Non-fiction writing and films about place

Most books about the land seem to follow a fairly standard form if they’re not focussing on one particular place or telling a general history. A series of chapters takes an instance of the land type under consideration, describes it, describes a personal encounter with it, and uses it as the basis to make a collection of relevant observations, whether drawing from history, ecology, culture, politics, whatever. If the focus is fairly personal, the chapters generally interlink seasonally, or at least chronologically, to give the book some narrative shape. The instances can be deliberately chosen to be illustrative – as, for example William Atkins’ The Moor or Hugh Warwick’s Linescapes or can be used as the basis for a more thematic exploration, sometimes quite tightly, othertimes more freeform, as with Sara Maitland’s Gossip From The Forest and Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing. (It’s telling that it was easier to find examples of the latter written by women – perhaps indicative of that dreadful male trait of compiling and cataloguing which I am myself guilty of.)

When it comes to non-fiction films about the land, whether short or feature, these are typically examinations of a single place, or an area. Unsurprisingly, essayistic films are more likely to be structured around instances of places, drawing out specific ideas and themes, and connecting them through travelogue, as in the work of Agnes Varda, Chris Petit and Patrick Keiller. What seems to be absent is a non-fiction film equivalent of the cataloguing, choosing specific places as instances of something to be examined. For that, one needs to turn to television, where it’s to be found in abundance. This is something I need to consider in much greater depth, as it reflects the context in which my work will be received, and also potential rules worth breaking. 

It’s too early for me to need to make a decision about structure and approach in my own project, though that time will come and it’s important to be ready for that. I’m playing with the idea of choosing around ten commons for specific reasons: Tunbridge Wells for the autobiographical, Wick Moor for the anthropocene, Runnymede Common for history and so on. Rooting into a place through filmmaking and/or photography is important to me. The deep knowledge and aesthetic and affective connection this gives is the basis of my best creative work. But so is the writing, the making links, the expanding out through facts, the destabilising. Striking the balance between the two modes of working, or finding a productive tension, is central to the intellectual work for this PhD. In terms of land-focussed non-fiction books, the voiceover is the informing and the hypothesising, the personal connections; the filming is the detail, the personal involvement, the basis of the thinking, and a way of giving the reader a glimpse of the world beyond words and facts. 

Either way, as writing is important to me, and writing about place highly relevant to this project, it makes sense that a deeper investigation into this literature, which I’m reading continually, will be highly valuable. 

Published by andythatcher

Photographer - filmmaker - writer - researcher Environment - wellbeing - politics

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