The biggest surprise in RTÉ's 'The Collectors' was how it gathered all the feelings

Shot on an iPhone, the curious documentary explored Irish people's relationships with various curios

The Collectors, Eleanor Mannion, Lillian O'Donoghue, Jessica Farrell, Helena Scully, Robert Glick, Martin Bolger, Glenda Taylor

Cork woman Lillian O'Donghue's love for all things Coca-Cola is truly the real thing [RTÉ]

What is it about dolls that can so easily terrify? Their cherubic faces, all dimples and puckered lips, sit and stare, immovable and vacant. Their glassy and unblinking eyes look deep within your soul in silent judgment, their ringlets hiding secrets. In pastel dresses and dust-gathering straw hats, they sit. In wait. For many, the thought of a house filled with 600 of them, sitting in pockets of porcelain perfection, is, for want of a better word, weird. That this company of immobile china dolls turned out to be one of the most moving things on TV this summer is a credit to the ambition and storytelling of RTÉ One’s The Collectors.

Much has already been written about the fact that Eleanor Mannion’s 50-minute documentary is the first in the history of the national broadcaster ever to be filmed entirely on an iPhone. Credit where credit is due, the resulting programme was professionally shot and executed. Were it not for the glut of press reminding us that it was shot on an iPhone, the reality is nobody would probably have known the difference. The average viewer doesn’t spend much time – if any – thinking about aspect ratios, frame rates, or skip frames. They want to watch something interesting, the story of which takes focus from the realities of production.

The Collectors competently manages both, showing that when it comes to intimate documentary filmmaking, paring back from a full production company doesn’t mean doing a full 180 on the 1080p.

This frugal approach to filmmaking does offer some hope for the future of the national broadcaster’s output. Cheap need not mean a half-baked summertime filler to empty schedules. Instead, we were offered a frequently charming look at the fanatical habits of hoarding hunter-gatherers.

Robert Glick and his rare The Walking Dead #1, for which he paid $7,000 [RTÉ]

Six men and women from all across Ireland revealed their personal passion in growing their collections of collectable things. In Cork, self-declared coke addict Lillian O’Donoghue fills her house with memorabilia dedicated to the soft drink. Not content with collecting cans from all over the world, her home, including her son’s bedroom and the downstairs toilette, is covered with Coca-Cola insignia, enamel signs, pewter steins, clocks, towels, and everything else. She appears to be single-handedly keeping the soft drinks soft furnishings industry afloat, even taking in a trip to Manhattan to shop for bargains. “So I have to ask you this question,” a curious Manhattanite muses while silent Koreans give them both manicures (Lillian, very much on brand, opting to coat her cuticles in Coca-Cola polish), “What happens if your song grows up and says, ‘Mom, I like Pepsi better?’” It turns out Lillian just doesn’t like Pepsi people.

Across the spectrum of collectors and their collections, be they comic books, LEGO blocks, Barbie dolls, dinky cars, or china dolls, what was abundantly clear was that they were a point of immense pride and character building. Martin Bolger, a Cavanman with countless toy cars, springs to life at when showing his assembled automobiles at country fairs and shows. Robert Glick, a Floridian relocated to Ireland and often housebound because of his cystic fibrosis, carefully curates his comic book collection, walking on air with his The Walking Dead #1. Sligo’s Glenda Taylor, a second-generation collector, bids for a bespoke Barbie, before telling the hotel hosting her wedding reception that 200 of her favourites will be dotted around on the big day, boxed bridesmaids that drunken Kens had better not touch.

And then there was Helena Scully. At first glance, the oddest seeming of the bunch, walking around her Meath bungalow, with its rooms packed with the assembly of dolls, she quietly explained her life and lifestyle. “They’re so colourful when you see so many of them together,” she said, striking fear into the heart of every pediophobe staring into the echoing abyss of the uncanny valley.

But then she added, “They remind me of my own children when they were small.” Slowly The Collectors unravelled Scully’s story, proclaiming the joy she has in motherhood, how she doesn’t go to the pub so her hobby fulfils her. She took over her own mother’s doll collection when her health began to fail – though there was hardly a viewer in the entire country who didn’t remark how well she looked for a woman in her 90s.

Finally, Helena talked candidly about her daughter Annamarie, who died after a short battle with cancer when she was 19. A young woman full of ‘divilment’, Helena’s confessions about living with her grief were poignant and candid. “There were often nights when something would just strike me, and I’d cry my eyes out, but I always made sure there was nobody around. But I did shed my tears for her, but always when I was on my own.”

Yet, in what could have been pitiable and mawkish, The Collectors instead became incredibly positive, with Scully saying that her dolls and coins and crystal collections offered her something to fall back on when she had a dull moment. “So that’s when my collection really started getting big. I’d just focus on doing something. I could not bring back what was after happening, so you have to keep looking forward and not looking back.”

The moment was sweet without being sappy, uplifting without being honest. We can’t look back, and sometimes it takes an iPhone to remind us we have to look forward.

The Collectors is now available to watch on the RTÉ Player.

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