Margaret Atwood describes The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, as ‘a book about the core nature of what it is that artists do, and also about the relation of these activities to our overwhelmingly commercial society.’ Bill Viola has called it ‘the best book I have read on what it means to be an artist in today’s economic world.’
Robin McKenna is the writer, director and producer of a new feature-length documentary inspired by Hyde’s bestseller. Her film, GIFT, takes us to settings as varied as the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, a potlatch ceremony in British Columbia, and an art museum in Melbourne, to explore some contemporary ways of being where artistic expression and generosity of spirit have primacy.
A celebration of ‘gift culture’ and the positive impact of sharing on the individual psyche as well as the collective, GIFT offers a welcome antidote to the excessive materialism and greed we’re confronted with in the news and in the world around us. Above all, GIFT honours the creative impulse, and asks us reflect on what art has to offer humanity, regardless of its market value.
Robin, what was your motivation for adapting Lewis Hyde’s classic for the screen? What was it about the book that drew you in so deeply?
The book, at its core, is about the transformative power of creativity and art. How gifts have been given, throughout history, in rites of passage or moments of life transition – and how art operates much in the same way, how we receive its gifts.
I think at first, I was intrigued by this idea of a “gift economy” as an alternative structure – a way of organizing and relating to each other around generosity and human relationships. But the further I went into it, the more I realized on a deeper level, it was also about the “inner gift”- the talents we have and creative work we make, that don’t belong to us but come through us, and are meant to be shared, to circulate, in “the spirit of the gift”.
The genius of Hyde’s book is that it operates on multiple levels, explores all these aspects of the outer and inner gift. I guess the book inspired me to try to create something that also operated on multiple levels – following character-driven stories, but with another, metaphorical level underneath.
Filmmaker Robin McKenna, of Gaudete Films (photo by Philippe Ramsay Lemieux)
You and I met at a bookshop – Shakespeare & Company, in Paris – two decades ago, where we were permitted to live upstairs in the library in exchange for an hour’s work a day. Did anything from those days influence the making of this film, 20 years on?
That was one of my first experiences of a kind of “gift economy.” George Whitman, the owner of Shakespeare & Company, was like a real-life character from the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Brilliant, eccentric and inimitable. There was a painting of Walt Whitman on the wall outside, and the motto “Be not unkind to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”
I think the bookstore was his way of subverting capitalism, and creating magic, all at the same time. The idea that buying and selling is what makes the world go round… he would hide fistfuls of money in the bookshelves, instead of using a bank. Or grab one of his customers and yell, “mind the cash!” and run out the door, leaving the unsuspecting person in charge of the store. He was a trickster.
That spirit of subverting the kind of transactional, market-driven status quo – in this upside-down world of books and writers and artists – was very inspiring to me. And that spirit is at the core of this film: the gifts that emerge when we relate to each other in a different way.
What are the significant gifts you’ve received in your life?
Hyde’s book is about art as a transformative gift… with the potential to awaken our own gifts. I remember watching the films of the French New Wave for the first time – Godard and Truffaut – or reading William Blake or the Beat poets. The excitement that came from that, that quality of discovering something that could change your life.
When I was 20 I was chosen as part of a series in French Canada, La Course destination monde, where young people travelled the world alone with a video camera, making short, personal documentaries every nine days. That experience might have been the most transformative gift I’ve ever been given – to have to find my creative voice.
Filmmaker Robin McKenna on stage with Lewis Hyde, author of the best-selling book The Gift, at DHC/ART in Montreal
One of the opening scenes of your film focuses on an exhibition by the Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei. We see flowers laid out at the entrance to the National Gallery of Victoria (Australia). “You’re invited to take a flower today,” says a museum staff member to a visitor, “on the condition that when you leave, you take a detour from your original route and you pass it on as a gift to a stranger.”
Was it touching to witness this playful ‘gifting’ between strangers? What might have been the ripple effects of these small gestures?
In Western culture, we’re so conditioned to be independent and self-sufficient…there can be a real awkwardness in the act of receiving a gift, freely given. There’s always the question – is there an ulterior motive here? Does this person want something, will I owe them something in return?
It was interesting and funny, watching people refuse the gift. And there was surprise and delight when they did accept it.
A flower is exchanged outside the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
Another of the GIFT storylines takes place at Burning Man: an American social worker-turned-artist produces mead from honey gathered from different parts of the world. She gives away the mead as she drives through the desert, from an ingenious ‘beehive on wheels.’
To me this is a fantastic storyline because it draws attention to the fact that gifting (both giving and receiving) has an accompanying sense of delight, which a commercial transaction can’t offer.
Do you see the circulation of gifts as an essential way to foster delight or joy in our lives?
I love that world, delight! But part of what makes the delight meaningful is the huge amount of work and effort it took to get there. As a filmmaker, I relate personally to Smallfry/Michelle, the maker of the bee car, who asks the question, “Is all this work worth it?”
It’s a struggle to get something made; you put in so much time and energy, and sometimes you wonder if you’re crazy. But something makes you keep doing it, the connections you make along the way, the collaborations – and yes, the sheer joy of creating something, outside that logic of time/money.
The ‘bee car’ known as ‘Beezus Christ Supercar’, at Burning Man, USA
Another storyline in the film takes place at Metropoliz/MAAM in Rome, Italy: the “first inhabited museum on Earth”, an abandoned ex-sausage factory that is home to 200 migrants and precarious workers, that opens its doors regularly to the public. The factory walls are covered in paintings and murals, many of them created by artists who aren’t finding shelter there, and nor are they paid for their art.
How did it affect you to be in that environment?
What was most affecting for me was watching the kids growing up in this strange and extraordinary space – many of them Roma, some of the most marginalized people in Italy (and the world.) The generosity of the artists who contribute their work is one thing, but there’s a “circle of the gift” that comes back to them – spending time with the inhabitants, with these kids, in a way they’d never have a chance to do otherwise, and how they’re changed by that experience.
Artist Sabrina H. Dan paints a mural at Metropoliz/MAAM, with resident children
Members of the public are invited to view the art at “the first inhabited museum on Earth”
In her introduction to Lewis Hyde’s book, Margaret Atwood writes, “If you want to write, paint, sing, compose, act or make films, read The Gift. It will help to keep you sane.” Has the making of this film kept you sane?
It took my 5 years to make this film, and I’m not sure if it made me more sane or insane. I poured all my creative heart and financial resources into it – kind of a cinematic potlatch, giving everything away. It’s just starting to make its own way in the world now, so maybe ask me again in a year!
There’s a quote from the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” I guess there’s an aspect of that: trying to live in service to your gifts, to do the labour required to bring them into the world, because on some level, you don’t have a choice.
You can learn more about Robin McKenna’s documentary GIFT here.
Feature image by Philippe Ramsay Lemieux.