5 Questions: ‘Excising the Heart’s’ Samuel Karow

“I did not carry on my grandfather’s tradition. More than anything else, I made the film to help come to terms with this.”

The beautiful, lyrical Excising the Heart’s demolition of a decades-old Marshfield barn doesn’t require a connection to any family tree, even if that’s what inspired it. Samuel Karow’s pint-sized poem has layers of history underneath its tidy five minutes, flipping between the barn’s backyard destruction and black-and-white photographs of happier days. 

No bond with central Wisconsin is needed, though as Excising the Heart is an immensely cathartic meditation on loss and memory. And alongside Pass the Canvasit’s another effort from Karow that evolves beyond the bounds of its intrinsically personal inspiration into a richly textured and eminently relatable truth.

I talked with Karow about his “Wisconsin’s Own” selection in this continuation of our “5 Questions” series:

1. The first film of yours I saw was Marshland, which is very different from your recent stuff. What made you shift to a focus on documentary?

Working in a documentary mode feels like the most accessible and rewarding filmmaking experience. All I need is myself and a camera. As a one man crew, I can go out into the world and freely explore different locations/people. There is also the unique process of discovery. Going in, I have no clearly defined film in mind. I don’t know what form it’s going to take. Provided the luxury of time, I can go back and forth between shooting and editing for months, which effectively becomes the writing process. I love this kind of unscripted, visual storytelling.

2. What drew you to capture the destruction of this barn?

The barn had belonged to the 40-acre farm property where I grew up, located just east of Marshfield, Wisconsin.

3. Towards the end, you dissolve to some old photographs of Britten’s Pony Farm. What’s the history behind this?

The barn was always my grandfather’s domain. He raised Shetland ponies there among other animals, but his primary job was running a small greenhouse and floral shop with my grandmother (built on the same property in 1947). My parents took over the business by the time I was born.

4. You run this sullen, ambient music throughout and then later, you’re dissolving to a shot of a couple who are (understandably) upset at the sight of this. Despite knowing nothing about this place, I immediately felt something. What informed your approach?

I didn’t want to bog down the film with backstory. I was simply looking to express the strong emotion. That being said, the bleak tone was informed by my own feelings of guilt surrounding the barn’s demolition. To me, it came to represent my grandfather’s bygone way of life. He was born and raised on a small dairy farm that saw three generations living and working together. He valued a barn as the heart of a farm and livelihood of a family. After his death, the building was reduced to little more than a lawn ornament, lacking purpose and left to rot.

I did not grow up sharing my grandfather’s experience. I never milked a cow, bundled hay, or shoveled manure. During my formative years, it was a place of make-pretend; a framework for haunted houses and amateur movie sets (Marshland being the most recent example). Needless to say, I did not carry on my grandfather’s tradition. More than anything else, I made the film to help come to terms with this.

5. Excising the Heart has so much catharsis and memory wrapped into it, and there’s a moment, again at the end, where you “rebuild” the old barn by playing the same footage in reverse. Is this redemptive or restorative in some fleeting way?

There is definitely an element of wish fulfillment to this moment. Also, in terms of shot sequence, I simply wanted to create a juxtaposition between the standing structure and its smoldering ashes. My hope here was to emphasize the sheer speed and permanence of the destruction. It took many hours and dozens of men to raise and yet, one man’s truck rips everything down in seconds.