Posted on 2015/12/07 by

Interview with Dr. Matthew Anderson, Professor of Theology at Concordia University and Filmmaker

On November 16, 2015, I had the chance to interview Dr. Matthew Anderson, Professor of Theology at Concordia University. Our discussion focused on Dr. Anderson’s work as a producer of documentaries on the subject of pilgrimage. In the process, we examined the concept of space as it relates to his creative projects: space as an imagined realm and a utopia. We also discussed the numerous types of spaces, some abstract, other— material, that cross paths during a pilgrimage. The interview also touched upon the topic of space and its relation to what it takes to make a documentary film. A few words were exchanged on rituals and practices involved in making a film. At one point, Dr. Anderson alluded to the power of non-human objects, such as a cup of tea, to influence the process of making a documentary. In the interview, these objects are referred to as “ingredients.” These “ingredients” remind one of the Actor-Network Theory, wherein the human and the non-human affect each other, defining the meaning, function, role and purpose they hold in a given moment.


CP: Dr. Anderson, thank you for agreeing to be part of this interview. I would like to ask you a few questions about the concept of space and its relation to knowledge making. However, the idea of space can be interpreted as widely as needed. My first question is about your work as an academic: can you please tell us what you do in terms of your academic work?

: Sure…My PhD was actually in New Testament studies, in rhetoric and history, so areas where the idea of space is not necessarily obvious. In rhetoric you are creating a space rhetorically. Well, actually, I could talk about that… It is interesting… I could talk about the fact that my initial impulse for research way back when I got my doctorate and wrote my dissertation was all about how you can create imaginary worlds with words and then you inhabit them. This is an insight that you get from Gadamer, philosopher [Hans-Georg] Gadamer, and also from Paul Ricoeur who picks up from Gadamer’s insights. Gadamer had this thing called “horizons of meanings.” That is when you… say you are a really good political speaker. Martin Luther King Junior…and you say…you give a speech…and in your speech you say “I can imagine…I am imagining a world. Let us live into a time when black and white children go to school together, when they play on the same ground, when they live in the same neighborhood, when they go to the same schools, when they grow up together and become young adults together, raise families together.” What he is doing is…that world does not exist in America [at that time].
CP: It is more like a vision.
MA: It’s a vision. So my original impulse in my doctorate research was [to explore] how in the ancient texts do we see this rhetoric of imaginary worlds, in this case, by the Apostle Paul. [Places] that he wants people to live into.
CP: So it was his projection of the future?
MA: Well, not so much a projection of the future. I don’t think he thought that there was a long future ahead for humanity.
CP: Oh yes, the end of the world…
MA: But it was his projection of what can be right now if you lived into it and he was dealing with these communities that never existed. He was dealing with utopian communities that actually everybody talks about. Lots of people talk about utopian communities, but Paul had to deal with sort of de facto communities that were trying to be utopian. There were these communities of Jews and non-Jews who were stuck together in ways that have never been before.
CP: You said “they were trying” in the sense that they never achieved that.
MA: No, I don’t think human beings can ever achieve utopian ideals.
CP: How were they trying the most to live a utopian life?
MA: I think the fact that they were eliminating many distinctions between Jew and non-Jew; sometimes they were eliminating distinctions between women and men. To our way of thinking, we consider that women were horrible oppressed [during that time]. But they were much less oppressed in the Pauline churches than elsewhere. And they were trying to live this sort of non-violent life, following the ways of Jesus. They were utopian communities. How well did they do? If they have done perfectly well, Paul would not have had to write to them. But he was writing to them because they did not do necessarily all that well.

It is interesting that you mention the word “utopian” as in something ideal, a platonic form of life. Does this term come into your awareness in the process of your work now as a filmmaker or as an academic?
MA: Yeah…that is a good question…
CP: That imaginary space that you are trying to create.
MA: For instance, this summer…So like many academics, my research has changed. I no longer deal as much with rhetoric and history anymore. Lately, I have been talking about pilgrimage and about first peoples and the newcomers to Canada, those with a European background, especially settlers. In a pilgrimage you are trying to talk about…well I guess it is still rhetoric and the idea of making space…space for learning about each other. And you can do that orally, by making a great speech, if you happen to do that. But also in pilgrimage you are creating a space and maybe even a rhetorical space for learning about reconciliation, for learning about the other, and for learning about brining the community together in some way.


