Hild by Nicola Griffith

Well dang, this post is several months late.

I read a book (several months ago) that’s really great! It’s Hild by Nicola Griffith.

I thought about writing my own review, but this one says it better than I could. Give it a read!

A few of things I will add:

  • The author kept a blog during the research for this book. There’s some interesting stuff in here and it goes to show just how thorough and dedicated Griffith was in her research.
  • For me, this was a tough read, but rewarding. Tough, because all of the names are alien and easily confused. The book begins with Hild as a small child, and your perspective is limited to what she sees and understands. Grown-up politics will be confusing.But Hild was perceptive and sharp. So she catches on quickly. As the reader, you grow up with her, and start to learn the political landscape as she does. Embrace being a child at the beginning of the book, and try to remain as open and perceptive as she is. You don’t need to solve all the puzzles at the beginning. But don’t skim either. Pay attention.
  • In addition to being a captivating story about a young woman learning to wield her political skills… this book is a fascinating window to the culture and economy of Britain in the 600s. It’s interesting to see the work that nobles did. What the division of labour was. Some of it is familiar, or at least expected. But much is delightfully foreign.
  • The io9 review I linked to above mentions “In her later life, Hild (as she would have been known to contemporaries) became a famous abbess at Whitby, whose advice was sought by political and religious leaders. But we know almost nothing about her early life and young adulthood, before she became a nun. And that is the part of her life that Griffith explores.”

    But it’s more than that, as I understand it (I could be wrong). The extant written historical record makes mention of her family when she was a child, and again when she is a powerful abbess. But where the record leaves off, the state of affairs for her childhood family is dire. Her father, a king, has just died – possibly poisoned by a rival. Hild, her sister, and her mother were left without a home or protection amidst a very volatile and fractious political landscape. Lords are all jockeying for power. Different ethnicities and religions are clashing. In this environment these three women must find a foothold, must find a court to provide them shelter – literally and figuratively.There is not another mention of her in the historical record until she is a politically powerful adult.

    That is a fascinating gap! You just know there is a compelling story there. How does a young woman rise to prominence amidst all the chaos, violence, and bloodshed of seventh century Britain? It’s your classic zero-to-hero story. “THAT is the part of her life that Griffith explores.” emphasis mine.

    The balance between the known history of this time period and what remains unknown seems to be at a sweet spot for an author like Griffith. There is enough evidence that a skilled researcher can really dive into the old texts and bring a lot of authentic details. Which Griffith does excellently. Just read her blog!

    But there are also a lot of aspects about this historical time period that we know nothing about. Not just the major events of the time, but the culture too. The social structure. What people did for fun. How they organized their work. These gaps offer the space for a creative and thoughtful author to flex their imagination. Fill out those vacant spaces with interesting details.

    Griffith stitches these realms together seamlessly. The research is top-notch, and so is the creativity. And the two serve each other well, so nothing feels disjointed or incongruous.

Whoops! I guess I had more than just “a few things” to add. Anyway, go read the book!

Freelance Writing Gig

I recently started freelance writing for the Hot Docs cinema! That’s where the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival holds its year-round programming.

The centerpiece of this gig is writing the film descriptions for nearly all the films screening at the cinema. But it also involves preparing the box office webpages for each film, the print calendar, and pre-show slides.

I’m pretty proud of the results! Of course, I cannot take all of the credit, or even most of it. My contact (boss? editor?) at Hot Docs edits the content before it goes live. And there’s a designer who puts together the actual calendar. But at the very least, I have a hand in writing most of the text that goes in it and finding many of the images to be used. You can view the first calendar I helped make here. And of course most of the film pages for screenings between December 2016 and February 2017 will have been set up by me.

I’m about two months into a three-month trial in this position. So far I like it quite a bit and I’m learning a lot too. It is good practice to have to write so many film notes on a regular basis. (Now the trick is to muster the self discipline to write for my own site on a regular basis…).

Writing on writing on film, and my own self-confidence.

Earlier this year I was applying for a job at a film festival as a programming associate. In addition to the usual cover letter and resume, they asked for three short film reviews.

I didn’t get the job (boo) but the process of writing was good. I actually wrote five, so that I could pick out the best three. Once it was clear that I wasn’t getting he job, I kept the reviews around. I’ve known for a long time that I want to keep a blog/website, but I’m still figuring out what to put here. These reviews are as good a place to start as any other.

I will share those reviews, but first I would like to talk about the writing itself. This blog/website is still quite new, and I am the only reader. So I suspect that a lot of the content, at least at first will be somewhat confessional (and self-indulgent). I need a place to write down my navel-gazing for a while. With luck and perseverance, I will hit onto something worthwhile.

Anyway. Back to writing on film.

The job posting didn’t specify the context for the reviews. So I wondered quite a bit about what voice I should use. A program book note? A report for a senior programmer? A traditional review for publication? What about an academic paper?

These are subtly different categories, but they are important distinctions. The intentions of the writer and assumptions about the reader are quite distinct. A program note is selling something, in a sense. You are aiming to frame the film in the best possible way. You want to set the expectations for the audience so that they have the best chance to be satisfied.

A report from one pre-screener or programmer to another is never meant for public view, and can be much more candid. It is not a simple assessment of quality, (although that is a component) but also an assessment of fit. How does his film fit with the festival’s mission, as well as with the rest of the program?

Of course a review from a critic is the most widely known format. But it’s also the one I have the least experience with. I’ve wondered why I was drawn towards festival programming rather than towards film reviewing. They are similar positions, in a way. Both the programmer and the critic tell their audiences which films are worth watching. But a critic also tells her audience which films are not worth their time.

I am reminded of one of my favourite moments in the film Ratatouille: Anton Ego’s review of the meal prepared by Remy the rat. You can watch it here. Around 36 seconds in, he talks about the role of the critic in “the discovery and defense of the new.” That line always stuck with me. It is something that I think programmers and critics share, in their own ways.

There is a part of me that feels that I do not know how to write seriously about film, especially as a critic or an academic. I know this sounds silly. I’ve written program notes for films at multiple film festivals, and received some positive feedback from colleagues and bosses. I have undergraduate and masters degrees in cinema studies. I even took a course on art criticism in high school. I have written many many papers on film. Some of them even received good grades!

But… I also feel like I lost a lot of those skills after I finished school. Not to mention the ever-present impostor syndrome I experienced while I was still there.

I never quite became fluent in film theory. And although I enjoy film history, I have only scratched the surface when it comes to watching the important films and directors of the world. Many of my friends who work in other fields always seem to have seen more movies that I have.

When I read a good review of a film, even a film I have seen and given much thought to, I stand in awe at all of the nuanced and well informed insights. It all seems so plainly obvious, and yet I missed it all.

I have acquaintances and classmates who have written on film or pop culture for different publications and websites. How did they start? Where does the authority and confidence come from? Where do the clever insights about films come from?

Well, I warned you about the confessional tone and the navel gazing. It is not my intention to make this blog a personal diary. But some individual posts, like this one, might take that tone.

Just as different forms of writing on film adjust their voice according to their assumed audience, I will adjust my tone as I start to have readers besides myself.