Profile: Katherine Imp “Beauty Beneath the Dirt”
July 16, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine, 2,178.3 miles, and filmmaker Katherine Imp decided to hike every mile of it with a film camera, just to see what happened.
The resulting documentary, “Beauty Beneath the Dirt,” screens at Images Cinema in Williamstown on Saturday, July 14, at 2 p.m., with a reception following at Nature’s Closet, to be attended by one of the film’s subjects, Imp’s brother, Brandon.
It was Imp’s fascination with film and a desire to learn how to make one that led her to the Appalachian Trail with her best friend and her brother. None of the three had done any long-range backpacking before, but all of them were ready for adventure.
“I think that our lack of experience makes the film somewhat entertaining, because you see how we look like fish out of water,” Imp said. “But you learn quickly on a five-month hike how to live in the woods.”
Most of the group’s preparation for the journey involved research. For Imp, that meant consulting with film professors and professionals that she contacted in order to find out anything and everything she needed to know about making a film under the duress of a through-hike. All three of them spent time reading up on the subject, so at least they knew what was ahead of them. “Approximately 2,000 people attempt this hike each year and only one in five finish,” said Imp. “We all finished, and we had no experience. You can say that’s beating the odds or an example of people who prepared physically – actually, no we did not prepare physically. Prepared mentally and did our research.”
And although all three were in good physical shape, none of them did any specific training to get ready.
“I had every intention of getting in shape before we left,” said Imp. “I had this long plan about how I was going to wake up every morning and do X amount of miles on the Stairmaster at the gym, but I was actually studying for the bar exam for the month prior to doing this trip, and I just didn’t have time.”
One of the reasons Imp chose the Appalachian Trail over any others was the culture of the trail, especially the existence of trail angels, residents in the towns the trail crosses through who are renowned for helping hikers with their needs. “One of our favorite things about the trail was meeting trail angels and people in these towns, and just enjoying the kindness of strangers,” said Imp. “That’s also why we had so many days that we didn’t hike and other days that we hiked an extreme amount of miles.”
The reasons people decide to hike the trail are as diverse as the hikers themselves. Imp compares it to the way some people will announce that they are going to backpack across Europe and find themselves — it’s a chance to displace yourself from your own life, without any crushing goals, and to spend a lot of time away from civilization in general.
“I don’t know if everyone who does it actually comes to a conclusion, though,” said Imp. “I do feel like every person who attempts a through hike, whether they make it a week or five months learn something new about themselves.
“By capturing our experience on camera, I was forced to learn a lot about myself, both the good and the bad, by watching our story unfold in the editing room. I think that all three of us learned something, and it was different, and I don’t regret anything that happened and I’m happy I did it.”
By going in a group and taking the parts of it out its context, Imp found that the journey brought unexpected truths to the surface, and these manifested in ways that no amount of research could have forewarned her. “Our group started with three people and about half way through, a fourth person was added and that fourth person is Prophet, that’s his trail name,” Imp said. “By adding a fourth person to the group, the social dynamics significantly changed and inevitably changed the direction of the trip and our experience.”
Although the experience had a profound personal effect on her, equally important is the creative one. Imp says that quite a lot of people discouraged her from making the film initially — both people on the trail and people at home, who felt she was wasting her time and should just go to film school instead. Imp had the feeling that she would benefit from an experiential diving in project, and that’s exactly how she feels about it still.
“This whole process, despite the fact that it has been an emotional roller-coaster ride, has only inspired me more to continue to make more films,” Imp said. “I don’t think that I would ever through hike a trail again, but I would make a film again, and as soon as this one is finished up, I will probably start with the next.”
As Imp glances back at her achievement, it also moves her to look forward at what’s to come. And the one creative goal is to challenge herself and not coast on repetition — fiction seems a likely direction for her to go in.
“I’m done making films about my life,” she said. “And I’m done making documentaries, at least for now.”
Since finishing the film, she has been taking some individual film classes to fill in the gaps of her experience, as well as taking the film on a tour of Appalachian Trail towns. Her experience on the trail taught her filmmaking, and she plans to take those lessons to the next step in her creative career. “I didn’t go out there and just turn on the camera,” said Imp. “I did do preparation and I looked to other people for advice and always kept an open mind, but I also made a lot of mistakes, and by doing that, I learned how to make a movie.