You won’t catch Bill Coperthwaite whiling away the hours slingshotting animated birds at animated pigs on his iPhone or aiming LOLs at his Twitter followers. No, you’re likelier to discover him carving spoons, sawing timber with a blade that looks about as old as he is, or weighing the poetic merits of Robert Southey versus Lewis Carroll.
Coperthwaite bought his 300 acres in rural Maine in 1960 and since then has devoted himself to a self-described “handmade life,” inspired by the back-to-the-land movement of Scott and Helen Nearing and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Emory University anthropologist and filmmaker Anna Grimshaw combined her two specialties to immerse herself in Coperthwaite’s life over four seasons, for four separate films. The first, “Mr. Coperthwaite: a life in the Maine Woods, Part 1. Spring in Dickinson’s Reach,” gets its U.S. premiere screening tonight, presented by Film Love and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.
A doctoral candidate at Emory’s Institute of Liberal Arts and a friend to Atlanta aficionados of independent and experimental cinema, Film Love curator Andy Ditzler first met Grimshaw in the classroom, seeing fragments of her “Coperthwaite” as a work-in-progress.
“Observational cinema is very much about forming a relationship with the subject and always using a hand-held camera” instead of one mounted on a tripod, Ditzler explains. “A hand-held camera means you’re using your body a lot more. You’re in the same space that the subject is; you’re in close proximity to them. It’s all about being quiet and watching the subject, and letting the subject lead the filmmaker,” instead of vice versa as is the norm.
This first of four parts of the year-long documentary project is completely immersive: no soundtrack, no talking heads, no commentary or narration. Instead, filmmaker Grimshaw silently follows Coperthwaite — slightly gnome-like with his white hair and pointy, red-knit cap — as he goes through daily chores in and around his hand-built yurt. (The closest thing to this that Atlanta filmgoers might have seen lately was “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” which followed Siberian trappers deep into the woods, but that documentary was embroidered with a voice-over narration by Werner Herzog.)
“Anna’s style as an observational filmmaker is to have as unobtrusive a camera as you’ll find almost anywhere,” Ditzler says. And there’s a paradox there. “What’s interesting is that, in the resulting film, you have a great awareness of the presence behind the camera,” he adds. “The observational quality of it is so acute, and the relationship between the subject and the filmmaker, as mediated by the camera, is so intimate.”
Grimshaw doesn’t ask Coperthwaite questions. And he generally doesn’t acknowledge her presence, except perhaps by reading poetry aloud. “We know he’s not talking to himself; he’s engaging with Anna,” Ditzler says. “But at the same time, this is something that he would be doing even if he were by himself.” At other times, the interaction between filmmaker and subject becomes very practical, as when Coperthwaite might need help on a project in the woods and Grimshaw puts down the camera and lends him an extra pair of hands to get the job done.
Grimshaw will attend Friday’s screening. And on June 7, Film Love will present the summertime quarter of this film project. The fall and winter installments will be scheduled later, when those seasons roll round.
“I wanted to honor that experimental structure and show it experimentally,” Ditzler says. In that way, Atlanta film lovers can make a yearlong trek a little like the one filmmaker Grimshaw herself did — but without leaving the local zip code.
“Mr. Coperthwaite: a life in the Maine Woods, Part 1. Spring in Dickinson’s Reach.” A documentary by Anna Grimshaw. 8 p.m. Friday, March 29. Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means Street N.W., Atlanta. 404-688-1970. $8; $5 students and seniors; free with ACAC membership.