Katherine Canty's path to becoming a director averted the industry's intern-your-way-to-the-top mentality. In 2014, she left her job as an unpaid, overworked production intern in London. Swapping film sets for a waitressing job, she began writing the script for her film, January Hymn. A personal reflection of her own experience of grief, she describes the film as being "written" years before she put pen to paper. After winning funding by the Irish Film Board, Katherine's first professional role as director was set in motion when production began in 2015.
January Hymn is the story of Clara who returns to her small Irish hometown one year after her father's death. The film artistically encapsulates the intangible and isolating effects of bereavement and grief; the result is an atmospheric and touching piece of work.
Produced by an all-female lead crew and lauded by the festival circuit, January Hymn has been nominated for Best Screenplay at the Moonfaze Feminist Film Festival and Best Director, Editor and Cinematographer in the Underwire Film Festival.
Premiering online exclusively on BOOTH, we caught up with Irish writer, director and BOOTH member Katherine to discuss the making of the film.
Can you tell us how you reached the concept for January Hymn? What was your process?
I started writing the script for January Hymn over the summer of 2013, while I was editing my MA graduate film. After I graduated, I moved to London to get some "professional experience" (a total waste of time which hasn't benefited my career in any way) and kept working away quietly on the script until it was ready. I've mentioned in interviews before that it helped me to keep my trajectory in perspective while I was doing unpaid, exploitative work as an intern. I often feel like my work really "suits itself" in terms of development time, if it doesn't want to be rushed, then it just won't be rushed, so it's a question of waiting for the time to be right. The script had arguably been "written" years before I put it down on paper, but I had to wait for the time to be right, which is often completely out of my control.
"January Hymn is an acknowledgement of the "non-conclusion" of my own grief... I never expected it to be cathartic or 'a healing process' - how could it be?"
January Hymn poetically captures the grief, loneliness and isolation of bereavement, did you face any challenges depicting a narrative so close to home?
It was very important to me that I follow my instinct during every step of the process of making the film, from the writing, through to casting and rehearsals, to the edit. While the story is very personal to me, it doesn't belong only to me - it also belongs to my family, so I was very careful with my representational choices - I wanted to evoke my own experience, rather than assume I could represent someone else's. The story behind the film is collectively owned, but also experienced individually. It was of the utmost importance that I not compromise the work, because I felt very strongly that I had a responsibility to be honest with it, even if this resulted in a piece of work that isn't convenient or neat - there has been no tidy resolution to my experience of grief, so why would the film conclude in such a manner? January Hymn is an acknowledgement of the "non-conclusion" of my own grief. It was never intended to take away or "fix" my grief or bereavement, I never expected it to be cathartic or "a healing process" - how could it be?
The absence of dialogue within the film results in an incredibly rich, atmospheric aesthetic. Was this a deliberate choice or a result of the writing process?
The script was never very dialogue-heavy. My experience of grief is that it's very difficult to articulate, it permeates your everyday life and is present even if it isn't directly addressed, and so it wouldn't have made sense for the film to be very dialogue-driven. I'm quite interested in negative space and allowing my work room to breathe. I think the pared-back style of the work was certainly the result of a decision in the writing process, and then began to change shape and evolve into what the film is now over the course of the edit. It's very important for me to be closely involved in all stages of production because I don't write from the point of view of a writer, I'm always considering how the work will be photographed and edited and how the sound will be designed.
The cinematography of January Hymn plays a moving, distinct part in defining Clara's experience of grief. How did your cinematographer Kate McCullough influence the aesthetic of the film?
Working with Kate as my cinematographer was a great experience - I think her energy is very complimentary to mine, and she really plugged into the choices I made and helped me to create a very "grounded" atmosphere, and one that was anchored in a kind of stillness and an inescapable experience without any distraction or gimmick. The cinematography locates the characters in a very focused frame. I think this is also probably due in part to the influence of painting on my work - I've always been very interested in fine art and portraiture. Kate really responded to what I was prioritising in the film.
Did you actively choose to hire female crew, and if so why?
When discussing the question of all-female productions, people tend to roll their eyes and ask "Shouldn't you hire the best person for the job?" If all-male led crews are the result of hiring the best people for the job, then surely the same can be said of an all-female crew? I felt like working with an all-female headed production was a very small but important contribution to make following my experience working in production in London - females are more often than not found in very specific roles on a production. I was interested in moving away from this tendency to "gender" production positions and open things up a bit. I get the impression that plenty of people would take issue with the idea of an all-female crew much more than they would with an all-male one.
What changes would you like to see within film in the (near) future?
I'm quite cynical about the question of change in the industry. I'm not too confident about things changing in the near future... I hope I'm wrong though. At the moment, I'm focusing on where I want to take my work, and what I want to do next. After a lot of reflection, I feel this is the best use of my energy when it comes to the question of change. For now!
"My experience of grief is that it's very difficult to articulate, it permeates your everyday life... and so it wouldn't have made sense for the film to be very dialogue-driven. I'm quite interested in negative space and allowing my work room to breathe."
You’ve described yourself an auteur, do you think female filmmakers shy away from using this term?
I do indeed describe myself as an auteur, which historically has been more of a male term I suppose. I also identify as a female director, or as a woman director - I feel like those titles are political, and I have no problem being described as such by others. I feel that I don't need to protect people from their own response to my being female by insisting my title not be gendered. My gender has a lot to do with how I make work, it has informed my experience all my life, and so I don't think that not referring to it is necessarily beneficial. I don't really know if female filmmakers shy away from the term - if they do, perhaps it’s because of its gendered history. I use it to describe myself because as I've said, it's important for me to involved in all aspects of the production of my work.
What drew you to working in film?
I never really know how to respond to this question. I can't actually remember when I became interested in making films, and I'm generally very critical and cautious of the medium. I suppose I became interested in being a director in my teens. I'd always been interested in painting and writing, and when I was much younger I was interested in acting, although not now, I couldn't be an actor, from what I know of the industry, I think I'd find it unbearable. I suppose that becoming a filmmaker was the result of my interest in writing, and somehow this is the shape it took.
You’ve stated that the medium of film is ‘limited and dangerous’, can you tell us why?
I think a lot of my feelings about film are rather contrarian. I'm distrustful of it, and don't really like all of that much of what I see. I think this keeps me honest in my own work - I want to make work that I would respond to positively. I think that film is potentially dangerous because of its reach - because of the power of its suspension of disbelief. I feel that it is put up on a pedestal as being a very evolved form, and its artifice is too seductive and convenient. I think that it is too often received as an "absolute" form, and that bothers me. Of course, this is only my opinion, and I try to focus on my own work rather than what I dislike about popular or commercial film.
Venus in Retrograde (2017) directed by Katherine Canty
Your next film Venus in Retrograde is a follow-up to January Hymn, can you tell us more about this?
Venus in Retrograde is probably best described as an anti-film. You are invited to accompany Carla during her stay in Hell, where the figures of Screwtape and Wormwood deliberate, the spectral Ava gives her testimony, and the Magus watches over the proceedings...
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Listen to your instinct, and be careful whose advice you take. Don't do things just to keep the peace or please others. Take yourself seriously as a maker, but don't beat yourself up. Don't shy away from positions of power. Don't work for free! You don't need to have done unpaid, exploitative work as an intern to make your own work! This is a recurring complaint of mine in interviews, the question of unpaid "work experience".
FInally, which female-directed film do you recommend to BOOTH members?
Claire Denis' Beau Travail, and (I always give this answer!) Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie.
BOOTH exclusively premiered January Hymn's online release in December 2017.
► Watch January Hymn
Words: GJ Pearce