WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Poetry Is an Island: Derek Walcott enjoyed its world premiere at the ttff/13. A packed audience turned out to witness this documentary on St Lucian Nobel laureate for literature, Derek Walcott. Walcott himself and his family were in attendance.
Filmmaker Ida Does, who is no stranger to the ttff, directed the film. Hailing from Suriname, she now lives and works in both the Netherlands and Aruba. Her previous ttff films are Trefossa: I Am not I (ttff/09) and Peace: Memories of Anton de Kom (ttff/12), which won the Jury Prize for Best Short Film.
Walcott as a subject makes Poetry Is an Island beautiful. He is mysterious yet warm, distant yet passionate, and above all, in love with his country and the people in his life. These same people seem to love him fiercely as his artistic soul has changed them in one way or another.
“You just discover yourself when you meet Derek,” fellow artist Arthur Jacobs, one of the films interviewees, says. “It is really an honour to work with him.”
St Lucian actress Natalie La Porte, who has also worked with Walcott many times, recalled a time he invited her to sit and just look at the sunset. He pointed out the different colours and the way they mixed like the work of a master painter. “He has an amazing ability to see and feel beauty we all just look past,” she says.
Walcott’s former personal assistant, Michelle Serieux, commented on her own incredulity as Walcott stopped to admire the way the sunlight was falling on a valley. She recalls him asking, “Why would you ever want to leave here?”
Walcott himself admits his great love for St Lucia in the film. “I often have an immense longing for St Lucia, the light and the sea, and I if do stay away from it for too long I don’t go crazy but I get disoriented.”
The film also takes an intimate look at Walcott’s family particularly, his mother, Alix, and his twin brother Roderick. In one of the most poignant scenes, Walcott tearfully recites lines he wrote about his mother’s convalescence.
Walcott’s work, which according to Serieux “legitimises Caribbean and creole culture”, has changed how the outside world views St Lucian art and culture, but unfortunately has not done the same for those inside St Lucia. The country still lacks a proper theatre or any real space for artists to create and display their work.
“Artists tend to want to share in the joy and privilege of creation and that is what I had in mind for the St Lucian story about the arts,” Walcott says. “Most governments don’t get involved with the arts. But why can there be a nice looking theatre in at Barbados, but there is nothing in St Lucia?”
And during the question-and-answer session, director Ida Does reiterated the on-screen text in the last shot of the film, from St Lucia’s other Nobel laureate, Sir Arthur Lewis: “A country without the arts is a cultural desert.”
Does was asked what inspired her to make the film.
“[My inspiration] started years ago when I met Derek in Amsterdam,” she said. “He was reading poetry there and I had read his Nobel lecture and I was very impressed, in particular by the [part] in the lecture about Caribbean culture. So I approached him and I asked him if he would be ok with me making a documentary on him.
“He didn’t say yes but he didn’t say no, so I took that as a yes. My main interest was showing the Caribbean connection, making a Caribbean film, a Caribbean story, so I wanted to catch a bit of his poetic atmosphere and interview people who have worked closely with him and also his friends. I wanted to get closer to him.
“It took years to get everything together but I am happy with the film.”
When asked about his thoughts on the film, Walcott described it as “very beautiful”.
He went on: “I was very struck by the use of the Nobel lecture as well as the imagery which confirmed the lecture. [Ida] did a very beautiful and gentle job.”
One of Walcott’s most endearing responses came when an audience member asked, “When did you realise you were a writer and that you began to love literature?”
“My mother continually spoke about our father,” he said, “and I found my father’s work and my mother would recite his work and I knew as a child that I wanted to continue in what he was doing, what he did. So I started to write and continued to write at that level into my eighties. I write like an 80-year-old child.”
One St Lucian member of the audience extended her thanks to the director. “The film is absolutely beautiful,” she said. “Thank you on behalf of every St Lucian…for giving the world the opportunity to see the St Lucia that Derek does, like this, because it does not exist anywhere else.”
Another audience member, a Trinidadian, had a complaint. “I feel like so much time spent [in] St Lucia and not Trinidad,” she said. “So many of us [here] love and work with Derek and I feel a little sad that we are not mentioned as an influence.”
This all prompted Prof Funso Aiyejina of UWI, himself a poet, to interject. “While the St Lucians and the Trinidadians are fighting,” he said to Does, “I want to say thank you from the nation of poetry. It is beautiful, what you have done. It is a fantastic film about a great Caribbean icon and it brought Mr Walcott to life and his words to life in a way that I have never enjoyed before.”
Finally, filmmaker Mariel Brown gracefully addressed Walcott, speaking about his impact on her father, the writer Wayne Brown. “You gave my father a sense of being a Caribbean man,” she said, “and a man of the world.”
— Aurora Herrera
Poetry Is an Island: Derek Walcott screens again on Monday 30 September at, 5.30pm, the Little Carib Theatre.