Tending to his beloved cows is what keeps Lawrence MacEwen going.
The 80-year-old and his family have farmed the fabulously named Isle of Muck (located in the Inner Hebrides off the coast of Scotland) for the last 60 years. But time has taken its toll on Lawrence, his farming methods, and the precarious community he has called home since birth.
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Lawrence’s attempt to keep mucking in, to keep running a community on the edge of survival is the subject of “Prince of Muck,” a new documentary from Dutch filmmaker Cindy Jansen, which is having its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Variety caught up with Jansen ahead of the premiere to discuss crafting “a big story on a small island.”
What piqued your interest in this community?
I was mostly interested because of an article about Canna, which is an island you see from Muck. It was in the news because they had this little shop and it got robbed, which is crazy because it’s such a tiny island. This community was off-balance, they were wondering should we get cameras, what should we do now? It was a media storm. Then I thought is it Canna I’m interested in, or the small community I’m interested in? A single event can throw a whole community into disarray, that’s what I was interested in. I heard about Muck and about Lawrence MacEwen and his family through this book about farming. I’m not particularly interested in farming, but I went to Muck without announcing my coming because sometimes that’s better.
Sounds like a bold move. How did you convince people to be in the film?
As you can imagine, people were hesitant to be filmed. One wrong phrase and you’re fucked, your island life is gone. So they were very sensitive. I wanted either the full community or the MacEwen family, and I decided on the latter because Lawrence was such a wonderful character. He was the only person on the island who spoke about anything without hesitance. He doesn’t have that social filter, he just talks.
Did the themes of Lawrence losing control of the island and the inter-generational conflict develop organically?
My first visit to Muck was in 2015 and my last visit was in 2019. It took four years to really find what is the thematic of the film. It slowly got away from the micro-society and more towards a family and one man that wants to keep what he’s always had. The theme evolved, that’s what documentary is, I think. You have to evolve with your subject and challenge it. It took me some writing and some returning to find what I really wanted to convey.
Would you live on Muck?
Ha, no. I grew up in this very small village where we never belonged, we felt like outsiders. I actually have this deep-down fear of small communities, because you can never become a part of them. I stepped onto Muck being fearful and curious, rather than wanting to live there. I was battling my fear of small communities. I still think it’s really creepy.
Talk about using family diary entries as a framing device?
There’s a daily diary from every year from 1964 on. It’s fantastic, how can you be so dogmatic to write something down every day? What I don’t like is talking heads in documentaries, so I wanted another form to get this history, the biggest parts of his life into the film without having a talking head or having him explain everything. This was the way to do it without becoming sentimental. I only used 10 or 15 in the end out of 15,000. I still get excited about it because it’s such a filmic element, it’s a treasure.
What of the future of Muck, of the family?
It’s in strong hands. Colin, Lawrence’s son, has four children, and his other child Mary has four children. Mary says they are the last generation to make money from shooting, because people won’t accept shooting for fun. Their company will die out. The farming could continue on the level it does now, the sheep are fantastic for the island, but if the MacEwens stay, it has a chance to survive. If they leave, Lawrence might be right that it might not work any more.
Does Lawrence accept the island will be okay without him?
He knows. He is happy, but he’s an old workaholic who wants to keep going. Cows are his life. He says as long as he has his cows, he can live an independent life. If he becomes too old to take care of the cows, I think he dies. I think he stays alive mostly for his cows. He’s fond of his wife, of his children, of his grand-children, but in the end, it’s the cows that keep him going. It’s a small story in the end, but it’s also big because of the history and because of what they’ve achieved.
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