Lizzie Mackenzie on The Hermit of Treig

We meet up with documentarian and Oban native Lizzie Mackenzie ahead of the Glasgow Film Festival premiere of her debut feature The Hermit of Treig to find out about her fascination with outsiders and rebels

Feature by Rohan Crickmar | 28 Feb 2022
  • The Hermit of Treig

Lizzie Mackenzie has brought along some porridge for our breakfast interview. Not the oaty kind but rather a four-legged bundle of furry canine curls called Brochan – Gaelic for porridge. This restlessly curious filmmaker grew up on Seil, an island just to the southwest of Oban. “Growing up on Seil had a pretty massive influence on me,” she says. “As a result, I have always craved being in wild places.” It is her innate connection to wildernesses and nature that led to The Hermit of Treig.

Having headed off to University in Edinburgh at the age of 19 to study environmental sciences, Mackenzie dropped out to pursue an alternative career path in the culinary arts. She opened a successful restaurant in the Highlands, the Corrour Station House, at the remote station on the West Highland Line that famously featured in Trainspotting. It was while running this restaurant that Mackenzie first became aware of Ken Smith, the eponymous hermit of her debut feature. “Local deerstalkers were our regulars at the restaurant,” she says, “and they would often mention this man who lived by himself in the surrounding woods.”

The idea of a man who had spent many years living by his own rules in such a remote part of the UK struck a chord with Mackenzie at a crucial time in her own life. “The restaurant was a success,” she explains, “and I could see a clear career path ahead of me, but I also felt as if that was hemming me in.” So she sought out Smith.

It was still a long journey from her first encounters with Smith to the completion of The Hermit of Treig. Mackenzie had no filmmaking experience whatsoever, but a serendipitous encounter with Edinburgh-based doc-maker Léa Luiz de Oliveira (Spit It Out) led to her being offered an internship at the age of 27 with Amy Hardie, director of The Edge of Dreaming and Seven Songs for A Long Life. “Coming from Oban, filmmaking just wasn’t something that I thought I could really do. It just wasn’t an option.” Her mentorship with Hardie gave her a truly immersive crash course in documentary filmmaking. “I’ve always thought that the best way to learn anything is through doing it and Amy really encouraged this approach.”

After working with Hardie, Mackenzie tried and failed to get a short doc about Smith commissioned through SDI’s Bridging the Gap and ScreenSkills' Rising Director schemes. However, when a serious incident with Smith's health resulted in him being airlifted from rural isolation and making the national news, ScreenSkills changed their mind on the pitch, which ultimately led to three-minute short The Hermit of Treig. When it screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest as part of the Rising Director showcase, it garnered much interest from broadcasters and production companies, including Louise Thornton at the BBC. A funding award at the 2020 edition of The Whickers (a documentary prize set up by the late Alan Whicker to help new documentary filmmakers) enabled Mackenzie to move forward with her feature.

Mackenzie tells us it's “good to be in the company of people who are living the lives they should be living” and not a life prescribed for them by society. In Smith, Mackenzie had found a character filled with awe for nature and the wilderness. She wanted to capture a little of the world through his eyes. Gradually she became aware of Smith's photography and the meticulous diaries he keeps, stretching back to his youthful experiences travelling the Yukon.

During her time with Smith, the pair became firm friends. “It became very hard to maintain this idea of an objective distance from Ken,” Mackenzie recalls, “and I was no longer certain that I needed to. It’s impossible to keep an emotional distance in such a relationship.” Mackenzie was still filming the feature as late as July of 2021, so a significant portion of production was affected by the new COVID realities. “When COVID hit, I had this mad idea that I needed to just live with Ken. I stocked up food, even bought a generator, before I realised how mad an idea it was.” Much of The Hermit of Treig is about this close friendship that emerged between the filmmaker and her subject, to the point where Mackenzie suggests “Ken ended up feeling like a grandfather to me.”

Mackenzie is already well underway on a new film project. It seems it will continue her interest with rebellious outsider figures provoking and challenging our contemporary societal notions of human domesticity. Reflecting on her time spent with Smith in his wilderness retreat, she returns to this notion of people living the lives they should live. It is clear Smith is very much an example of this for Mackenzie and she even mentions that she hopes she “will be doing just that when she is 80.” Even having only spent 90 minutes in her unique company, we don’t doubt that Lizzie Mackenzie will continue to dance to the wild beat of her own curious drum.

The Hermit of Treig has its world premiere at Glasgow Film Festival on 5 & 6 Mar, and screens at BFI Southbank, London on 11 Mar

Filmography: The Hermit of Treig (2022)
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