality, teenage pregnancy, drugs – it was happening in the New York ghettos, but it’s also happening in estates in Ballymun and Finglas. Artists like North Dublin MCs Willa, GI and Costello – the three main characters in Dix’s ‘hip-hop opera’, which won the Michael Dwyer Discovery Award and was named audience favourite at the Jameson’s Dublin International Film Festival last year, are putting their voices to powerfully poetic lyrics about their gritty experiences. Dix has managed to offer up an intimate slice of modern Irish youth culture that those on the outside rarely get a chance to see.
Broken Song touches on the hip-hop evolution in Ireland, but it’s more interested in offering an intimate look at the lives of three young men, isn’t it?
We never set out to create the definitive guide to the Irish hip-hop scene, we just followed the lives of three young guys who are into hip-hop. We never really play any of their beats, we focus very much on their lyricism and the idea of them as modern poets, using their art to rise above difficulties in the past and present.
I met two of the main fellahs in the film, GI and Costello, in 2010. I was making a programme for Dublin’s community television and looking at a couple of different areas in the arts. That’s when I met Dean, the boys’ manager and a youth leader in Ballymun. I asked him what projects he had going on and he told me about a few guys doing hip-hop and introduced me to them. We filmed a really quick scene where they rapped a piece called Flawless. I knew nothing about Irish hip-hop at the time, but there was something in their lyrics, and the power with which they delivered them that made me think I could explore this further.
They were putting into words the chaos of their past, things they’d seen; things that don’t make the news because they’re very commonplace but if it happened in a more affluent area it would be all over the front page. There’s a lot of anger there because of it, and rightly so, and they were able to channel that anger into their rapping. There was also a strong ethos there about getting younger kids in the area to follow in their footsteps, and channel negativity into something positive, be it rapping or art or something else. These guys go out of their way to look out for the younger kids they know, which was very inspiring to me. Surprisingly, they’re not a bit interested in commercial success; they want to make a difference in their community.
Some of the guys were uncomfortable freestyling, and what they rap about can be deeply personal, was there any resistance to being followed by cameras?
Gi, Costello and the third main character in the documentary, Willa, were immediately very open to it. If they weren’t, Broken Song wouldn’t have got made – I’m not interested in coercing anyone into anything. We were very open early on about wanting to make something that would be personal. This was going to be a film for cinema, so we wanted to get under their skin and make something really intimate. They understood that and trusted us, so it happened. The candour of the younger kids (most of whom we’d bump into on the street) was mostly because they really looked up to GI and Costello, and were worried that what they were doing wasn’t good enough.
Costello speaks of how rap was borne out of frustration, a need to change – something people can feel anywhere in the world.
That’s right, and they would be real students of hip-hop and its roots. I suppose they feel, as Costello says in the film, that hip-hop can be the voice of the disenfranchised, that’s how it started in New York. It’s definitely serving that purpose here, it’s allowing them to have a voice, giving them a platform. That’s why a lot of it is coming from estates, these disadvantaged areas – because you don’t need anything but your voice, and your own intellect.
There are static shots of run-down housing estates, wasteland interwoven throughout, what was the thinking behind them?
I see these men as poets and I wanted the film to have a poetic feel to it. A lot of poets you think of traditionally writing about landscapes, seas and fields and starry skies and all this, but their landscapes are these estates. These are the vistas they see every day, so I want the audience to look at them like landscapes. These places are their inspiration, so they had to have an impact.
Broken Song‘s opening sequence sees two men floating in an expanse of water – and the rappers enjoy jumping into a chilly Irish sea later on. Is there a theme in there?
We did a lot of filming during the summer and the lads would very often go swimming in the sea, so it was something that ended up very naturally in the film. Dean would swim every day and would regularly bring some of the guys out with him, so we knew that would feature. Then the visual sequences we shot underwater became a metaphor for a path that GI and Costello had left behind. We had a visual theme of light and dark. They’ve come from a dark place, but they’ve gone into the light, but that past is still a part of you. It’s under the surface.
Willa (William Lee) who ‘used to sing on the block for drugs’ but now has a burgeoning singing career (he was asked by Damien Dempsey to support him) is one of the main characters. He’s the real star of this film, isn’t he?
Definitely. A big part of Costello and GI’s story was troubles they’d gone through in the past, so we wanted to mirror that with a younger kid they were helping in the present. Dean put us in touch with Willa, and we knew from the word go he was a special person. He has an amazing voice and so much charisma. He’s a lovely guy, but he’s had a very complicated past; he goes to court in the film. But he stood out immediately. He is magnetic. Hopefully he gets to do something with his amazing talent. He could go far, but you need drive and to believe in yourself. Willa has the talent, but lacks the confidence. I hope the film helps boost his profile.
What elements of the rappers’ lives surprised you the most?
They have a maturity that surprised me, and such a positive outlook despite some of the crappy things that have happened to them. Costello says ‘Darkness is just where the light hasn’t gone yet. And the light will shine there.’ For all their tough, damaged upbringings, these boys have consciously chosen a positive path. They’re very realistic about what they’ve chosen to do. They know it’s never going to buy them a big house or whatever, but they’re fiercely committed to it. That’s very refreshing.
Might people with certain preconceptions about young men on housing estates get their eyes opened by Broken Song?
Hopefully. Not everyone walking around with a hoody is a thug, you know? These guys spend all their time meticulously crafting their art, performing and working within their communities. Broken Song is supposed to be a positive film, with dark subjects within it, but the message is a positive one. And that’s not ours, it’s their message.
You must be delighted about the rave reviews the film got…
Very much so, especially as it was my first feature documentary. You’re learning all the time, and especially with something like this where it was all observational and you were having to shoot an awful lot, it’s kind of making it as you go along. These are real people and you don’t know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next.
How do you feel about the Irish Film Festival London – is it an important platform?
It’s wonderful. It’s getting my film out to a wider audience, one that’s perhaps familiar with the areas and the inner-city Dublin accents! Hopefully it’ll offer a different Irish theme, and a fresh way of looking at the city on screen. It’s a real honour to be included in the festival programme.
Broken Song will be screened as part of the Irish Film Festival London at The Tricycle on November 21 at 8.30pm, followed by a Q&A with director Claire Dix. Book tickets here.