Ida Does is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. Born and raised in Suriname, she got her film and media training in the Netherlands, where she lives for part of the year; she spends the rest of the time in Aruba. Does is no stranger to the trinidad+tobago film festival: her documentary I Am not I, Trefossa—a portrait of the Surinamese poet Henri de Ziel, who wrote under the pseudonym Trefossa—won a special jury mention at the ttff/09, while her film about another Surinamese writer, Anton de Kom, entitled Peace: Memories of Anton de Kom, won the jury prize for best short film at the ttff/12.
Does is currently working on Poetry Is an Island: A Portrait of Derek Walcott, a feature-length documentary about the St Lucian poet and Nobel laureate for literature. Last week, shortly before launching an online campaign to raise funds to finish the film, she spoke with us via Skype from Amsterdam. In the conversation she talked about the genesis of Poetry Is an Island, what it was like working with Walcott, and discovering the joys of crowd funding.
How did you come to make a documentary about Derek Walcott?
I’d been to your Festival with my film, Trefossa, and it was during that period, when I was editing that film, that I was looking for inspiration on a Caribbean scale. This film that I made about Trefossa is about somebody who made poetry in a language [Sranan Tongo] that nobody can read and understand that doesn’t live in Suriname. I felt that what he made was great and I felt great respect for him as a poet, but I wanted to look further.
And then I came across—I can remember the day that I sat on my couch, and I was reading Derek’s Nobel lecture. And I had an experience where everything came together in that lecture, because of the way he spoke about the Caribbean and the way he addressed all the themes that we have in the Caribbean, the Caribbean way of life, and also the questions of what he calls the supposed “broken languages”.
And for me it was personally like everything came together—my own heritage; my grandfather coming from Guadeloupe; my mother being a French-speaking woman from Guyane française, coming to Suriname. That really was the beginning of me connecting to the work of Derek Walcott. I’m in another part of the Caribbean, the Dutch-speaking Caribbean, so we are not far away from each other but still the language keeps us far away and I had to dive into this whole history of Walcott and his poetry. So it started with that.
Walcott himself is partly of Dutch ancestry. He has written about it, most famously in “The Schooner Flight”. Was the fact of his Dutch heritage, and you coming from Suriname, also a particular draw for you towards him?
At the beginning not really. In the Caribbean we all have a diverse background. But when I read Walcott’s biography and I read about his Dutch ancestry, I dove into the names and I found out that I knew some of these people. His mother’s father was a Van Romondt; one of my best friends in Aruba is a Van Romondt. So it came very near. So I began wondering about this whole Dutch theme. Derek has written about that in his poems—you mentioned one, “The Schooner Flight”—and he has also written a poem about Amsterdam where he talks about the heritage of his mother.
“In Amsterdam”, from the collection White Egrets.
Yes. “I want to repaint these [rubicund] Flemish faces”. I got interested in it and I was curious to find out in what way Derek related to his mother’s heritage. And I had different conversations with people who had researched the family tree, and they had had family reunions—they are a rich family from St Maarten, Van Romondt—and that was Derek’s family. The father of his mother. (She does not have this name; she was a Marlin.)
So I discovered this and thought it was interesting. When I finally met him in St Lucia we spoke and I felt that he wasn’t really into that, he wasn’t really into his whole heritage. He told me that his story isn’t different from most of the people in the Caribbean who really didn’t know about their grandfather or even about their father. His mother came from St Maarten with her mother to live in St Lucia. He doesn’t hide it, but he doesn’t dive into it. [“Silly to think of a heritage when there isn’t much,/though my mother whose surname was Marlin or Van Der Mont/took pride in an ancestry she claimed was Dutch.” – from “In Amsterdam”]
How did you go from being inspired by Walcott to deciding you wanted to make a film about him, and how did you go about doing that?
Well as I said I was working on my documentary Trefossa and that was hard enough, to get it done, to get it funded, but I felt a very strong attraction to go and do something about Derek Walcott. I went to the Internet and searched, and I couldn’t find anything like a feature documentary about him. There were small interviews for academic publications and universities, where he sat on a stage and he read some poems, and people were asking things. And you know that’s not the way I work; I have a totally different way of working. I said, “I can’t do that; I don’t want to have an academic discussion with Derek. I want to feel how he works and I want to see how he’s doing it in St Lucia.”
So my starting point was that I wanted to go St Lucia, because as I read his poetry, his biography, everything was so fully Caribbean, and the more I read about it the more I planned to go to St Lucia. I had to put some borders to the work, because he’s so huge. He travels all the time. So I needed to know on what part I had to focus. I had to limit myself. The limit I found was to go to St Lucia where his roots are. And I wanted to find out how people think about him there, how he works there, how he feels there, what kind of island it is—all these kinds of things.
When you did finally approach him?
I approached him when he was in Amsterdam in 2008. He was here as a guest of the Caribbean writers’ group that we have here, and he came here to lecture and have some workshops. And then I went over to him and we had this very brief conversation. I said, “This is my name and this is my card, and I want you to remember my name because I want to come to St Lucia to make a film about you.” He looked at me and gave this very short nod. And I said, “Well, I have this little nod, so I think I’ll go on.” I had to do other things, work, but it always stayed with me. You know as a filmmaker you have different kinds of ideas coming up, and some of them may stay with you, some you part with. And Derek became older and older and I said, “I have to go there. I have to go because he’s getting old.”
What was the next step?
