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One of my Best Experiences as a Writer-Director: Silicon Docks by Graham Jones

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By Graham Jones

I grew up in a place called Ranelagh on the edge of Dublin city. Within a hundred yards of my home was a canal that also preceded the city, kind of edged around it and never got drawn into the urban pantomime. Swans, locks and grassy banks gave the water a languid quality – and I walked up and down that canal many times in my early life. Clearly remember towing a guitar with me once a week, as a teenager en route to lessons with some female American teacher – who groaned when I replied to a query about my influences by citing Suzanne Vega. The canal eventually featured in a movie I made about seven years ago called ‘Nola and the Clones’. Even back in the fifties, Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh memorialised it with his poem entitled ‘Canal Bank Walk’. Those slow, hypnotic waters are an important part of millions of Dubliners across time. So it came as little surprise when I recently realised they would feature significantly in my forthcoming movie Silicon Docks.

Our new – and completely animated – film takes place during the dying days of Trump’s presidency and portrays a doomed Dublin pub crawl conducted by a group of American tech moguls, prohibited from visiting one another’s European HQs during the early days of Covid-19 but urgently needing to agree on whether or not to sign a critical EU agreement. The satirical, urban odyssey features great conflict between Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and his arch nemesis Evan Spiegel who created Snapchat, also tension between space racers Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk – not to mention many other dramas endured by the cold and frustrated ‘tech rockstars’ as they stumble around locked-down Dublin in desperate need of a pint.

Over here in Ireland we have so many giant U.S. tech corporations operating in Silicon Docks, which for any non-Irish readers is a small area just minutes from the canal I mentioned above – a place the canal’s waters flow through before hitting the river Liffey and finally sea. Those docks were quite different back in the eighties, when I was a child. No tech companies were based in the area back then, and wherever tech companies did exist, they were fundamentally different to what eventually manifested here. All these tech giants headquartering their European operations so close to where I took my first steps has really made me reflect on everyday tech users, regular tech workers and just our modern tech society as a whole. What’s going on, I sometimes ask? What is this new world and where is my place in it – not merely as an individual, but indeed as a filmmaker? Does real cinema truly exist anymore, or just an endless offering of hazy digital dreams sent to variously sized screens? Does the water know things are different nowadays? Are the swans perturbed? Or is this all just some elaboration of Kavanagh’s classic poem…

As such, I suppose that part of my reason for making Silicon Docks was that it really did feel like a valid experiment. Not just an experiment in art or filmmaking – although Kasia Wiśniewska’s 2D animation is certainly innovative. Moreover, I viewed it as a social or perhaps cultural and maybe even technological experiment. Quite literally, a lab experiment. What happens if we take a sample group, let’s say 10 early pioneers of the web and subject them to the same kind of distortions that everybody else endures online in the 21st century? Will such tech moguls suddenly object to the normal operations of the world they designed, when they are placed under the magnifying glass themselves? What might the response of these billionaires, or possibly their lack of a response, say about that very world? How will these doctors of the internet react to a taste of their own medicine!

As a society dealing with the presence and proximity of these tech corporations, we have no doubt realised the genuine impact they have on our lives. Things are very different in 2022, as compared with 2002. I remember that time, that anti-climactic turn of the century or actually just beforehand – the ‘Fin de siècle’ as they say in French. We were experiencing a transitional period and we all knew it, even if we couldn’t quite grasp what it meant. Life genuinely felt on the verge of something – not merely the looming 21st Century, but the greater internet itself. While the internet obviously already existed in the nineties, it was still quite peripheral and there was a certain impatience because some of us were eager for a digital revolution. Yet I’m not really sure how well it’s all going, twenty years later – are you? In a world of handsets, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter and endlessly streaming and sometimes quite disheartening movies and news… one must at least wonder if we have fallen into some abyss? After all, these days it seems that all you need to be elected President of the United States is a Twitter account. 

And so it was that, during the pandemic, partly to stop us all from going crazy, we decided to go ahead and make this movie that had been knocking around in my crazy head for a long time – about a bunch of American tech rockstars getting pissed on a rainy Dublin afternoon. While the concept had never completely worked before, always felt more like a romantic dream than anything else, it now rapidly became clear the pandemic itself was the missing piece. The consistently shuttered pubs these aging moguls were suddenly confronted with, somehow tied everything together. I was thrilled to find that our real, day-to-day environment on this island was downright Beckettian and quickly embraced it. While I do fully appreciate that it was probably like that in many parts of the world – we shared an international weariness as a species in so many ways – over here in Dublin my 10 tech moguls certainly appeared in their element!

It’s clearly been one of my best experiences as a writer-director and that’s mainly due to Kasia Wiśniewska who animated these beautiful characters along with the sterling cast of Grace Power, Shane Lynch, Brendan McDonald, Fiona Bawn-Thompson, Bobby Calloway (who played both Mark Zuckerberg & Evan Spiegel with a horrifying symmetry), Gerry Cannon, Rob Smith, Matthew McMahon and of course me ole regular José Naghmar. These artists really made Silicon Docks into something. We had nothing, we had absolutely nothing and so we used nothing to make it – except ourselves! A voluntary lockdown project, created utilising extremely limited resources and undertaken largely for the sake of preserving our collective happiness during these strange couple of years – it will be freely available for anybody to watch non-monetised on YouTube from October 1st. Please watch the trailer and spread the word if you like it. Because the swans won’t even notice…

(c) Graham Jones

About the author

Graham Jones is an Irish filmmaker. He made his first feature film How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate in 1997 which caused controversy when it was condemned by the Junior Minister for Education Willie O’Dea. It marked the beginning of a career in which Jones would explore many difficult subjects through independent movies including suicide, prostitution, homelessness, evolution, gender and the impact of the internet upon art.

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