Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

If you found The Road just that little bit too feelgood, then Ditching could be the film for you.

That’s not a criticism – there are some interesting ideas at play here, and many striking images – but a due and fair warning that, in this first feature-length project by Ulster arts collective Factotum, the end of the world as we know it really doesn’t feel fine.

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As in John Hillcoat’s high-profile grueller, the apocalypse is unspecified (saves all that boring and possibly inaccurate scientific exposition). But this time it’s occurred so far in the past as to have been lost from living memory.

That means the world, or at least the corner of Northern Ireland where the film takes place, has become a depopulated feudal wilderness. It’s nominally ruled by ‘The High King of Antrim’, but signs of authority or infrastructure are almost non-existent. Wooden boards by the roadside set arbitrary prices for the basics and passports are run off on a hand-operated printer in exchange for food.

Into this surreal, desolate landscape come Maeve (Mary Lindsay) and John (Lalor Roddy), wheeling the obligatory shopping trolley full of salvaged possessions. At the passport office they meet Paul (Jonathan Harden) and take pity on him when he follows them.

They need a passport in the vague hope of passage to some other ‘country’ where medicine might be found to help the seriously ailing John. But the only form of civilisation they can find is an old farmhouse run by a group of soldiers.

The soldiers are commanded by a tyrannical leader, Alan (Paul Garrett), prone to sudden outbursts of violence, and sustain themselves by foraging and arcane rituals. The new arrivals find this parody of society more than a tad unsettling and eagerly fall in with Tom (Fra Gunn) a recent and very unhappy recruit who is convinced there must be something better out there.

He takes them to an old man (Niall Cusack) who has more knowledge than most of the world around and the time before. He tells them of a shrine that may help cure John’s illness, or at least offer a safe haven amid the chaos. But he warns them that the way is dangerous...

Factotum (known to their mums as Richard West and Stephen Hackett, whose previous projects have ranged from a free arts paper to a recreation of Apocalypse Now on the Lagan river) undoubtedly spin some acute and original observations on a genre that’s in danger of becoming a tad over-familiar.

There’s none of the slightly self-conscious ‘mythical’ element of Hillcoat’s undoubtedly impressive tale. Here the characters don’t represent anything except people born into a world with nothing to offer but struggle.

And don’t expect a Terminator: Salvation/Book Of Eli actioner either, despite the ‘quest/pursuit’ framework. These people are too malnourished and sickly to pick up a gun, even if one were lying around. For them, simply surviving from one day to the next is hard enough.

I’ve a strong suspicion that that’s exactly what a post-apocalyptic world would be for most of us. But it does make for a gruelling, and occasionally repetitive, cinema experience. The only laughs come from a couple of post-credit outtakes and a scene involving a dead fox and a vacuum cleaner, which will get my vote if they ever introduce an Oscar for Best Black Comic Sequence in an Ulster Armageddon Movie.

But for the most part this is a serious, heartfelt meditation on human endurance and the strengths and limits of hope. In conjuring up a paganised, constantly unsettling world, it recalls Brit horror classic The Wicker Man and Michael Haneke’s Euro-apocalypser Time Of The Wolf.

And, without beating the audience round the head, it makes some interesting points about Ulster’s recent history (the extremes of faith, the paramilitary mindset and tribalism all play a part here) as well as drawing on an earlier tradition of high kings and troubled heroes, perilous journeys and tranquil havens.

It’s well served by a ‘haven’t I seen them somewhere’ cast (Roddy and Harden were in Hunger and Fifty Dead Men Walking respectively) and some very talented collaborators – costume designer Harriet Johnson has worked on Troy and The Golden Compass; David (Ocean’s Eleven) Holmes contributed to the soundtrack.

The end result definitely won’t be everybody’s cup of tea and at times it is a little self-consciously ‘arty’. But it turns the Ulster countryside and its decaying historic buildings into things of desolate beauty and tells a simple, affecting tale without sentiment or grandstanding. It’ll be interesting to see what Factotum’s next film project will be – but I wouldn’t expect a fluffy romcom.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2010
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In a post-apocalyptic Ulster, a group of travellers try to find vital medicine.
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Director: actotum

Writer: Factotum

Starring: Lalor Roddy, Mary Lindsay, Jonathan Harden, Fra Gunn, Paul Garrett, Niall Cusack

Year: 2009

Runtime: 78 minutes

Country: UK


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