If you look up “independent filmmaker” in a dictionary, you will see a picture of John Sayles. No one exemplifies true independent filmmaking as much as Sayles does. He directs, writes, edits, and finances his own films (sometimes he even throws in his own money to get a movie made). Because of this, Sayles has complete freedom to tell the stories he wants to tell. Over the past few decades, the results have been wonderfully told stories that explore slices of life and contain important social themes. Sayles and others like him are essential to cinema because they enrich the quality of the films you see and give you movies that you otherwise will never see from the big studios.

Secret of Roan Inish is based on a children’s book that tells the tale of a little Irish girl who is sent off to live with her grandparents. She learns about her ancestors and how they once lived on an island called Roan Inish, where they co-existed with these magical sea creatures who take the form of seals. The girl discovers some secrets within her family tree that links them to these creatures and she sets off to find out what they are. This is a great little fable that children and adults will enjoy (and no, the Irish accents are not difficult to understand, but if you find they are, the DVD has subtitles).

The film has a no-name cast, which contributes to the film’s authenticity focuses the movie more on the story and its characters rather than on big-name stars. The little girl (Jeni Courtney) in the film is wise beyond her years and has not yet reached that age where reality and rationality take over a child’s perspective of the world. She apparently is the only person who believes in the magical creatures and it is up to her to convince everyone else they exist. No Irish tale is complete without a grandfather character who fishes and tells stories. He piques the girl’s interest in the magical creatures first. Through he and his wife, the grandmother, we learn the adult problems the characters face (inability to pay the rent, a family dealing with the loss of a child, and the forced changes of the industrial revolution). Sayles ties in these real world problems with the fairy tale aspects of the story.

Secret of Roan Inish is beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler, a frequent collaborator with Sayles and one of the industry’s best cinematographers. He recreates a classic Irish look with gray skies, inky black oceans and lush green hills set behind the coastlines. The flashbacks in the story are shown in a sepia, tinted old-world look that further adds to the fairy tale-like story. One thing that really struck me about this film is how well Sayles was able to tell his story given the very low budget he had. Sayles is a graduate of the Roger Corman school of filmmakers. Corman is famous for his very B-movie horror films he used to make on the cheap in the 70s and 80s. Directors like James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, and John Sayles all got their start making movies for Corman. They learned to tell their stories on shoestring budgets, which endeared them to the major studios for their cost-cutting abilities. Sayles has obviously used his Corman experience to make his movies and make them the way he wants without big budgets. Roan Inish doesn’t contain visual effects, but Sayles still manages to create his fairy tale through other means, such as camera effects and editing.

One of the great things about John Sayles is you never know what subject matter or what kind of film he’s going to tackle next. He has done a period baseball movie (Eight Men Out), a science fiction film (Brother From Another Planet), and other genres. Its even more amazing that he has been able to pull it off regardless of the genre he works in. He is truly an independent filmmaker and anyone who is serious about film should support his works by renting them or watching them in a theater (or buying them if you like them enough). Secret of Roan Inish is no exception and its something the whole family will enjoy.