Tom Weston’s career as a cinematographer spans 35 years and features a combination of television and film productions. His experience includes movies like Stardust Memories and Hustle and Flow. Recently, he has worked as director of photography for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and CBS’s A Gifted Man.
His ttff/13 film, The Wind that Blows, is a historical portrait of the influence of whaling on the island of Bequia in St Vincent and the Grenadines. The pallet materializes through the strength of tradition and culture, gathering momentum since the 19th century when Yankee whalers introduced whaling to the island’s local sailors.
Despite pressures by anti-whaling nations to end the practice in Bequia, generation after generation the tradition has been kept alive by a small group of brave men unwilling to let go of their proud past. The local custom of whaling is not just about providing physical sustenance for the local people, but it is also a confirmation of a very unique identity for the island nation.
We managed to catch up with the New-York based Weston in between his busy schedule working on the hit CBS series Person of Interest to find out more about this labour of love, 24 years in the making.
When you began shooting, did you honestly think that it would take more than decades to complete?
Not at all. I was certain that, with a little bit of luck, my friends and I would capture some amazing footage in 1989 and after a few months of editing and scoring we would have a wonderful film that would turn heads around the world. But that was not to be.
As it turns out, I think it was good in some ways that the film ended up spanning a generation on Bequia. It’s also interesting that we jumped from film to digital cameras during the process as a paradigm shift was occurring in Bequia as well. I am just grateful that the people of Bequia were so patient.
How do you feel after all this time, finally seeing your film as a final product?
The Bequia experience was totally unique, especially with respect to looking through a camera and composing shots. It was a different experience. I am glad I had the opportunity to finish it and I am grateful to my wife for her indulgence. I am also hopeful that it will be a treasured document of life on that wonderful island.
Did it touch you on a personal level?
This film is my love letter to Bequia. This film touched me on many personal levels. Making friends with people whose lifestyles were so different from what I had experienced, having my family with me far from our home and then making Bequia our home for a few years and also the fact that so many of my friends helped out during the 1989 season and later. The whole process was deeply personal and, although it was never meant to tell a personal story, I hope some of those feelings of respect come through in the telling.
It is a huge event in my life and my family’s life. We have spent hundreds of hours working on this film and at one point our life savings went into it. I am proud of it. It is a gentle film about gentle people, full of past and present irony. There is a lot subtext and good food for thought in the film. It’s a big part of my psyche.
In terms of a manifestation of how I was influenced by the film, when I broke a tooth a few years ago I had if replaced with a gold one as an homage to [whalers] Athneal and Michael “Bede” Adams.
What did you learn as a filmmaker when you were shooting this film?
In no particular order, I learned how hard it is to make a documentary! That shooting is the easy part, editing harder, finding distribution harder yet. I learned a bit about editing and Final Cut Pro. Writing the narration and then delivering it was a nice challenge.
If you had to describe Athneal, one of the protagonists, in your own words, what would you say?
Athneal was a quiet, thoughtful man who still missed his wife after many years. One of his greatest joys was being with his whaling comrades, sitting up on the hill, looking out to sea while “changing ideas about this and that.”
His bravery and composure were renowned. One of his great friends, writer and seaman Horace Beck, offered as a eulogy to Athneal, Rudyard Kipling’s poem If. I think that was very apt.
Can you talk about the music in the film?
Music…this is big. Allen Krantz, a noted classical guitarist and composer, composed and performed four pieces; the opening overture, “Waiting and Watching”, “The Chase” and “Morality Finale”. Allen is a great guy who visited Bequia and, as we all did, fell in love with the place. I love the way he worked the melody of “Glass Flashing” into the overture with a reprise at the end of “Morality”. “Watching and Waiting” works beautifully as a haunting musical background to the shots of the whalers in their tiny boats at sea.
“Athneal Was the Greatest”, performed by De Real Ting String Band featuring J Gool, is a popular tune in Bequia and no one sings it better than J Gool. I was so fortunate to have been able to shoot this terrific band.
Stanley Kydd, whose brothers Eustace and Andrew are whalers who speak in the film, contributed two lovely homespun songs, “Bequia, Sweet Bequia” and “Morality”. Stanley was one of the gentlest of these gentle people; he died of the bends.
Colin Peters and Enos Penniston are responsible for the remaining music. Their band Mystic Vibration performed songs featured in the second half of the film. The raw “Got to Find a Way to Make a Living” is a great accompanying tune for the section that shows folks from Paget Farm harvesting and ginning cassava.
How has pressure from international anti-whaling organisations affected whaling in Bequia?
Traditionally, the TTD—time to death—of a whale was very long, a few hours. When the whalers try to comply with international standards, they only take about 15 minutes. They now use speedboats as opposed the traditional 26-foot whaleboats but now they get criticised for compromising tradition. So they are caught in between.
Why is it important for people to be aware of this cultural and ecological dialogue?
As one member of the community explained, “We might kill one or two whales for the year, sometimes we don’t catch any. So we’re not just killing things because we see it. We’re just killing something to get food to feed the people and I hope that people will understand that.”
I think the biggest element to be considered in the discussion of our ecology and the environment is balance. Ironically, the Bequia whalers, in my opinion, understand this balance better than most people in the industrialised world.
Do you think that wider audiences will understand the local Bequia culture and appreciate what whaling means to them?
I sure hope so. Of the few hundred of people who have seen the film so far most, if not all, seem to have made this realisation. They have a special place in this world, that tiny island, and I hope that they can stay that way.
In your opinion, does it really matter if they do?
Absolutely, that was the main impetus for the project. If people “get it”, at least a little bit, then it will be more valuable to the people of Bequia as a cultural record and point of pride and to the larger discussion of the ecology as well.
As Andrew Kydd said in the film, “We know we cannot stop our heritage, our culture. We are not going to lobby with no other country for our culture. We cannot go in no other part of the world to tell them to change their culture. No, we dare not.”
What was your greatest moment on the project?
Greatest moment: videotaping the whalers watching themselves catch a whale.
Where would you like to see this film go in terms of the international circuit?
As far as possible.
What are you taking with you from the entire experience?
Not sure yet, it is still ongoing. Hopefully it will, in the end, be satisfying…whatever that means.
Can you talk about your upcoming projects?
I hope to document the journey of a woman as she retraces Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps on his return to India. Aditi Sen moved to the USA over 20 years ago and, just as Gandhi did 100 years ago, plans to return and reacquaint herself with her homeland. I hope this film will be another study of cultural contrasts, this one through the eyes of a woman.
The Wind that Blows screens at the ttff/13 as follows:
Mon 23 Sept, 3.00pm, Little Carib Theatre
Fri 27 Sept, 3.30pm, MovieTowne POS, Q&A