: Just for the purpose of our dialogue, can you please define the word pilgrimage, in the context of our discussion?
MA: A pilgrimage is a journey, historically normally to a sacred sight for the purpose of obtaining some benefit, either for oneself or for others and returning home.
CP: It has to be a return home?
MA: Not necessarily…There are two definitions of pilgrimage. One is a trip to a sacred sight and a return home and the other was a voluntary exile from the homeland. So the Irish pilgrims and even Abraham and Sarah from the Hebrew Bible, were voluntarily exiled from the homeland as a way of wondering, seeking a homeland that is on the other side of death. And those are both forms of pilgrimage, but they are quite different from each other. In the modern, or contemporary context, ever since the enlightenment and the romantic period and so on, we can think of pilgrimage maybe a bit more widely, as a transformative journey engaging in some way with the transcendent, transcendent values.
CP: So pilgrimage and seeking are inherently connected?
MA: Yes, they are related. Absolutely.


: And in your films…tell us a bit more about what you do as a filmmaker. What is your latest film about, if I may ask?
MA: Yeah, sure. Right now I am only starting work on the North West Mountain Police Patrol Trail film. I am going to come up with a better title, because it is terrible [as it is now].
CP: What is the idea behind the film?
MA: The idea is that this trail in southern Saskatchewan, by walking it, do we learn more about the cultural genocide of the First Peoples in the construction of Canada as a country.
CP: And the answer you found?
MA: I learned a lot about it.
CP: What did you learn?
MA: Well, I learned firstly that it happened. I grew up in this territory. When I grew up there were no First Nations around. You would find arrowheads, or a hammerhead or something, and we would all go “isn’t that interesting?” And I had a fairly romantic, high view of First Peoples, in the sense that I thought how wonderful that these people lived here and that they hunted and so on. But I never, never asked myself the next obvious question, which you should ask, which is “where are they?”
CP: There was no one?
MA: There was virtually nobody there. And only when I hit fifty that we started looking at it again. All of sudden I realized that in fact the reason there were no First Nation Peoples when I grew up is because the government had intentionally moved them off that land.
CP: When was that?
MA: In 1874-1875 through 1880. About 1885… Over a fairly short period of time, ten years, First Nations there went from being masters of a land to being pushed completely off in starving little groups of people.
CP: Where?
MA: Pushed north. For the most part.
CP: What area? What’s the name of that area?
MA: They were moved north, say from Cyprus Hills, southwest Saskatchewan now and from the border. Essentially they were moved away from the border into the beginning of the Canadian Shield, off the woods, in places like Balfour in Prince Albert.
CP: And so you interviewed people about their awareness of the history of that part of Canada?
MA: I did. I concentrated more on the group that was walking. So there was a group of us walking. There were only two of us who walked the entire distance. There was also one First Nations man who walked with us two of the three weeks, and for him it was a voyage of discovery as well. Just to come back to what you said: we were making space for learning.
CP: Learning in what sense?


: When you travel, when you are pilgrim on a road you are absolutely crossing terrain. You are physically crossing terrain. But when you are walking on a road you are making mental and social space for learning as well. So you have this combination of physical space that you are traversing; mental space that you are creating by getting away from your routing; social space that you are creating by being in a group of people who are walking; imaginary space, probably, where you can start to say how would it be if things were different. If now this land were in some way…if we realize that this land that we were walking actually belong to First Peoples and they were starved off of it, essentially, by our ancestors… So you are making space for learning, for practical learning, but also for reconciliation and change, in some way.
CP: What about space and the creation of the final product, which is the film? Could you apply the same concepts to what’s needed to create something? For example, to make a film, what kind of spaces are needed? We are talking abstract here.

: Well, for me, what happens, I will see something. And I will go “oh.”
CP: So it is sort of a muse?
MA: It is like a visual cue. I will see something and I would say “I can see that.” Immediately I can see where that sits in a film. For instance I made a film about North American Finns who went back to Finland and I was asking the question where is home? But in terms of space needed to make the film I was looking over a lake after a meal and there were a couple of people on the lake and I was looking out and you had the sea right there and the trees in the distance. And I was looking and I realized that that’s somehow what the film is about.
CP: Was that like an aha, eureka moment?
MA: Yes, it was…
CP: So that was the beginning?
MA: Yes.
CP: So what you are saying is that in the creation of film, the initial space is what we call inspiration.
MA: True…
CP: And what are the next spaces involved?
MA: You need good ingredients.
CP: I like the word ingredient, as you are using it here.
MA: You have an idea. That is like a spark. But it is easy to work on that idea if you have good ingredients. In my case, when I was walking, I had people filming. I hired people to film. I filmed some stuff myself. And I would just film something and go “ok, I think that’s going to be useful somewhere.”
CP: How would you discriminate between good and bad [footage] so to speak?
MA: You know, a lot of it is feel. I don’t even know how to describe it.
CP: You mean intuition?
MA: Some of it’s just intuition. I don’t know how else to describe it.
CP: It is almost like an innate thing, you have it or not.
MA: Maybe you have some innately, but you can certainly make it better or worse by ignoring or practicing it.
CP: So what I hear from you is that in the making of a film, like in the making of any other creative work, there is the realm of the abstract, nontangible, not necessarily easy to point, the inspiration, the intuition, the thoughts, the vision. But there is also the material: the space, devices, the script. Is there any other space that we could put a category to it?
MA: There is the social space. You need a social space in order to have people to interview. Because I interview people a lot. You have to create a social space where they feel welcome to be interviewed and comfortable enough to talk. I mean you created a good space for me with the tea and the chocolate just now. Presumably you did it so that I might feel more free to talk.

