An interview with Anna Grimshaw about her latest film, “George’s Place: the Cellar”, which will screen at the 9th Athens Ethnographic Film Festival. The interview was conducted by Lillian Dam Bracia, Traffic and Programme Assistant.
Ethnofest: From your film I got the feeling that George and his friends felt very comfortable with you, they make jokes and occasionally address you. How did you come across George and how long did it take you to introduce your camera and start filming him and his friends?
Anna Grimshaw: I introduced my camera from the beginning. I mean, I’m pretty well known in that place, partly because I had been making films there for quite a number of years. Although I didn’t know George, I knew of him, I knew of people around him. I mean I began right away with my camera when I first went to talk to George about making a film, I took my camera. I was greatly helped by Bobby who is the man in the film who you see making the lobster traps – I had known Bobby a long time. And he works, as you can see, in George’s cellar during the winter – so the fact he was there everyday made it much easier for me to be welcomed. Though I have to say, you know, George is just a very generous and open person and I think once he realized I was serious about spending time there, you know, not just rushing in and rushing out again, he was and everyone around me, was very serious about including me.
E: And how long were you there, as in with filming George and everything?
AG: Well, I ended up filming George for a year and the film that you are screening is the first film in a series and it is in fact, chronologically when I began filming I began filming in January. And I lived, probably 10 to 20 minutes by car from where George is, so it was always just a matter of driving down to his place and I did that everyday more or less to two and a half months when I began filming. Just like everybody else, I showed up when I felt like it which is just how people go to George’s. Especially in the winter time when people are not doing much else. They go when they need to see somebody else, sit and talk for a while, so I did the same, except that (laughs) I spent much longer time than any other people.
E: How was it in the process of making this film, was it also part of your research on this particular community – so, fishermen in Maine and what they do in the winter? Was this a particular part of what you were studying?
AG: No, my project is a film project. I’m not doing anything else in Maine other than making films. So the project is about understanding how people make their lives in this particular landscape. So I’ll be making films of lobster fisherman, of clamp diggers, of another man who lives in the Maine woods, so yeah, my interest is how people materially, socially and imaginatively live in that particular environment.
E: Right. This actually leads me to my next question which is about observational cinema and what you have written in your own work. In your co-authored book “Observational Cinema: Anthropology, Film, and the Exploration of Social Life” you talk about the importance of such style as way to “use of pictures to illustrate ideas’’ instead of having an expert comment or use rhetoric upon the material. And your other book “Visualizing Anthropology” you mention that, quote:
“MacDougall argues for a genuinely visual anthropology that is not about the “pictorial representation” of anthropology. Instead it is a process of inquiry in which knowledge is not prior but emerges and takes distinctive shape, as he puts it, “through the very grain of the filmmaking” (1998:76).”
In the case of George’s place: the cellar, what were some of instances in which you felt that knowledge about this community is emerging, or how do you attain new insights on this community through the very practice of filmmaking?
AG: As I was filming I was very struck by the ways in which people relate to each other. As in how they make community together through a lot of performance and joking. The ways in which yeah, society is emergent. I mean and it is not a given. I mean the people who are in the film, come together rather spontaneously and make this kind of rather interesting texture of social life through their interactions. I mean obviously they are skilled at what they do and there’s an interest in how traps are made and what the weather is and how all of those climatic and environmental pressures govern who they are. That was something that was very striking to me as I edited, it’s that how often they talk about the weather and how often we see that how they think is shaped entirely by what is going on outside because that’s how they make their livelihood that is by being in that environment. But yeah, the other aspect was like I said, the ways they make community themselves, in the absence of any obvious structure. That they come together voluntarily around George and George fosters this very interactional conversation, as I said performative world which also has its caring aspect to it. These are almost older guys who are also reaching the limits of what physically they can do and it is a hard kind of physical life, as a fishermen. And so there are all these ways that they manage to handle vulnerabilities and support each other, which yeah I didn’t really had seen how that worked. So how it is a kind of ongoing series of interactions that creates this texture of social life and continues through the other films but is very much present in the winter. And so those are the things the film really brought to the fore as I was doing my work.
E: Right, thank you Anna. Now that you said this, I remember now also how there are many layers to your film. Aging is one and of course the environment, I mean in the winter, it felt almost as if they were trapped in a way and that talking just became this way to pass time and make jokes. But also about gender and masculinity. And I was wondering for you as a woman and filmmaker, how was it? Was that something that also became apparent? Do you think the fact that you as a woman, they behaved differently? I mean, still, you were completely incorporated, but still it felt to be a “man’s world”.
AG: It is a man’s world, but at the same time George is very open. I mean, really, anybody could show up there and women do go there but not very often, more often in the summer when the guys are sitting outside, when somebody comes in the end of their workday. So, it’s not – I mean – it’s curious, because they are older guys so there isn’t kind of a certain tension there and so I never…well, as I said, I really felt that I was invited in and incorporated in that world and that’s partly why I include that scene in the film which is unusual for me, to show myself. But because it was organic and just generated in the moment, obviously they let me film and it shows George teaching me – you know, I’m a novice, I’m the apprentice. He would have been like that if it had been a young man. Hmm – so it is not- I mean, it is clearly a man’s world but it’s not one based on a kind of exclusion of woman.
E: I was also wondering what do you think are the limitations of the approach of observational cinema? I remember talking to this one professor one time and we were talking about spirit-trance possession, that is hard to show this without giving a context to the viewer – because it’s something that can play into you know, exotification, without explaining to the audience what you are actually witnessing right now. So I was wondering if you have encountered in your own practices, limitations to this approach?
AG: Well, it really depends on what you are interested in exploring. Obviously the way anyone approaches the subject matter has to be in dialogue with that subject matter and so, for me, and as I mentioned just earlier, I’m interested in time and the way things unfold. And so, for those questions and the way that people relate to each other in their spontaneous and emergent society way, observational work, is the only way where one could explore those areas of social life. But yeah, if you are interested in other kinds of cultural practices, trance ritual for example then yeah, you may need to take a different approach. So there’s certainly not one approach and I think one has to, I mean, I think it’s an interesting challenge of being a visual anthropologist or ethnographic filmmaker, which is figuring out how best to work with your subjects. I think sort of holding to my observational approach driven partly by the questions that I’m interested in but also as a kind of refusal to fall back in the usual ways that documentary is structured. That doesn’t mean that one could never have narration or interview or dialogue or any of these other strategies. It’s just one needs to have a good reason for why one is working in a particular way. That’s all I ask filmmakers, rather than just being settled for that without giving really thought very hard about other possibilities why they might use a technique rather than another.
E: And have you ever thought about using other approaches to filmmaking in your own practices?
AG: I would if it was called for by my subjects. So far, you know, I seek out places where I can do the work that I find most satisfying but absolutely would allow working in some other kind of way.
“George’s Place: the Cellar” is a World premiere at this year’s 9th Athens Ethnographic Film Festival, screening at ASTOR Cinema on Wednesday 21st of November, at 17:00 o’ clock.