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Reel Folk: Interview with Filmmaker Amy Nicholson

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As the upcoming AFC film and discussion event, Reel Folk: Cultural Explorations on Film, nears, I interviewed filmmaker Amy Nicholson to whet the appetites of fellow ethnographic film enthusiasts out there! Amy’s 2005 film, Muskrat Lovely, will screen on September 30 2017, the second day of the Reel Folk event. View the full schedule here.

Rhonda Aaron at the World Muskrat Skinning Championship, National Outdoor Show, 2012. Rhonda Aaron is in the film, and will be attending AFC’s screening to answer audience questions. Photo by Edwin Remsberg.

What is Muskrat Lovely about?

Muskrat Lovely is a documentary film that chronicles the 50th crowning of “Miss Outdoors.” Each year, high school girls compete for the title in this unusual beauty pageant, which takes place in Dorchester County, Maryland. It’s a rather remote area on the Chesapeake Bay that is home to a pretty close-knit community of watermen and women – there is a lot of hunting, fishing, trapping, and skinning! Since 1936, they have this big weekend called The Outdoor Show and the pageant is the first night, followed by the World Championship Muskrat Skinning Contest the next day.

How did the film begin?

My father invited me to go see the muskrat skinning one year and, of course, I thought he was joking around. So I dared my best friend to take a drive down from New York City to Maryland with me and we piled in the car for the 5 hour trip. Suddenly, we were in another world. We sat in the audience during the main skinning competition and first up was raccoons. It takes a long time to skin a raccoon! So, we were reading the catalogue for the weekend’s events and realized we had missed the pageant. I vowed to come back the next year and film its 50th year.

When making an ethnographic film focused on a particular cultural community or event, it’s important to ensure that trust is built with the community. Could you speak a bit about that process?

Oh yes! It’s a must to build trust and I approach all my films that way. First of all, the area south of Cambridge, Maryland, where we did most of our filming is the type of place where people wave to whoever they pass on the road – and you better wave back! Everyone knows everyone, so they know if you don’t live there. You can’t just barge in with a camera crew, no matter how small. So, I spent a lot of time scouting, visiting, and making sure people were comfortable with what we were doing before we got there. Of course, we couldn’t know who would enter the pageant until a few weeks before, so I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with each contestant once I had the list.

I am also very honest about what I am trying to accomplish when I begin these projects, and I try to invite people into the process. So, I asked many times, “Why did you enter the pageant, this unusual competition?” And no one seemed to think it was that crazy, so after a while, neither did I! I like to reflect my process in the arc of the story. By the end of the film, it all just seems like a nice community event and not that unusual. This is because I wanted to create a more in-depth portrait of the people and the place, and not just some superficial characterization of this annual event. Along the same lines, I asked each girl what she wanted to film that would make her feel glamorous, and that’s what we did while interviewing them about their hopes for winning. It really revealed their personalities in the most adorable way.

The Muskrat Eating the Soft, White Part of a Rush. Illustration by Bruce Horsfall, circa 1900.

Similarly, how do you ensure that a community’s cultural traditions and events are respectfully portrayed?

Again, I was very honest about what I was trying to explore. Everyone in the community knew it was an unusual combination of events and they had a great sense of humor about it. I go out of my way to make sure that while the story might be entertaining, it never pokes fun. There are sections in the film devoted to muskrat trapping, cooking, and skinning that are explained by Rhonda Aaron (who happened to be the Women’s Champion skinner that year!). [1] I thought it was crucial to include them so the audience could understand the roles that traditions play in their lives.

Did you have any ideas going into the film that changed during the course of  making it?

I didn’t really expect to feel so welcomed. I didn’t grow up there; those people don’t know me. They were so gracious and such good sports about having us interrupting the flow of something for which they plan all year. All of the organizers are volunteers, so it was a pain for them to have us constantly underfoot. But they all went so far out of their way to help us that several times we showed up at someone’s house to do an interview and they had made us lunch. It was incredible. That influenced where I wanted to leave the audience at the end. It cemented what the story was really about.

How has the film been received?

When the film was finished, I rented the movie theater in Cambridge, Maryland and a fancy machine that would screen a tape (this was the pre-digital era). I then invited the whole community and crossed my fingers that I had not portrayed anyone poorly. One of the most grizzled watermen came up to me when it was over and gave me a hug. I knew I had done a good job. In addition, PBS broadcast the film on their series, Independent Lens, which was an honor, and Maryland Public Television has run the film several times, as well.

What advice would you give to those who want to embark upon creating their own ethnographic films?

You should absolutely love your subject matter and be prepared to spend a great deal of time with whatever it is/whoever they are. Don’t set out to make a film because you think it’ll be shocking, or that you’re looking to entertain a snickering audience, or even because you’re trying to expose something shocking that might ruin people’s lives. If you are honestly seeking a better understanding of a group of people or place you are curious about, you’ll treat your subject with respect. It’s a big deal to ask people to make a film with you, and it’s important to remember that every step of the way.

[1] Rhonda will be on hand to answer questions after the film’s screening.

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