Over the course of a year, Grimshaw chronicled the daily life of William Coperthwaite, an artist and craftsman who - influenced by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the writings of Thoreau, and the back‐to‐the-land
movement of Scott and Helen Nearing - has lived and worked on 300 acres of wilderness in Machiasport, Maine for the last 50 years.
The resulting film, Mr Coperthwaite: a life in the Maine woods, Part One: Spring in Dickinson's Reach, is the first installment of four, one for each season.
As a filmmaker and an anthropologist, how do you describe a project like Mr. Coperthwaite?
This is an interesting question, because many anthropologists (and others) think of ethnographic films as being about some kind of collective, groups of people. So focusing on a single/solitary individual is sometimes considered "not" anthropology - or there is a lot of uncertainty about what its value might be to anthropology. How might an individual illuminate a collective, what might an individual stand for in terms of something bigger?
But I have long been interested in solitude and in "devotion" - that is, in the different ways people make spaces for themselves in their lives and how these spaces might be thought of [as] spaces for secular, contemplative practice. I made an earlier film in Britain about a factory worker who had devoted his life to racing pigeons, and I was fascinated by the singularity and focus of his practice.
Something similar attracted me to Bill C., except his whole life is about the creation of a contemplative space. By this I do not mean anything passive or spiritual but I refer to the very particular and self-conscious way that Bill inhabits the world. In making the film, I wanted to find out how Bill's life was constituted in the day-to-day practical activities of living in the woods. Anthropologists and filmmakers tend to get hung up on words and want explanations - thinking that anthropology or documentary should be informational or explanatory and the reality of people's experiences are rendered meaningful only when mediated through language. In this film, I wanted to persuade my viewers to observe, to explore and discover, become interested in the small details that I found interesting, and to be drawn into the world that unfolds on screen. In particular, I wanted to think about time as an integral part of understanding character.
In the work, I wanted to stay close to the ground, so to speak - I wanted the film's scale to reflect the scale of its subject (rather than inflate it).
How did the project come to be?
In 2004, I bought a house in Machiasport with my partner. We were often told about Bill, a man living in the woods for almost 50 years. We walked out to his yurt several times - it rises quite remarkably out of the trees - a very beautiful structure. Bill was always hospitable, and ready to talk to visitors who had walked a mile and a half through the forest. One brilliant winter's day, I walked out there and without having given it much thought I proposed making a film to Bill, a document of his life now that he was nearing 80. He agreed - though I don't think he really understood what it would involve or what would be implied in my committing myself to a year. But he seemed interested and open to see what happened. I filmed him on and off for 12 months through the different seasons.
How did William Coperthwaite's search for simplicity and aspirations for a "handmade" life affect your approach to production - specifically, your filmmaking and editing decisions?
As I mentioned above, I wanted to find a resonance between how Bill worked in the woods and how I worked as a filmmaker. I have always worked in a rather low-key style, watching, waiting, anticipating - trying to insert myself into the space around my subject and bring something back of that experience for the audience. I explained at the outset that I would not be interviewing or asking him to do things for the camera. But rather I would follow and try to document his unfolding activities and respond to whatever lead he took.
Editing meant essentially the same approach - simplifying and clarifying what I had observed while filming. In particular, editing was about trying to figure out what the film was really about - beyond simply a record of activities.
In an age when everyone is ready for a close-up, everyone is camera-savvy, and everyone's lives are shared for all to see on social media, Coperthwaite is refreshingly out of step. Were there challenges to gaining unfettered access and trust? What were the biggest concerns on the part of your subject? What assurances did you give him?
Bill was very generous and once he agreed to the idea of the film, he left me largely to get on with it. He trusted me. But of course I worried a lot about this. Over the year we developed a close relationship and I worked with him in the woods - and this helped develop a real friendship, since he often needed a second pair of hands. In editing the work, I try to communicate something of both the closeness and distance between us, since that was an ongoing negotiation. One never "knows" another, and I wanted the viewer to find that dialectic intriguing and to think about the relationship between filmmaker and subject and their own relationship with the film.
Though the film is framed by the theme of spring, a time of rebirth and renewal, issues of age and mortality permeate throughout. As he contemplates his own passing, Coperthwaite appears to be focused on the matter of apprenticeship, of mentoring a new generation of artisans and craftsman. Is this deliberate on his part? Is there a future generation of disciples who will take up the handmade lifestyle?
The spring film is very much about inter-generationality. It was very satisfying to see this emerge as a major theme (it comes up again in a different way in the last film of the series). As you can see from the film, young people do come to work with Bill, and they think of him as an important model of the kind of life they might like to build. Bill himself is energized by working with others, as the film clearly shows. At the same time, aging and mortality run through the piece. Bill himself raises it in reading the Lewis Carroll poem. As I edited, I realized that this was a crucial point in the film - and in the series as a whole.
On Fri., March 29 at 8:00 p.m., Mr Coperthwaite: a Life in the Maine Woods, Part One: Spring in Dickinson's Reach will screen at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. More details at Film Love.
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