A few questions with Georgia filmmaker and anthropologist Anna Grimshaw

Grimshaw’s new feature ‘Mr. Coperthwaite: a life in the Maine woods Part One: Spring in Dickinson’s Reach’ will premiere at the Contemporary


  • Courtesy of Aryan Kaganof
  • Anna Grimshaw gets solitary with Bill Coperthwaite.

This Friday, Film Love and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center will present the U.S. premiere of the newest film by local filmmaker and anthropologist Anna Grimshaw.

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).