Katelyn Auger MFA EDA ‘21: “Paradise in the Pines”

This is part of a series showcasing the work of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts Class of 2021. Learn more about the program and its graduating cohort here. For this installment, Sarah Riazati MFA EDA ‘19 interviews Katelyn Auger MFA EDA ‘21.

Is paradise a dream? A memory? A place? Talk about paradise and the title of your film.

Paradise in the Pines was the advertised name of my hometown of Boiling Springs Lakes shortly after it was constructed in the 1960s. Many of the homes surround small ponds and lakes, but the crowning glory is the 275-acre lake, only know to the locals as “The Big Lake.” The Boiling Spring hides on the other side of the dam, often bubbling in relation to how full or empty the lake might get. The town was meant to be a Utopia of Suburban Beach Living.

Like the coastal areas where I grew up, paradise is only that for people who visit. There are hidden truths laying beneath the surface. In this town, my family built what should have been our forever home. I grew up along the lake, bathed in nature and water. My soul never felt as free as when I sailed along its shore. I imagine the time before my fourteenth year as that Utopia. My memory has been clouded to only recall those years as, perfect.

All photos courtesy Katelyn Auger MFA EDA ‘21.

Do you remember the moment you first encountered the pre-birth film your mother and father made for you? What was that moment like?

I do. It was one of the first films I digitized, and one of the only ones labeled on the forgotten VHS tapes, along with a tape of my mom skiing, and a recording of the news in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd destroyed homes in Oak Island, North Carolina, the second place I call home.

In watching these films, alone, in darkness, my heart broke. It felt raw and vulnerable to see my parents together, happy, and so excited for who was to come. I thought a lot about how they could have never realized what we would go through the next 25 years. In a lot of these home movies, my parents mention sharing the video with family, friends, and their hope to show me my childhood in this media someday.

While their intention was to share, these tapes sat in a box, succumbing to mold and age. I don’t think they ever once thought these would make it into a film. I think it’s beautiful and poetic for their daughter to take their gift and create a film, and this archive is the most meaningful present I could have ever been gifted. For years, as subjects, cinematographers, and editors, we worked together, unknowingly until now. I would say this film is 25 years in the making.

The black and white footage you shot is so ethereal. I keep thinking about the short wooden fences in the dunes. They seem too small to be functional in their duty as props, protecting the dunes. With your film camera in the field, what types of objects and landscapes were you looking for?

I filmed what felt familiar: my sister, the landscapes where I felt most at home, the details I had missed meandering my life without a camera, and the place where my beloved lake disappeared. I filmed chaotically, capturing what felt important. Without meaning to, I filmed in the same way my parents did on our VHS tapes. I looked for evidence of human intervention in the landscapes since so much of the work was inspired by inspecting our relationship to an unsustainable coastal environment.

The process of filming was an exercise in processing grief and trauma through meditation. Where the VHS work was doing the heavy lifting of opening wounds, the 16mm worked to seal them. My sister, six years younger, was not filmed frequently while growing up. By the time she was born, new technology was surfacing, and the VHS recorder was soon left behind. I had heard her sorrow that we did not have as many photos of her, or videos from her childhood. Working with the 16mm was my way of giving her the gift of documentation. She was often my collaborator, and my person to lean on when everything felt too much.

“The process of filming was an exercise in processing grief and trauma through meditation. Where the VHS work was doing the heavy lifting of opening wounds, the 16mm worked to seal them.”

I put the “character” of my sister in these environments to draw relationships between this human intervention of landscape and broader themes of trauma. The environment would bite back and would adapt to its trauma in the same ways I have done for so many years.

With the timestamp on the footage, there is always this chronological anchor. Cuts between scenes are like time machines jumping forward and backward. How did you approach chronology when cutting from this personal archive? (Let’s just talk about time traveling cuts!)

The time stamp was so beautiful, in that it lent itself to supporting my themes of memory. I don’t want to give too much away, so that’s how I will leave it for now!

Tell me about your time in the editing room. What were some of your most significant breakthroughs?

Maybe a breakthrough was knowing my practice depends on doing everything last minute, and that often the week before will land my best results.

But really, my significant breakthrough was Forgiveness and Understanding. The last ten years, I have harbored hate, fear, and pain. I blamed my family, I blamed strangers, and I blamed others who I thought loved me. I set out to make a film about my family, to show what I thought were my truths. But in making this film, I realized that was not what this work would be about. I took measures to give them more privacy, to paint them in lights that held onto their hope and sorrow, without exploiting their image. This was a space and time where I let go of my own clouded memory. I found the space to forgive.

Can you speak about vulnerability and your experience with recording voice over?

I simplified my process by making this film in tandem with the thesis writing itself. The voice over draws from the written work. Both are very raw for me, written as if I were telling the stories myself. In working both in writing and recording, I was able to sit with the stories and experiences longer. It was helpful in sitting with my own words to really think how I wanted people to hear this film. I would spend some of my time writing while watching the home movies because memories and thoughts were surfacing that I hadn’t thought about for over ten years.

My struggle was deciding how much I wanted to share, and from whose perspective. I had to decide between giving what I thought could be a third-person omniscient view or telling my own story and making it clear this was my point of view. I went with the latter. A lot of what I decided to tell in my voice over actually exists within the absence of telling.

Paradise in the Pines

Duke Premiere: May 7, 2021, by invitation
Streaming Encore with Screen/Society: May 14, 2021, 7:30pm. Click here to join live.

katelyn auger’s website