I had to find funders. I had to find partners. I went to people here and, well, during this period I really believe that I became an independent filmmaker. I really felt that it was my idea, it was my passion to do, and I wanted to do it, without all the regulations of broadcast companies. Perhaps in the Netherlands they would have wanted me to focus on the Dutch heritage or whatever. I just wanted to go and let the story emerge. And this is a very—perhaps it is a romantic point of view, but that’s the way I work best. I let the story emerge and I am open to what happens. That’s the fun of documentary filmmaking. So I went to find some partners and I discussed my idea with people here.
Did they know who Walcott was?
Some of them I had to explain and some knew about Derek. He’s not really well known here, though of course when you say “Nobel laureate” they are very interested. The best partner that I found was my friend and colleague in Aruba, Rebecca Roos. She has her own production company, and she said, “Ida, let’s just do it. Look for a small fund to travel to St Lucia and let’s do it.” We took it from there. The first bit of funding I got was from the Britdoc Foundation in the UK, with 5000 euros. Then we got some more. Then I had to start the conversation with Derek! Call him and ask him if he remembers me.
What was that like?
It took a while. One of the first things he asked me was, “Who is the producer?” And I said, “Well, I am the producer.” And then he asked, “Who is the director?” And then I had to say that I am the director. So it was quite funny. Well, I can say that now, but then was a bit nerve-wracking. How to convince somebody that is so far away—and I’m just a small filmmaker—how can I convince him to work with me? And, well, it happened. I’m not sure what happened but it happened.
How many times did you go to St Lucia and how long were you there?
We went twice: in January 2012 and in November 2012, and we stayed both times for seven days. In January it is his birthday and I wanted to be there because there are a lot of events for his birthday. It’s Nobel Laureate Week and he has a boat trip and he has international friends and poets coming there and I felt that I wanted to film some of these activities. Well after we did that I felt that I didn’t have sufficient material and I wanted to go back. And so I had to find some more funding to finance my second trip. And luckily the Dutch ambassador who resides in Port-of-Spain, she got to know about my work and she supported us with another 5000 euros.
She’s a big fan of our Festival.
Yes, she’s a very nice lady. She was really awesome. Not only did she support us financially, she came to St Lucia as well and she participated in one of the shooting activities and she organised a dinner with Derek. So she was amazingly involved. Her support was very important to us. So then we went for the second time, and we had more time alone with Derek, because there were no festivities.
In terms of making the film, did he give you carte blanche or did he attempt to influence the process in any way?
I don’t think he would ever give anyone carte blanche to do anything about him! [Laughs.] It was really funny, because I often felt that I had a kind of co-director. In the beginning, when I had my conversations on the phone he told me, “Well you know, I can direct the film.” And I told him, “No! I will direct the film.” And he said, “Okay, okay, I won’t take that away from you.” So that was a sign. You know he’s a playwright. And he often directs them.
He’s also directed a couple of films.
Yes, he did some films as well. Not documentaries. So we had some nice situations where Derek was directing scenes for my film. Well, it was fun. He has his own ideas, of course. Let me give you an example. I wanted to film him painting in his studio. And I wanted to film the whole process. It’s like B-roll material for me; it could be A-roll depending on how it emerges. And then he was there, and he had arranged for someone to come to model for him! It was nice; the footage came out very nice.
So you had a good rapport.
Yes, without many words exchanged. I found out that Derek is really—if I may use the word with respect—obsessed by his art and work. And he’s 83 now. And he works every day. So small talk and social interaction is not his thing. He wants to work. He sees a lot of things as a disturbance to his focus. When I was there on my second visit he was directing a play. And I said, “You won’t have time for me.” But he said, “No, come and film while we are rehearsing.” And I was really looking at him and thinking, “Wow, you are 83, you work the whole day and in the evening you rehearse with your players.” He has this energy for his work, although he’s getting older.
Who else did you interview?
I interviewed his son, Peter. He lives in St Lucia. I interviewed his partner, Sigrid. And I interviewed childhood friends. It was interesting to talk with them about the young Derek and how he developed, and how they got together in his mother’s house, where he used to live with his brother Roderick and his sister Pamela. We filmed there also, the childhood home. That’s a whole story, the story of the home. It’s in the film.
A recurring bugbear of Walcott’s is how writers and artists are treated in the Caribbean, particularly by governments. Did this come up when you were shooting?
Yes. One of the things that I address in the film is how we in the Caribbean treat our biggest sons and daughters who have made it on the world stage, how we deal with it. And yes, Derek speaks openly and often about that, how we spend more money on commercial activities and we don’t do enough to support the arts. And he has a clear point of view and he’s a bit bitter about it, and optimistic as well, because he has this view that we need to do things, for artists, to help them develop their art, but he’s bitter if he sees that not much is happening. That’s a sad side of the story and unfortunately a reality in most of our countries, I think.
Talking of support, you’re now looking for support to finish the film.
Yes. We need funding to finish the film and do the post-production. Today we’re going to launch an Indiegogo campaign. We have a goal of US$35,000 and we’re going to try and get it in 47 days. It’s kind of weird for a filmmaker to do this as an activity because you want to think about your film. I had to think it over before I asked my team to do this campaign. So I did a little study, followed an Indiegogo webinar, and talked with colleagues here in the Netherlands about crowd funding. Now it’s fun, because it’s a way to communicate with your audience in an early stage of your film. So it teaches you not to be too protective and to reach out to people who have the same passion that you have. And at the same time it’s a bit scary because you don’t know how people will react and if you will get enough funding and reach your goal. But I’m positive. I’m very positive.
It would be great if you could get all your funding from Caribbean sources.
Yes, it would be great. Hopefully this interview will help with that.
Poetry Is an Island is set for a 2013 premiere. You can contribute to the film’s Indiegogo campaign here.