When you offer somebody a gift, it’s usually something they need or can use. It can be decorative or practical. Can a gift be more than an item? Maybe you buy plane tickets for your parents to go somewhere they’ve always dreamed of or you make supper for a friend, clean up a relative’s house or provide a service. These can be perceived as gifts as well. Giving a gift to a friend or relative is always nice but giving a gift to a stranger is equally rewarding. You’ve never met before, you don’t know if they’re rich or poor and you don’t care. It is the art of the gesture that matters the most.
Robin McKenna’s new documentary, Gift explores the idea of a gift and the emotion that giving and receiving can evoke. The film is based on the book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde. The film was co-produced by Ina Fichman and Robin McKenna. I was lucky enough to catch up and talk to Robin about her film while she was in town for the Vancouver screening at The Rio.
“What was the inspiration for this film?”
“It was inspired by the book, The Gift by Lewis Hyde : Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. The book came out in 1983 and is loved by many artists and writers like Dave Smith, Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace and it’s kind of exploring this double idea of the gift and how gifts can create connections and relationships between people, how a gift economy functions and this idea that we have gifts or talents that want to come through us and be shared. There’s this idea that the gift moves in a circle and there’s this reciprocity of the gift that wants to come through us and be shared.”
“How did you find your four subjects in the film?”
“Lewis Hyde talks a lot about the Potlatch tradition in the book and I was curious about that so I contacted a community in Alert Bay, just North of Vancouver Island. It’s a Kwakwaka’wakw community and I found out that people are Potlatching all the time and there’s a whole system of values around the Potlatch. Which is, that wealth is meant to be passed on not horded and it’s how they live. I had met this family of artists and carvers and this young man who was 30 years old and was saving up everything so he could give it away. He had spent four years saving up to give away all his wealth. I thought that was an amazing story in a country I live in.
I had known about Burning Man and had been there. It functions on a gift economy; once you buy a ticket and get there, there’s no money exchanged. There’s this big DE commodification idea where nothing can be bought. A lot of it is really centered on gifting and what’s the most amazing thing you can bring to share with people, share your experiences, share your art. I liked the idea of juxtaposing with an ancient Indigenous tradition with the family, a futuristic rave landscape in the desert.
Lee Mingwei is an artist that I discovered a long time ago. I thought of him because his work is a lot about connections between strangers, relationships between people and gifts. It also turns out that he’s a big fan of Lewis Hyde. He’s been very influenced by the book and it turns out they even know each other.
With the last story that I found in Rome, I found a reference on the internet on how the place functions as a gift economy. I started looking at pictures and reading a story of the place. I loved the story so I went there and got to know people. I knew I wanted to weave four stories together.”
“How did you finance the project?”
“It came a little at a time, starting with the Hot Docs Development Fund and later the Superchannel Development Fund as well as the license from them. We also got the CMF (Canada Media Fund) and Ontario tax credits. When I started making the film the Potlatch was happening pretty early in the process and I didn’t have the money to do it so I had to put it all on my credit card and go with it. When I was totally going broke and having a heart attack about how I’m going to finish it, an American philanthropist gave me a gift, which allowed me to finish it. There were times when I couldn’t pay the rent and keep making the film but there was a whole web of gifts from community/friends, people contributing and helping. There’s been quite a gift journey that went into this 5 year project.”
“Was it difficult to put together a crew for the film?”
“I started making it with my partner Marco Herald, who is now my ex but an amazing cinematographer. I was so lucky to have his help with the Potlatch and Burning Man footage. It was just the both of us with me holding the sound boom. Once we broke up I had to find another cinematographer. Now I have a great editor in Toronto that I’ve worked with before and knew I wanted to work with again. Those were really my key collaborators. I was also working with Peter Wintonick, the great documentary filmmaking guru that made Manufacturing Consent. John Steekum, he’s a Canadian Documentary filmmaking guru. Unfortunately he had passed away after the first year of starting. He’s been a big inspiration in the documentary community for a long time. He’s mentored a lot of filmmakers and was producing mine up until his passing. I didn’t have a producer for a while because not many people want to make feature art films like these. They’re not always commercially friendly.”
“It’s fantastic that you did read the book to feel inspired to make this film.”
“The book is about the idea of giving and helping but it’s also about the art of the activity and it can transform us, the same way that a great book or great film can wake up your own gifts and make us see things in different ways. We can be changed by that.”
“What would you say your gift is?”
“(Laughter) Lewis Hyde was a young poet when he wrote the book. He wondered why he spent so much time writing these poems when his landlord didn’t care about them when his rent was due. Poetry for me has always been one of the transforming gifts. Reading Blake’s poetry for example, was life changing. I’m trying to put poetry in cinema and it’s not easy to make a feature length poem. It’s playing with double meanings/depth that allow people to find their own meaning. It’s hard to know what your own gift is.”
