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I wanted the people’s stories, says St Helena film-maker

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Ivy Ellick speaks of painful truths in Dieter Deswarte's BBC film
Ivy Ellick speaks of painful truths in Dieter Deswarte’s BBC film

It was the people that mattered to Dieter Deswarte when he turned up on St Helena, one man and his camera on a shoestring budget, hoping to capture the spirit of an island emerging from obscurity.

The BBC gave him half an hour to tell the world about the Saints as they wait for an airport to transform their lives. That’s probably more screen time than it had spared the island in the previous 80 years.

Belgian film-maker Dieter Deswarte
Belgian film-maker Dieter Deswarte

It turns out to be quite a story: a hard one, but a beautiful one too. The “cinematic” scenery helps.

So do those who allowed the young Belgian film-maker into the private world from which outsiders are normally, politely, excluded.

He thanks them all for helping him make St Helena: An End To Isolation, as part of the BBC’s Our World series.

Father Dale Bowers tells how today’s Saints are descended from the poor who got left behind when the island’s fortunes failed in the 19th century. So many of the island’s problems are rooted in that fact.

Dieter describes Father Dale as “quite outspoken”; a man of good ideas.

The radio veteran Tony Leo is in there, chatting away on Saint FM, holding life together. For Dieter, the community-owned station is an important symbol of a people finding their own voice. He likes Tony, a lot.

Father Dale Bowers, by Dieter Deswarte
Father Dale Bowers, by Dieter Deswarte

We see Trevor Thomas, painting his fishing boat and complaining that anyone who voices concern about change is dismissed as negative.

“It was really tragic that he passed away the last week I was there,” says Dieter.  “It shook things up completely.

“I’m really grateful to the family that they still felt happy for me to use the footage of him. He was a really prolific speaker and writer and he had his way with words. It’s not bad to be a critic, but he was one.”

In her trim garden, Ivy Ellick, the retired senior government official, quietly acknowledges the realities of historic sex abuse that has brought the island unwelcome, and unrepresentative, attention.

“When I started, that was not known about,” says Dieter. “I couldn’t ignore what was happening because it’s very much part of the island opening up, but I didn’t just want that one aspect of the island.

Trevor Otto Thomas died during the making of the film. Picture by Dieter Deswarte
Trevor Otto Thomas died during the making of the film. Picture by Dieter Deswarte

“It was really hard for people to speak about it but I was really pleased with what Ivy has done for me. I’m so grateful for her words. We spoke about it for quite a while.

“It is an issue on the island that people are often not confident to speak up about because of privacy, living in a small community.

“I know some more detail but the detail is not so important here; it’s trying to bring out the fact that the island is opening up and these issues are coming to the surface, and how it’s taken so long.”

The other great island sadness is in there too: the going away. The airport may be only months away from opening, but for now, the pain of parting goes on as parents leave the island – and often, their children – to find a way out of extreme hardship.

In the film, it’s Melanie Caesar who hugs her teenage daughters on the wharf and boards the ship to go away to work, knowing she will not see them for the best part of a year.

Melanie Caesar, by Dieter Deswarte
Melanie Caesar, by Dieter Deswarte

“It was a very emotional goodbye,” says Dieter. “I’m really grateful to Melanie and her family, to let me observe these quite intimate moments.

“They almost forgot that I was there. I heard that from Rebecca and Kanisha afterwards.

“Because St Helena is quite a private community it has been challenging to enter people’s personal lives. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s about listening to people; making people feel you are there for them to tell their story, and not to tell your own story.”

Fly-on-the-wall television has become a tainted form in the UK, but Dieter seems to have made it work for the island he came to love on his three visits in as many years.

“It’s been great to get some feedback from people from St Helena who are pleased,” he says, a few days after seeing his break-through first film go out on the BBC News Channel and BBC World News. “It’s such a relief. Most people felt happy it was just Saints telling the story.

The RMS St Helena approaches the island. Picture by Dieter Deswarte
The RMS St Helena approaches the island. Picture by Dieter Deswarte

“I did speak to the governor and quite a few other expats. I just decided not to include them. I wanted proper Saints.

“The BBC wanted something that would be quite observational in its character. I think they were very happy with the result.”

That’s not the end of it. “There’s talks here and there about a few things that might come off the back of it. It might be broadcast in Belgium, where I’m from.”

Not all those who were filmed survived the edit, but they might yet have their moment on screen – maybe the big screen.

“As we speak I am still editing a longer version of the film for festivals and other broadcasters,” says Dieter, who’s been based in London since graduating from Goldsmith’s University.

“In the longer film, there will be more people. For this particular short programme I felt Ivy, Trevor, Father Dale, Melanie and Tony, they were a good representation of the island.

“It was about finding a good balance between opinions. The airport comes with good and bad, and it was important to raise questions about it and not say it’s all terrible, but it’s a necessity that this will have to happen. At least, that’s how I see it: something needs to change for the island to change as well.”

Those charged with trying to promote St Helena as a welcoming tourist destination are unhappy about media coverage of the sex abuse inquiry, but Dieter does not believe that including it in the film will have a damaging effect.

“My series producer from the BBC is still very keen to go to St Helena, regardless of all he has heard about it,” he says.

“It’s not the travel show: I don’t think it will deter people from visiting the island. If anything it will make them more curious. Above all, I hope it tells them something about the people living there.”

Watch the film on the BBC iPlayer here

See a trailer here And read more on the BBC website

Click any thumbnail for a gallery of larger images:

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