With Geographies of Solitude, filmmaker Jacquelyn Mills finds inspiration in the natural world

We spoke with Mills about connecting deeply with Sable Island, Nova Scotia to make a moving, experimental documentary.

Sable Island, located off the coast of Nova Scotia, ingrains itself into the spirit of director Jacquelyn Mills’s first feature documentary, Geographies of Solitude. The film is not only about the small island, it’s also about Zoe Lucas, a naturalist and environmentalist who has been studying Sable Island for over 40 years — the film is literally made from bits and parts of the island. From seawater and horse manure to discarded balloons, Mills uses the rich fragments of the island as both subjects and tools to develop film naturally. Even the music is built, at least in part, of the electrical currents of snails and peas. 

“I wanted to collaborate with (Lucas) and the island and the natural world,” Mills says. “It was an intuitive process. It was about being in the now, being in the moment.” Lucas was an incredible guide, bringing Mills to all the most treasured parts of the island. “She just took me to all the areas you can imagine; the sounds, the grasses, the places where animals congregate. The confluence of currents on the edge of the ocean. The best dunes to take a nap in,” says Mills. “It’s very much a collaboration with her.”

The process of making the documentary may sound immediately counterintuitive to a hustle mindset. Mills emphasized the experience of living in the moment first, filming and recording later — and only if it felt right. “It’s never about coming in with an agenda,” she explains. “It’s about experiencing something together, and that’s when you try to use instruments to capture a moment.” She was attentive about “invading the space” and allowing things to unfold. Experiencing things first, filming them later. 

The results are informative, radical and almost spiritual. The island is documented with astonishing detail and beauty, and the way it’s being transformed by garbage and climate change is just as astonishing. The overflowing night skies feel fantastical, as if from a dream. The integration of experimental 16mm segments, developed with seawater and dung, portrays the textures of horse hairs and balloons with glittering light. Mills, who also did the sound recording (she has worked on many prominent film projects in the role), also captures the fullness of silence, how the natural world vibrates with life. 

When describing her attraction to sound, Mills says it was about finding sounds that match an emotion. “Sound was a passion of mine,” she says. “I felt I sink into things I couldn’t explain with my words.” Inspired by Lucas’s insatiable curiosity, Mills also sought new ways to hear the island. “We end up recording a lot of invertebrates’ footsteps, which turned into an accent.” From there, she discovered she could connect electrodes to living things that “capture the electrical currency of anything alive. It creates a pattern that can be similar to music,” she says. 

The process of developing the film was done in a mostly eco-friendly way. Mills has long been fascinated with film, though she never hand-processed before making Geographies of Solitude. Normally, the film is developed with many toxic chemicals, with an eco-friendly technique “you make a kind of plant soup to extract caffenol acid (which can be used to develop the film),” says Mills. It opened up new ways of thinking about the organic process of filmmaking that underlined the important journey of making the film. “The development of film causes so much pollution. It’s refreshing to see a more organic note.”

Yet, the questions about the environmental impact of filmmaking don’t end there. “It’s a dilemma. You have to question what you’re doing and what effect it might have on the planet,” says Mills. “Even the digital cameras are made with these precious metals, and it can be paralyzing thinking everything you do has to be 100% ecological.” She purposefully used older cameras as well, hoping to reduce her impact. Yet, it’s impossible to reduce it entirely. “For me,” says Mills, “the greater goal was to share this place and this methodology and plant ourselves in the natural world together. Maybe you’ll be moved by it; maybe you won’t, but what I made was with intention.”

Mills’s methodology resonates as radically opposed to the speed of modern life. She also edited the film and was conscious of never overworking the footage or rushing through the process. “I felt like the best gift I could give the project was to preserve my perspective,” says Mills. Mills’s process almost approaches the sacred in an age that emphasizes output, productivity and efficiency. “If I was going to bring something meaningful and delicate (to the screen),” she explains, “I needed the conditions to create in, to reflect. I didn’t think it would be possible otherwise.” ■

Geographies of Solitude by Jacquelyn Mills

Geographies of Solitude is streaming now on CBC Gem.

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