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Documenting a Life in the Woods

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Ever wonder what it would be like to live deep in a forest for 50 years?

Me either.

But that's exactly what Harvard graduate Bill Coperthwaite has done, living a self-sustaining life in a three-story yurt in the Maine woods for more than five decades, attracting a near-cult status and fan following.

Anthropologist Anna Grimshaw of Emory University's Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts is an ethnographic filmmaker who spent a year filming Coperthwaite.

The first of her resulting four-part documentary Mr. Coperthwaite: A Life in the Maine Woods, Spring in Dickinson's Reach has shown at film festivals all around the world. Its U.S. premiere was at the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center on March 29.

In a recent interview at her Emory office on a warm spring day, she spoke about the documentary.

Q: How did you come to know Bill Coperthwaite?

A: I bought a house in Maine and kept hearing about a man who lived in the woods, so my partner and I walked out there a couple of times -- it's a wonderful walk through the forest -- to get to his place before we found him at home. He is happy to engage in conversation with people who have walked a mile and a half to see him. He lives in a three-story yurt, and there are all these smaller yurts: a boathouse, a kitchen, a john, a library.

Q: What was he like when you did meet him?

A: He's an interesting mixture, a man who has lived alone in the woods for 50 years but who is also social, with both a passion for tools and a love of poetry. He enjoys solitude, but always has a project, something to do. He enjoys testing things out -- what might happen if I do this with these tools and these materials? I have video of him designing a new wheelbarrow to make it more balanced. He is always looking for ways to do things more efficiently. He's from Maine originally, from a traditional family, and has a Ph.D. from Harvard, but for his dissertation he didn't write a text, he created a traveling Inuit museum, teaching about Inuit tools that were no longer used.

Q: A review of your documentary said you had "as unobtrusive a camera as you'll find almost anywhere." Can you talk about the process of filming and what you are trying to do with the camera?

A: This is not a documentary that tries to explain, but one that asks the viewer to enter an imaginative world that puts them in relationship with Bill. I don't try for objectivity, I try to get as close as possible to the subject, to be responsive and capture the unfolding of his life. I don't have a script, I don't ask questions, I just wait to see what happens. I tell students, you are using the camera as a form of inquiry, to find something out.

Q: How did you decide on the documentary's title, Mr. Coperthwaite: A Life in the Maine Woods?

A: He does have a fabulous name, doesn't he? Straight out of Dickens. He lives in homage to Thoreau, Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and his land, which he paid something like $500 in the 1960s, is actually named Dickinson's Reach.

Q: Why break the film into the four seasons?

A: When I committed myself to documenting Bill's life for a year, I knew I would capture all four seasons, but I imagined it as a single film. Once I started editing, though, I realized I couldn't do that, it would take away from the time in the moment. The first film, spring, is the longest; I probably shot 33 hours of video for every hour of the film. The other three films are less than an hour, so it's 4.5 hours total.

Q: What has been the reception to Mr. Coperthwaite?

A: It has been well received, especially at its international screenings. I have been entering it in ethnographic film festivals and it has shown in Moscow, Vienna, Estonia, and Ljubljana. People elsewhere tend to think of America as an industrialized, capitalist world, and they've told me this has given them a different perspective.

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