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Remembering a Lost Grandmother Through Her Trinkets

This post was originally published in October 2014. We’re resurfacing it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday effort to give some love to our favorite posts.—The Proof Team

What sorts of stories are told through someone’s personal possessions? In my job as an associate producer at National Geographic, I’m constantly sifting through videos, searching for amazing work to add to the Short Film Showcase. I’m often looking for pieces like Gemma Green-Hope’s poignant film Gan-Gan—which uses stop-motion animation to show the relationship between a granddaughter and grandmother.

The film’s description immediately struck a chord with me:

“My grandmother Elizabeth (or Gan-Gan as I called her) was a force of nature; she was wonderful … After her death in 2010, I helped my father and uncle sort through some of her possessions. I inherited some of her clothes to wear, books to read, a bicycle to ride. But how do you make sense of all the other things that someone leaves behind, the things nobody sees, boxes full of photographs and bits of string?”

While I was home in Colorado, my own grandmother let me rummage her craft room for future project supplies. I came across photographs of her severe-looking parents, porcelain dolls, and mouse-eaten scrapbooks from her college years. I realized that while I will never see all the dimensions of my grandmother, these objects are a testament to her story and mine.

What I like about Green-Hope’s piece is that she creatively animated these “unseen” personal items to create a touching portrait of her grandmother’s life. In under three minutes, she presents Gan-Gan’s dynamic personality and various interests (books, nature, blood sports) through collage and stop-motion animation. This homage celebrates not only a grandmother, but a woman who lived life fearlessly and fully. I spoke with Green-Hope about the film and her Gan-Gan:

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A still from the film Gan-Gan by Gemma Green-Hope

RACHEL LINK: Is there a story behind the name Gan-Gan?

GEMMA GREEN-HOPE: It’s an unusual name, and I’ve only met two other people who called their grandmothers Gan-Gan. Apparently, Queen Victoria was referred to as Gangan by her great-grandchildren.

There is some distant connection, as Gan-Gan’s great-aunt worked at Osborn House (Queen Victoria’s Isle of Wight home) and passed down some beautiful lilies—cuttings from the garden there. Every time Gan-Gan moved house she would dig them up and move them along with her.

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Gemma Green-Hope and her grandmother’s vintage Raleigh bicycle

RACHEL: Can you tell me a bit more about the travels you took with her bicycle?

GEMMA: I inherited her lovely blue bicycle, a Raleigh Traveller. I ride it often, and when I do it feels like I am carrying her with me. One of my first rides on it was to Hampton Court, and I imagined her there too—she loved history and had some amazing books on the kings and queens of England. I took it on a family cycling holiday to the Isle of Wight, where Gan-Gan was born and brought up. I also rode from London to Brighton (about 50 miles) on it, which was a beautiful ride but quite tough on a three speed! When I was studying I cycled to work and to university on it every day, and now I work from home in Wales but enjoy heading out along the country lanes on a sunny day.

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A still from the film Gan-Gan by Gemma Green-Hope

RACHEL: Do you have a favorite book of hers that you kept?

GEMMA: I have her hard-backed edition of Christina Rossetti poems, with some gorgeous illustrations. Also just as valuable to me is the notebook I gave her to write down her childhood memories, which I love looking at.

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A teenage Gemma Green-Hope and her grandmother

RACHEL: Did she pass any traits down to you, like list writing or labeling?

GEMMA: A love of the sea, and of stories, an energetic nature, and a tendency to jump out of my skin!

She really archived her life, which was amazing. I think I inherited that, but whereas she did it through diaries, photographs, newspaper cuttings, and carefully packaged curiosities, I do it through drawing and animating. I also love a good list!

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A still from the film Gan-Gan by Gemma Green-Hope

RACHEL: Would you say you got to know your grandmother better through this process?

GEMMA: Definitely. There were so many things that I read or found that made me feel closer to her; reading her diaries and looking through boxes of photographs felt like getting to know her all over again. Reading the little explanatory notes stuck to things was poignant and sad, but some of them also made me laugh so much! I wanted the film and the process of making it to be a celebration of her life.

RACHEL: What do you miss most about her?

GEMMA: Her kindness, her sense of fun, her eccentricities, and her wonderful letters.

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A still from the film Gan-Gan by Gemma Green-Hope

RACHEL: How did you come up with the idea of a stop-motion piece?

GEMMA: Walking around her house after she died, still filled with all her personality and presence, I was struck by how all her possessions told a story. I bought a disposable camera and photographed every room just as it was.

The photos sat in a drawer for three years, and when I found them again I decided they needed to be used. They were the starting point for making the rest of the animation.

Everyone has such interesting lives and stories, and it seems sad that all that history often disappears with them. It’s impossible to sum up someone’s whole life in two minutes, but I wanted to capture a little piece of her marvelous character and share it with others so she wouldn’t be forgotten.

View more of Gemma Green-Hope’s work on her website, and watch more videos from the Short Film Showcase here.

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