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Tag: Dieter Deswarte

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

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:

Saint FM vital to island spirit, says director Dieter

Tony Leo, as he appeared on the BBC
Tony Leo, as he appeared on the BBC

Three minutes into Dieter Deswarte’s BBC film about St Helena, viewers around the world heard the smooth welcome of Tony Leo, veteran island broadcaster.

“This is Saint FM Community Radio. The people’s station at its best,” he said. “Our unique little island will soon be a part of the bigger world…”

He wasn’t there just to help the script along. Saint FM logo 300The young film-maker places great significance on the radio station that was revived by its listeners, against resistance from officials who were funding a slicker, better-behaved rival.

Saint FM is helping islanders break away from a restrictive colonial past, as Dieter sees it.

“I spent a lot of time there,” he says. “I liked the way it wasn’t perfect but it was done with a lot of enthusiasm, for the island.

“And a lot of people are involved. They have a lot of volunteers. They struggle a lot financially, but it’s good that this came out of the people. It’s a great example of initiative and people getting on and trying to do something.

“I spoke to a lot of people and the independent media has done a lot for people in helping  them to voice their opinion. Because I think until it came around it was really, really difficult.

“It’s incredibly important. There is this colonial legacy and this past is still being processed, not only by the government but also by the people.

“It’s very important to have this idea that people don’t feel suppressed. That is something that is constantly causing frustration and conflict on the island.

“It can be made better by better communications between the people and its government. Also feeling they have a voice within the community.

“I think Saint FM and the Independent… the mere fact that it’s independent media, I think that’s something that the people really needed.”

It gives me great pleasure: Julie declares Saint FM open
New radio group bids to revive Saint FM

“I think Saint FM and the Independent… the mere fact that it’s independent media, I think that’s something that the people really needed.” SEE ALSO:  It gives me great pleasure: Julie declares Saint FM open New radio group bids to revive Saint FM

Watch online: St Helena film shows the beauty, and the truth

Saints: click the pic to see a larger image
Saints: click the pic to see a larger image

The BBC has screened a revealing documentary that captures the beauty and charm of St Helena, but also confronts the realities of life on the island.

People in the UK can see at on the BBC iPlayer at any time up to 20 April 2015.

The half-hour film tells its story through six Saints who reflect on the way things have been, and what they might become. Among them is the late Trevor Otto Thomas, a much-loved fisherman and observer of island life.

Trevor O Thomas aboard MFV Extractor. Picture by Bruce Salt
Trevor O Thomas aboard MFV Extractor. Picture by Bruce Salt

Before his unexpected death in December 2014, he told of his concerns about what the airport will mean for the islanders’ way of life.

“Britain is not going to put an airport here for £400m and then we live the same old way we did 20 or 30 years ago,” he says in the film.

“They will want changes. It’s coming.

“People feel as though they are not being listened to and it makes you angry. And then when you say something that is contrary to what is being presented to you, you are being ‘negative’.”

Ivy Ellick, formerly a senior government official, laments the departure of many Saints for new lives overseas, and hopes the airport will “quench that thirst to leave the island… and will hopefully bring our Saints back.”

Viewers watch Melanie Caesar hug her children on the sea front as she prepares to leave them for a year or more to work overseas, having abandoned the struggle to support them on the meagre income she can earn on the island. The pain is clear to see.

Father Dale Bowers also makes a number of telling observations on the hardships of island life, for which director Dieter Deswarte made several visits to St Helena.

Saints is billed as “a film about a small place becoming part of a bigger world; a coming-of-age story about a small community growing up in a globalised world.” It was screened several times over the weekend of 20-22 March 2015 on BBC Freeview channels.

Reaction on Facebook has been positive. The film has also prompted some people to post messages on the site recalling their own family separations.

One said: “I’ve been on that sea front crying my eyes out a few times.”

Watch the film on the BBC iPlayer here

See a trailer here And read more on the BBC website