The discursive documentary “North Circular” takes viewers on a tour of the history, music and geography of Dublin. The title refers to North Circular Road, which forms an arc that passes north of the city’s center, and that offers a loose map for the film’s themes. Directed by Luke McManus and shot in a ghostly black-and-white, “North Circular” finds stories and songs near the thoroughfare’s path.
The camera sits in on sessions of traditional Irish folk singing at the Cobblestone, a pub — not on the road, but five minutes away — that has been an important site for the revival of that musical genre. The folk musician John Francis Flynn says he believes that the scene owes something to people trying to root themselves in the city, “where everything’s been bought up around them.”
Gentrification is a recurring subject. A woman reminisces about growing up in O’Devaney Gardens, a public-housing complex razed to make way for new apartments. A squatter reflects on the lonely death of the resident who lived in his building before he did. The singer Gemma Dunleavy strives to create a “sonic time capsule” of Sheriff Street, near the docks, where, she says, what was “built with broken hands” is being taken away by development.
A man notes that North Circular Road is the last public road a person is on when entering or exiting Mountjoy Prison. Incarceration has a long history in the area: We hear, both in narration and in song, about the 19th-century practice of imprisoning women for petty offenses, and sending them to Van Diemen’s Land — present-day Tasmania — to help breed the colonizing populace.
The songs, a mix of English and Irish, contribute to a plaintive, lulling mood. Not all the material is equally striking, but the film has an original and at times disarming approach to bearing witness.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. In theaters.
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