“Have you heard any stories about someone seeing this film and becoming inspired to keep spreading the message?”
“We’ve done quite a few screenings and at some of the smaller ones we’ve had more in depth conversations with people. They’ll write down what types of inspiration they received from it. It’s also about the value and art of the activity so we partnered with people like Creative Capitol in New York. It’s a great art funding organization and it’s also about the importance and value of the arts in our culture.”
“Where does the film go after leaving Vancouver?”
“We’re opening in Toronto on Friday, May 17 at the Carlton Cinema. We’ll be doing a wide US release starting in the fall. Another exciting thing that’s happening, is that they’re releasing a new addition of the book by Lewis Hyde with an introduction by Margaret Atwood. Lewis Hyde has written a new forward to the book, that’s all about my film. He’s a big fan and a champion of the film. We’re going to be working with the publisher to see if we can somehow tie in the release of the book and the film.”
“Was this a product of good timing?”
“It’s been in the works for a long time and we’ve been talking to them. It’s been a book that has stayed in print even though it came out a long time ago, kind of a cult book. I thought it would be fun to bring Margaret Attwood into the film. We’d love to do something with her and Lewis Hyde in the fall in Toronto.”
“You’ve been making documentaries for 20 years. Can you remember your first one?”
“I did a show in Quebec a long time ago called The Race Around the World. It was a competition where they choose 8 young people every year to go around the world with a camera making little creative documentary poems. I got chosen to do that when I was 20, so I went around the world by myself with a camera. Every nine days we had to make a short documentary. It was a show that produced a lot of great Quebec filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve and Phillip Falardeau as well as others that have gone on to make fiction films, but it was like an old bootcamp film school.”
“Are you bilingual?”
“Yes I am. I speak French and Spanish fluently.”
“I speak a little Pig Latin. Have you ever considered subtitles in other languages?”
“Oh yes. It’s already been released in France and Brazil. It’s already had its theatrical run and I did a lot of interviews in French, with media. There’s a French version, there’s a Spanish version and now there’s a Ukraine version of the film. We don’t have an Italian version yet so I can go back and show the film in Italy. The plans are in the works for that.”
“Have you spoken with the four artists since its premiere? Have they all seen it?”
“Of course, I’m still in touch with all of them. The core of the family involved in the Potlatch has seen it and they really love the film. Mingwei the artist says it’s always weird to see yourself on camera but I believe he enjoys it. We also did this big San Francisco screening with Michelle, the woman who’s building the Art car and a lot of the Burning Man community. It was with John Law, who’s one of the founders of Burning Man. The event helped us to get the word out through social media and their website. Unfortunately Larry Harvey died (a Burning Man founder and spokesman) before the film could be finished. He personally told me that part of the Burning Man gift culture was a big inspiration for the book, Gift.”
“What keeps you making documentaries?”
“The insanity (laughter). It’s almost like it’s not a choice. There’s something that comes through you. You try and be a channel but I’ve had many moments of questioning. It’s a crazy process getting a film like this made as well as trying to get it out. I keep doing it because it seems to touch people and matter to people and that keeps me going.”
“What is the biggest takeaway from this film?”
“I hope it sparks something in people and they feel like discovering their own gifts. It’s made in an open ended way so I hope people find their own meaning. A spark of inspiration is my hope that the film will inspire. It’s connecting with a lot of different thread communities. Vancouver is an interesting place because there’s a big burning man community here as well as it’s also very close to the whole Potlatch tradition and very strong First Nations culture on the coast.”
“There must be many subjects/issues out there that would make for a great documentary. How do you narrow down the list to decide on the one you want to make next?”
“I always like to say, ‘I don’t go looking for an idea, ideas come looking for me.’ When you go to sleep at night you don’t go looking for your dreams, your dreams come find you. There are certain things that strike you and stay with you. I’m finishing a film about Ayahuasca. It’s a medicine that’s used for healing in the Amazon. Doctors are working with it to treat deep pain. There’s something otherworldly and dreamy about that subject matter. There are certain things that feel compelling and so I keep pursuing them. It’s not something you control but you have to be open to it.”
“Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person?”
“(Laughter) I think anyone that describes themselves as that is a little questionable.”
“When visiting the locations of the four subjects, which posed the most challenges?”
“I would have to say Rome. Not in terms of travelling there but the place in the documentary was hard-core and I had to spend a lot of time getting to know people and building relationships. The place is illegal and they could get evicted at anytime. It’s a precarious thing, they keep the gate locked and are a bit suspicious of strangers. It’s always the practice in documentaries, spending time with people without the camera on.”
Although this film was inspired by the book, The Gift, the demonstrations of gift giving were inspired by big hearts and appreciation for all. It’s not the size of the gift, but rather the act of giving it and how that can bridge politics, race, religion and build relationships that weren’t previously there.