A New Wave: Johnny Barrington on Silent Roar

Johnny Barrington's Silent Roar is a disarmingly leftfield coming-of-age drama that makes evocative use of its setting on the Isle of Lewis. We chat with Barrington ahead of his film's premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 12 Jul 2023
  • Silent Roar

There’s a distinctly bittersweet flavour to Silent Roar, the soulful and gently comic debut feature from Johnny Barrington, which is due to have its world premiere at Edinburgh Film Festival on 18 August. It makes perfect sense, then, when Barrington explains that the film was born from two diametrically opposed emotions: grief at the sudden death of his father, and a blissed-out day at the beach.

“I had been really looking at life in a different way after the death of my father,” Barrington recalls over Skype from his home in Glasgow’s West End. “So it's a strange thing to say, but the first idea for the film happened a few months later at a place called Machrihanish on Mull of Kintyre. I was there with some friends and my son and some of his friends, and we were surfing.” It was one of those rare fine days in Scotland. “The light was very, very unusual; there was what you'd call a kind of halo effect around the sun and a kind of Californian mist coming in off the Atlantic. It felt almost warm enough to surf without a wetsuit. And I think I had a sense of euphoria from surfing and hanging out with friends and from the mystery of this phenomenon of light that was happening. That was the start of me thinking about the film.”

Barrington has certainly captured this euphoric feeling in the surfing scenes in Silent Roar. Shot on tactile 16mm on the Isle of Lewis, it follows Dondo, a spacey teen whose fisherman father has been missing for almost a year, thought lost at sea. Inspired by the words of a new minister in town, Dondo is soon using surfing as a way of communing with the divine, while on land he’s catching feelings for his best friend Sas, the smartest, coolest girl in school, who believes that the new preacher that Dondo is so taken with is full of shit. 

“A lot of the ideas behind the film are what people would call the big themes,” says Barrington. “You know, death, sex, religion – that triumvirate.” The subject matter might be heavy, but they're wielded with a light, absurdist touch. “Whenever I write these big ideas in scenes, it always ends up being boiled down to fannies and willies and puerile profanities. So that’s going on, this contrast of the sacred and profane, and I quite like that blend.”

It’s very tempting to read our young surfer hero as a surrogate for the director. Like Dondo, Barrington grew up in the Hebrides (in his case, Skye) and has a father who worked at sea (his dad ran boat tours to far-flung islands like St Kilda and the Faroes) but says he’s not based on any one person. Barrington thinks of his main characters in more symbolic terms. 

“I see Dondo is an innocent figure whose element is water,” he explains. “He’s very receptive and open to suggestion. He's this dreamy, wistful eccentric. And in contrast to that, Sas's symbol is fire definitely; she’s like the sun. ​​She's more of a cynic, an iconoclast; she challenges and breaks things. She forces things to change and runs rings around everyone.” 

While the characters don’t have specific autobiographical resonances, the setting certainly does. Barrington grew up on Skye, but was drawn to the neighbouring Lewis as his setting because of its even greater remoteness from the mainland. “What's magical about Lewis,” he says wryly, “is that it doesn't have a bridge.” 

For the shoot, he settled on the remote village of Uig, in the southwest of the island. While making the film, he describes feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. “I just had a genuine, general sense that Uig was triggering a lot of memories from my childhood,” he recalls. “Memories from a time when there was a lot less outside influence, and of course it was pre-internet and everything like that. But it was also a time when you would stop and talk to everybody you met on the way to the shop, and then speak to them again on the way back from the shop.” This drowsy, sepia-tinged mood has seeped into the film. Despite being set in the present, modern concerns like the internet, social media and mobile phones are very much at the periphery.

Barrington now resides among the lowlanders, but clearly he continues to be deeply inspired by the character and landscape of the Highlands and Islands. “The importance of place, it's so deep within me that I actually find it difficult to even really talk about without slipping into, you know, just pretty predictable clichés about hills and glens and lochs.” You won’t find any of this trite imagery in Silent Roar, but the film does undeniably romanticise the sea, and surfing is shown to have more divinity than the pulpit. “I kind of grew up almost on the sea rather than next to it,” he says. “So in terms of talking about place, the sea itself has a very strong influence in a lot of my films. I can’t escape it.”

Silent Roar has its world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival, screening on 18 & 19 Aug. The full programme for Edinburgh International Film Festival is out now; read our round-up here or by scrolling on...