Credit: FIDMarseille
by Oliver Parker Featured Film

How I Became a Communist — Declan Clarke [FIDMarseille ’23 Review]

July 14, 2023

How I Became a Communist opens on a static shot of an elderly woman cleaning out the chimney of her rural Irish farmhouse. There is no music, and no dialogue spoken. What unfolds for the next twenty minutes is a purposefully drab depiction of this woman’s life, which mostly involves farm work and cleaning, with the occasional friend coming over to visit. The film recalls Jeanne Dielman in how it explores the mundanity of everyday life without offering any direct social or political commentary over the images. We’re given no backstory for this woman and no details about the intricacies of her life; we’re merely shown a small glimpse of the toil and labor that she performs around her house. However, despite the similarities, it’s worth noting that Jeanne Dielman spends an enormous amount of time with its central character, as we slowly see the minutiae take a toll on her life and things spiral out of control; director Declan Clarke decides to drop his social-realist docudrama early on and move into something more experimental and akin to a visual essay.

Clarke pulls from myriad sources and weaves together disparate histories, culminating in an attempted commentary on left wing politics past and present. At the center of this is a focus on the Brothers Grimm, specifically their “tale” The Musicians of Bremen, the only one of their works unaltered by Conservative Catholics (who often feared the Brothers’ writing wasn’t suitable) through numerous publications since its first in 1819. Clarke’s examination of The Musicians of Bremen — whose narrative involves four old animals that flee and live communally in freedom after being threatened with death for living past their purpose — is reasonably interesting, gesturing to a deep level of latent radicalism seldom seen in the era of its initial publishing, predating as it did any Marxist thought or events like the Paris Commune. So often have Grimm’s fairy tales been reduced to their more Disney-fied features that it’s refreshing to see them located through a more adult political lens.

That said, Clarke’s film is ultimately reaching in too many different directions at once. The director attempts to weave both Irish history and personal political development into his film’s short runtime, using large walls of text and images of objects, mostly consisting of a book titled The Case for Communism, and various newspaper clippings reporting on the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013. Ruminating on these subjects  is, in theory, not a bad thing. However, apart from both texts persisting throughout his childhood, Clarke is unable to bring the various threads together, thus failing to construct any cogent statement, his intent murky. Instead, each individual idea here feels isolated from the others, dangling with no throughline to connect them, the impression being of impatience to move onto the next.

The fundamental transformation implied by the film’s title never fully comes to fruition. One might argue that there’s an intentional enigmatic and fractured approach to How I Became a Communist, and the film does flirt with intriguing notions regarding the legacy and mythos of classic folk tales and their relevance to contemporary political thought. But it’s tough to look past how rushed and incomplete Clarke’s interests feel in execution. The director is clearly influenced by Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard — particularly reflecting the latter’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, with its blend of docudrama, narration, and inserts of objects — but How I Became a Communist lacks the sense of rhythm and discursive follow-through that those directors bore. In that absence, Clarke’s own vision fails to ascend to something more than a mere collage of disparate images.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 28.