A provocative, metaphorical exploration of the ways in which we perform and perceive gender in the modern world, New York based director and film photographer Anne Hollowday couples carefully curated archive footage with real-life interviews in thought-provoking documentary short Bird Watching. DN caught up with Anne to discover the techniques and considerations behind this examination of how women are seen.
How did this experimental metaphor piece develop?
The film is about deconstructing and complicating our ideas around gender perception and performance so it was important from the beginning that this was reflected in its form. I’m deeply inspired by texture and this archive is so inherently textural (it literally is a physical thing scanned to digital). It’s a window onto another world and that ability to transcend space and time speaks to one of my biggest goals in all my motion and stills work: to create effective and transporting images that move you. The layer of visual metaphor is a perfect backdrop for the question this piece really gets at: what does it mean to be seen?
What was your process for constructing the film?
The film is based on audio interviews, each lasting several hours. That’s always been a crucial part of my process. I began my career making documentaries and branded content work and I am constantly humbled by people’s experiences. When someone takes the time to share their story with you that is one of the greatest gifts you can ever be given. I listen to the raw audio over and over; condensing as I go. I didn’t intend for this film to be as short as it is, but it felt right. The mix of formats, aspect ratios and multi-layered metaphor were all deliberate choices to provide a sensory experience that requires attention and repeat viewing.
When someone takes the time to share their story with you that is one of the greatest gifts you can ever be given.
In what ways do you feel the earlier iterations of Bird Watching fell short of your intentions for the film?
They all just felt too basic, too obvious. Archive, particularly film footage has this physical texture to it, layers of historical context and tangible document. This is a film about lived experience and it needed both directness and breadth in the footage to create the range of emotional and intellectual associations I wanted to explore.
When reviewing the hours of interviews were there other avenues of commonality which sparked your interest before coming to focus on Bird Watching’s through line?
Great question! I actually began with the idea of layering different voices over each other. There were many similar accounts about lots of things that I was able to weave together and create this effect. But I wasn’t doing justice to the stories in this way and in the end, I condensed and separated so each account had its own voice.
There was one idea that kept coming up over and over though that was particularly striking, luck. One of my interviewees said “I’m lucky” 8 or 9 times in the same interview. They were saying that while there were specific gendered infractions they had been on the receiving end of, they were grateful that they personally hadn’t experienced more of it. The choice of words is particularly pertinent. Luck is about chance rather than one’s own actions. They recognized through their own lived experience and context that it was entirely luck defining the extent of their experience of this stuff.
What tools/software did you use and how long did it take to combine the component parts into a satisfying whole?
The usuals – edited in Premiere; used a spreadsheet to keep track of my archival footage research and selection process. That’s the risk with big projects like this – people always think it’s easier to do archival projects but in some ways, it’s harder. There’s not one hard drive of footage and that’s it. It’s infinite; only limited by the ability to find what I need to express my vision.
People always think it’s easier to do archival projects but in some ways, it’s harder.
I was collecting interviews for a while but once I settled on the Bird Watching concept and knew it’d be archive driven, the actual coming together of everything was just a few weeks.
The film ends with the statement, “The way things are actually have nothing to do with the way things can be.” Do you feel actual progress is being made towards the ‘can be’?
Big question. We’ve gotta hope so.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Yes! I always have many projects on my slate. Working on two short pieces right now as well as writing a longer project. Always doing stills too. A film I did the stills photography for just premiered at Berlinale this week, So Pretty (https://www.berlinale.de/en/programm/berlinale_programm/datenblatt.html?film_id=201915367)