So the social space does not necessarily imply humans. It is also the items and things around that bring people together. Tea is just an element of the social space.
MA: The tea is a marker of “now you are going to sit and you are going to drink this tea [and talk].
CP: It has a symbolic message behind it.
MA: It is a symbol with a full sense of symbol because it is real. It does something. It is not just a mind thing. It is warm in my hands and it creates a place where I feel “oh now I am relaxing; it is not really work.”

: I am going to ask you now a question that is not as easy to ask: What do you dislike about space and knowledge creation in terms of filmmaking. What are the problems you encounter in the process of making this final and beautiful twenty-minute long product that takes one year to make it?
MA: Well you just answered it. One of the problems is that it takes a year.
CP: So it is time?
MA: It takes a lot of time.
CP: What are other things that are not as obvious to someone who just watches a film?
MA: Well, I mean it is like writing a book. You left a lot of good stuff on the floor, so to speak. Which means there is a lot of good things people said which just don’t fit in because there is no spot or they don’t seem to fit.
CP: So what happens to those elements that are left behind?
MA: They are gone.
CP: Do they have a life afterwards?
MA: No, no life. Well, maybe they exist in someone’s memory. But I will have people say to me, “you only took ten seconds, but I talked to you for an hour.” It’s true. And there were a lot of good things that were said in that hour. I didn’t necessarily take the best ten seconds. I took ten seconds that happened to fit my need to create the overall jigsaw puzzle.
CP: Any other difficulties that are not easily evident for someone who is not in direct contact with the process of making a film?
MA: For documentaries, there is an intimacy that develops with the people you interview. If you are a good or relative good documentary maker, you know that the best questions come out of a relationship with people. So you create some sort of a relationship with people and you are gone. That is a bit of a cost.
CP: Emotional cost.
MA: Emotional cost probably for the person being interviewed and also for the interviewer. I still have people from my first film about Santiago who email me once or twice a year. And I only interviewed them for two days.
CP: It has an impact not only on you but also on them.
MA: Yes.
CP: And sometimes you don’t even know the level of impact. Am I understanding it correctly?
MA: Yes, absolutely.

: I am going to bring us back to something less abstract. Can you please tell me about rituals, practices, routines that are happening around the space that you are using to make a film? I mean do you have an office space that you use?
MA: Well a lot of my stuff is shut on the go.
CP: On site…
MA: Yes. But I try to set up so that the background does not distract the interview but adds beauty. But I don’t think that’s what you mean…Ritual practices…what do I do? When I interview somebody, what do I do? … I try to get close.
CP: What do you mean?
MA: The first thing people don’t do, not professionals …When you see nonprofessional photos, the first thing you notice is that they are taken from too faraway.
CP: So this proximity that you are talking about, is it a ritual for you?
MA: Yes, it is. I have to get close.
CP: So it is physical and emotional?
MA: You were anticipating what I was going to say. That’s right. All my good interviews are with people with whom I established some sort of emotional connection. So one night, maybe we were in this rainstorm. Only five degrees and we were freezing. And we were all huddled inside a van. Somebody had their back behind the dashboard and their feet up. But they would normally sit. And they are drinking a cup of coffee, or brandy, or beer. And they are sitting and freezing and are miserable. I look at that and say, you are going to warm up and I am going to ask questions. This is out of the normal and this person is going to answer some questions right now. I don’t really have a studio and I shoot films anywhere. But you do have to create, like you did here, a little moment of emotional closeness where you feel more free to talk.

: My last question is more general. If someone were to ask you how did you get yourself into filmmaking and you had fifteen seconds to respond, what would be the answer:
MA: I would say, “by accident.”
CP: By accident?
MA: Indeed. And because I appreciate beauty and I think there is beauty in every person. And I like taking pictures and shooting documentaries is an extension of taking pictures and trying to capture the beauty in people. I know there is ugliness in people too, but I like to shoot the beautiful part.
CP: Well, I thank you for this interview and for the time you took to be part of it. I wish you my very best in your creative endeavors.
MA: Thank you as well.


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