Directed by Paulette Phillips (“The Directed Lie”), “The Quoddy Fold” first feels like an adaptation of a Mary Oliver poem. The film, showcased in this year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival, takes a “Koyaanisqatsi”-esque approach to documentary filmmaking; the director films herself over the course of the year as she tears down a 19th-century home — that she bought for this specific purpose — in rural Nova Scotia, Canada. The only dialogue heard is from quiet eavesdropping of the director’s phone conversations or a moment when she reads the title of a book to herself, there is no musical score or soundtrack at all. Early on in the film, it felt like a thoughtful ode to the nature of decay.
“The Quoddy Fold” also features some beautiful cinematography juxtaposing the rotten wood of the house with the lush fields of cattails and wildflowers. The director seems to want the viewer to pay attention: to watch closely and let us make the story for ourselves rather than have it explained to us.
In the post-screening Q&A moderated by Amanda Krugliak, assistant director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, Phillips explained that she actively exercised restraint in introducing any sentimentality — or any narrative at all — into the home.
At times, the film feels incredibly meditative. Watching these shots of birds, snails, dogs and insects, I got the feeling that animals seem to understand life in a way we don’t: live, work, eat, multiply, die. Anything else is simply excess. Don’t get caught up in the small stuff.
When Phillips and her two dogs walk through a field, she layers the two frames of them walking toward the house and away from the house on top of one another, giving the figures this translucent ghost effect of walking past one another. Krugliak observed that it seems to symbolize a sense of the “past blurring into the present.” Phillips agreed that our experience of time and “what it means to dwell” were major components of the “story” during production.
Unfortunately, creative intentions and thoughtful sound bites can’t save a film. I felt myself getting increasingly bored — not just because there wasn’t any dialogue, but because the film didn’t seem to know what it wanted to say. It would’ve been fantastic as a short film, or maybe even a traditional documentary that included more exploration of the families behind the home.
Phillips adamantly rejected this “typical anthropomorphizing” of the home, declaring, “I did not want to make a movie about that family,” but she doesn’t really explain why. I understand her inclination to explore what she calls the “kinesthetic experience” we have with material objects — meaning the way that our sense of touch influences our attachment to our possessions — but as a Black woman watching a white woman tear down this house with so much history, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated.
There’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through the film when Phillips finds a copy of the book “The Great War on White Slavery.” She reads the title aloud to herself in a whisper before throwing it into the furnace to burn. Of course, I understand the rejection of something hateful, but from white hands, it felt like erasure. It was clearly a very old copy of the book, with authentic photographs that would have been useful in a museum rather than destroyed. Trying to erase records of colonization and white supremacy feels cowardly. People don’t study “Birth of a Nation” because we think it’s a great or morally sound film, because it’s clearly neither; we study it because it’s a part of history, and the racism that lived in history lives on today.
I felt the same way about the house. There were clearly rotted and moldy portions of the home, but there also appeared to be healthy portions of the foundation that she just tore down. Phillips herself said that there were times that she thought, “Maybe I can save (the house),” admitting that “it would’ve stayed standing for an awful long time,” if she had not intervened.
Her intentions then feel rotten. She clearly shows knowledge of the land there, explaining the indigenous meaning of the word “quoddy” (an excess of fish) and the image of folding in on the landscape. She explained this “post-colonial notion … that the settler house is the house of the past, we’re actually on a positive way towards a new horizon,” and to a better relationship with the land.
I think Phillips felt that tearing down a building where some white supremacist had lived would be a way of honoring Indigenous people who had been displaced from that land, but I couldn’t help but think: “Someone else could have lived in that house.” It could’ve been repurposed or given to Indigenous people in need, not just torn down for an art project.
Phillips said she found over 38 diaries in the home when she acquired it in 2015. The photographs shown near the climax of the film as the house is pulled to the ground are the most intriguing section of the film. Delving into the lives of all of the people in the photographs from the turn of the century might have seemed cliché to Phillips, but it would’ve made for a better film. It seemed as if Phillips was looking for a creative challenge in removing the sentimental aspect of the home, rather than respecting what it meant to people. Getting rid of that narrative felt like erasure.
It seemed that Phillips didn’t want the film to over-explain itself. There’s a saying that explaining a joke, story or symbol is like dissecting a frog: It helps you understand it better, but you kill it in the process.
In “The Quoddy Fold,” she smashes the frog with a hammer, turns to the camera, then says, “What do you think?” Ultimately, the film looks beautiful, but it’s shallow. Honestly, she should have just let the frog live.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.