The ninth annual AFI/Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival and Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland was kicked off in fine style by opening film The Swell Season, which documents the music of and relationship between Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, stars of the indie hit Once.
Playing before a packed house at the landmark AFI Silver Theatre, the entrancing documentary, co-directed by Nick August Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella Davis, follows the pair as they begin touring the world as The Swell Season – their star on the ascendant after the wide acclaim for the fictional feature in which they both starred, and their winning of the Oscar for best original song, for the film’s “Falling Slowly.”
Beautifully shot by Dapkins in black and white, the directors skillfully capture the interplay between the duo – he, a rock and roll veteran who’d spent years on the road playing with Irish cult band The Frames, and she, a young Czech singer who was all of 19 by the time she gave her stirring acceptance speech at the Oscars (key sound bite: “Fair play to those who dare to dream.”) Friends and collaborators before Once, they began dating while shooting the feature.
The doc’s story arc, captured over three years of filming, moves from the couple’s giddy joy as they first begin to travel the world and experience first hand the rush of stardom, to the realities thrust upon the two when the glare of the spotlight magnifies the differences between them. The directors are privy to some fairly heavy moments, including a scene in a cafe that will resonate strongly with anyone who has felt the slow, searing sting of a disintegrating romantic relationship. Of course, it’s a documentary about musicians, so the vérité is intercut with passionate, riveting performances.
Interviews with Hansard’s mother and father in Ireland provide some of the film’s lighter moments as well as some of the more poignant scenes. Both are understandably proud of their son, with the Oscar statuette serving as a sort of physical manifestation of the hard work undertaken by two generations to succeed. In a gripping scene, Hansard’s father, a former prize father who was ultimately not defeated by a combatant but by the weight of his dashed dreams, tells his son he felt the Oscar win was the younger Hansard’s way of finishing the fight for him. James Hansard died during the making of the film.
During a Q&A with NPR’s Bob Boilen, Dapkins and August-Perna said that while Hansard’s original aim for the project was to produce a “jubilant romp” that focused on the band and its rise, taking care to avoid creating a strictly promotional vehicle, it eventually morphed into a more intimate portrayal of a relationship. While the filmmakers say Hansard and Irglova find it difficult to watch for different reasons, both are happy with the finished result, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
And while there were patience-testing periods during filming, Dapkins said the most notable challenge – garnering trust from your subjects while capturing their lives on camera – was overcome with a shift in attitude… and a specially-designed camera arm that made the cinematographer look slightly akin to a Transformer, according to August-Perna.
The Swell Season will be released theatrically this fall via 7th Art Releasing, and to cable VOD, digital platforms and DVD in the U.S. via New Video. Silverdocs continues until June 26.