Lands of Absence; Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist

The Survivalist hits theatres next week and it is an incredibly interesting picture based on a premise of the near future where oil resources have depleted and where the world has returned to a somewhat archaic form. The idea for the film according to director Stephen Fingleton came from a documentary he watched called ‘Collapse’. ‘Collapse’ deals with the possibility that the continued blind use of unsustainable energies will carry on regardless of the reality that they are a finite source. The documentary is based on the writings of Michael Ruppert who takes the notion of ‘peak oil’ i.e. the fact that the world has hit the top of the curve in terms of oil production and from this moment forth it now is more expensive to extract oil, as oil is searched for in more and more laborious locations, than it was previously.

Ruppert is quite frank in his appraisal of civilisation’s chances after the depletion of oil resources. For him, oil is at the epicentre of contemporary civilisation. It is at the centre of all our energy processes. Even within other energy processes such as nuclear energy, electricity etc etc. the instruments used to create such are dependent on machinery and other things largely dependent on oil. The same goes for food. This is perhaps the scariest premise of the whole documentary that world food production is largely dependent on oil. That food production is now a globalised system of production means few if any communities, never mind nations are capable of feeding their own populations. I’m aware that for many we’re verging on the unthinkable here especially when we live in a society where we are awash with all types of food from around the world in every crook and cranny of each and every supermarket. Yet, oil is at the epicentre of food production also in the machinery that fertilise thousands upon thousands of miles of land daily, that spray the food, that pick the food, that package it and then transport it. The land that we live in could not feed 6billion people daily if it had not the energy of oil behind it.

This is when we veer towards the properly unthinkable and this is where The Survivalist, the first feature film by Derry born director Stephen Fingleton picks up from. Food as we understand it now no longer exists. Thus the very absence of food provides the dramatic tension at the heart of this film. I’m reluctant to call The Survivalist a science fiction film despite seeing it labelled as such in other places as it deals with a very realistic depiction of human nature when we no longer live in an environment of excess but one of absence. Even for a moment if we think of The Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840’s and the stories that weaved their way down in folklore to the present day, horrific stories of cannibalism, of mass emigration, of mass starvation, disease, treachery and betrayal over a loaf of bread, we can understand momentarily how heavy our collective memory is awash with the absence of food.


With the absence of food at the dramatic heart of the film, I’m now going to jump off and make the claim that this is the first Irish Science Fiction film that deals with the psychological turmoil that has evaded the Irish psyche since the famine. I’m actually not, but I think it’s good to bare the past in mind while watching this film as throughout the film the Survivalist, played excellently by newcomer Martin McCann, eschews memory, he purposefully forgets. This is symbolically shown in a number of ways such as when he burns photographs of loved ones no longer alive and also in the tearing out of a page of the Holy Bible to light the fire for survival. The Bible is no longer symbol of the soul’s survival but an actual object for the body’s survival. In this opening scene, McCann’s character must forcefully forget the civilisation that he once inhabited and the culture that made him as in order to survive in this radically new environment of absence, the cultural terms in which he understands himself must be radically altered if he is to psychologically survive.

If we continue with the analogy of The Famine for a moment longer (ok I’m sticking with the claim now), the famine occurred in Ireland concurrent with the wide scale adoption of the English language through the decade old primary school system. In other words, those that were suffering most from the famine were more than likely doing so in the gaelic tongue, those that witnessed also probably speakers of gaelic but those that survived and those that passed down the stories were passing it down in a different language. Now it’s worth making another outrageous analogy in stating that perhaps it was fortunate that the Irish lost their language, that the actual horrific occurrences that occurred in the famine could not be permitted to talk about in the other tongue, it was left behind with Irish and this served as a way of surviving in the new environment that the refugees of the Irish famine made their home, whether that be Ireland itself or foreign shores. Gaelic was for cultural memory, English for survival.

I recently interviewed Stephen Fingleton and know for sure that this wasn’t on his mind when he wrote the script for the film. Nor am I claiming that this is a repressed collective memory manifesting itself on screen. Yet, I’ve seldom seen a rawer film looking at the decrepitness that stagnates human nature in times of absence, the starkness of the body, how even sex is a game of fire due to the possibility of another mouth to feed, the complete and utter breakdown of all social bonds as each individual does what they must do in order to survive. It is worth remembering that this occurred on these lands less than two hundred years ago. It is worth remembering the even the most sparsely populated counties of Ireland such as Co. Longford once had a population of 120,000 people and now have a population of just 30,000. It is worth noting and remembering this and thinking of the radical disjunctures that occurred in the framework of Irish life everywhere in order to survive in times of absence. It is worth remembering too that Ireland still is a land of absence nearly two hundred years later, a land of careful control. We may not talk about why but it is lurking in the shadows of our memory.




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