This story begins in the spring of 2018. CC’s Film and Media Studies Program had just launched its first Documentary Exploration Grant and three young student-filmmakers thought, “why not us?” Lila Schmitz ’18, Anika Kan Grevstad ’18, and Fengyi Xu ’19 knew they wanted to work together to make a film beyond what they had been able to do in their courses at CC. The idea for the film soon followed.
Schmitz, the film’s director, shared her experience visiting Doolin, Ireland when she was a teenager and her desire to capture the feeling of community she found there.
“I have Irish heritage and, as a teenager, went to Ireland with my family. We visited Doolin and I stepped into a music session in a pub. I was totally taken by the music and just the feeling of it,” says Schmitz. “This concept of people sitting next to each other who have been playing together for 40 years and on the other side you have somebody who they’ve just met. You share the tunes and this really special feeling that I was able to get even as an audience member. It was something that really stuck with me.”
Her fellow filmmakers instantly connected with the idea of showing community and culture through music. And so began the journey to create what would eventually become The Job of Songs, a feature-length documentary that has already won awards and critical acclaim from some of the most important viewers – the subjects of the film.
“I’d never been to Ireland and didn’t know very much about traditional Irish music,” says Grevstad. “But that’s one of the things that’s so special about documentary. You get to go see these worlds that you would otherwise never have a connection to. And now I have this huge emotional connection to this place and these people.”
The Job of Songs centers on a community of musicians in rural Ireland, who seek connection and joy through music as they face a modernizing world. The film uses the lens of this group to look at community, mental health, alcoholism, sexism, and the effects of tourism on the place and the people.
The three filmmakers initially proposed the idea of their project as a short film and arrived in Ireland fully intending to fit their project within that limit. But things began to change as they got to know Doolin and its people.
“The whole time we were there, we were like, is this a short film? Maybe it’s a feature film. You know, it grew as we were making it,” says Grevstad.
“We were in such a CC mindset, just shooting such long days. We were shooting constantly and that was the only reason we were able to make a feature, because we had so much,” says Xu. “We met each other in classes where you have one block and you’re making a film, and this project was like that. We were there for four weeks making a film. CC had trained us for this.”
Schmitz knew early on what she wanted to convey, but initially struggled with how to portray her message through film.
“We talked a lot about the contrast of the warm interior of these intimate pubs and the sort of isolation of the outside world, and that became a story in and of itself as this sort of visual thing that we were intent on capturing,” says Schmitz. “I would say, from a director’s standpoint, my entire guiding light was just this question of, ‘what is this feeling? How do you describe the feeling that is in these pubs?’”
Schmitz says that it was their non-traditional filming style that really helped bring the feeling to the screen.
“We were there for the first two weeks, which were supposed to be just pre-production. But they actually became production. We were going into pubs with the camera and talking to people and making them familiar with us and trying to get people comfortable. We did that instead of researching and setting up our interviews. It was very natural. I think just the fact that they opened up to us and sort of guided us around, it was the force that eventually scripted the film.”
That preparation stage and the comfort with their subjects is apparent throughout the film where none of the interviews truly feel like interviews. The people on the screen are simply storytellers. In a time when we’re so used to everything in our world being filmed, traditional spaces, such as the Irish pub, will often push back against this intrusion. The Job of Songs shows great skill in walking that balance of respect and curiosity while also shining a light on the strength of the traditional community.
“One of the things that we talked about, as we did a lot of the editing during the height of the pandemic, was this idea of community and what community means and how we can foster that in a in a changing world,” says Xu. “That was something that moved me so much when we were there. Just this idea of being intentional about what community looks like and what fosters that.”
“Especially with everything so online right now. We sometimes forget how important it is to have this face-to-face encounter with other people,” Schmitz adds. “Community and connection are the basis of it. Absolutely. I think music just does something for us that we can’t identify exactly, and it’s sort of beyond words. That’s where the title [of the film] comes from. Music gives us permission to feel something that we can’t necessarily intellectually understand. This idea has stuck with me. It’s not exclusive to music, but I think music is sort of a cheat code. It helps us get there quicker. Every time I come back to the film, I’m reminded of the types of communities we can create and the spaces that we can hold for each other as human beings that are not about ambition or moving forward, but really just about being.”
When the film was complete, the filmmakers took it back to Doolin and hosted a viewing for the town. It played to a completely packed room.
“We cared so much about what they thought about it because we wanted to make something that honored them and felt true to them,” says Grevstad. “I just remember Owen [a radio DJ featured in the film] saying, ‘I feel like you guys captured our hearts.’ The response from everyone has been so incredibly positive. It’s been really, really special. I think we did what we set out to do. They see it and see themselves in it and even see sides of each other that they didn’t know before.”
Since then, the film has been featured in the CC visiting Series in Film & Culture (2022) as well as multiple, international film festivals, such as DOC NYC, and won Best International Documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh (2022).
All three alumni speak to the substantial support they got from CC, before, during, and after the project. From grants and the support and mentorship of faculty to the use of film equipment. They state that the documentary would not be possible without the Documentary Exploration Grant, Venture Grant, and the constant support from their mentor Doug Pray’ 83, their professors, and their friends from the CC community who formed a solid cohort even after graduation.
“Obviously, being CC students led directly to the creation of the film financially. The Exploration Grant made it possible and the Film Program supported us,” says Schmitz. “The whole reason I knew anything about documentary was that during my senior year an alum, Doug Pray, came to teach a class. That made me really interested in documentary filmmaking. He was our mentor for this project. The Film Program is very good at teaching you how to do everything and we absolutely have done almost everything on this film. CC gave us so much power as individuals and creatives.”
“We had never tried making something at this scale before. But I think the CC Film Program really imbued me with a sense of, ‘you can just go out and do it’,” says Grevstad. “There is almost a bravery, maybe, that you need to make films. You’re never going to feel ready to make a film. It’s like such a big undertaking. But having the courage to say, ‘okay, I know that I can start, and I can figure it out as I’m going.’ That’s something that CC Film classes, and the Block Plan in general, teaches you. You can figure something out. Even the fact that this opportunity existed pushed us to do something that we might have taken years to get to the point of feeling ready to do otherwise.”
The Job of Songs is now available for pre-order on iTunes, and will be widely available in the US on Nov. 21, 2023.