In this heartfelt tribute – “Filming Derek Walcott: Recollections of the Making of ‘Poetry is an Island’” – director Ida Does shares her experiences and treasured memories of working with the late Caribbean poet and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott:
It has been the honour of a lifetime to work with Derek Walcott for the filming of “Poetry is an island.” The opportunity to get to know Derek and to be introduced to his family, his friends, and his beloved St. Lucia has forever changed me.
Ever since I first heard the sad news of his passing, my mind has been going over each memory I have of the time we spent together. I go over each scene, each shot of the film in my mind. I have been recollecting each conversation, each encounter I had with Derek, on and off camera. Feverishly, I have been searching for the answer to the one question that has been haunting me. “When was Derek at his happiest?” I am not sure why this question stands out in my mind from all the other questions, but it struck me with a sense of urgency that I have not been able to ignore. It is as if my mind is trying to find a reassuring image to hold on to, a comforting thought, a memory that I can use to cope with the loss of Derek.
And luckily, there are many happy moments to choose from when I think back on our time with Derek. Seeing Derek with his family, his paintings, his friends, they were all instances that visibly brought tremendous joy to his eyes. And of course, there was his poetry. I remember a particularly powerful moment when we filmed Derek reading a selection of poems I had proposed to him. He agreed to do the reading and took to his chair next to the almond tree in his garden. Witnessing Derek bringing his poems to life was nothing short of extraordinary. It deeply moved our entire crew. It was as if the whole island had suddenly gone silent. All we could hear was Derek, and his poetry, accompanied by the melody of the sea that was just steps away from where he was sitting. To this day, I am not sure Derek was even aware of the awe he instilled in all of us in that moment.
During filming, Derek seemed inspired and energized with the process and our presence. It took very little time, and even fewer words, for it to become apparent that of the documentary about his life and work, Derek was the co-director. It was just a natural kind of thing. He approached this task with subtly and sometimes with downright mystique, as he would suggest locations for filming or hint at ways for us to capture certain shots. And of course, we listened. It is this kind of natural development of our working together, something that just emerged as we spent time together, that I think has made the film what it is. It is not just a film about Derek, but rather, a film with him in it.
Derek drove us to locations all around the island. Places like Cas en Bas, The Walcott Theatre adjoining The Great House in Cap Estate. He even took us to the small village barber shop in Gros Islet that he mentions in his poem “So the world is waiting for Obama”. I remember after he just finished reciting that poem to us, he looked at me with his piercing eyes and said with some excitement, “Do you want to go there?” And of course, we did.
Our crew was constantly mindful of Derek’s desire to protect his privacy. And although he tolerated our crew running through his house, his kitchen, studio, veranda and his garden, he remained vigilant that his private space was respected.
The period of our filming coincided with Derek’s birthday as well as the traditional Nobel Laureate Week in St. Lucia. This meant that there were many international friends, students, and other poets who had come to visit Derek. Among them was Derek’s close friend, the late Seamus Heaney.
I had asked Derek to do a scene with Seamus many times. I had so many great ideas for the two Nobel laureates to be filmed together, and I pitched most of these ideas to Derek. I suggested a conversation on the beach, a fishing trip, you name it, but Derek was reluctant. When I realized that Derek wanted to make sure the privacy of his friend was protected, I made peace with the fact that Seamus and his friendship with Derek would not be a part of the film. Then, one morning, as we were shooting B-roll on an old cacao plantation, my phone rang. I answered and it was a cheerful Derek. “I have good news for you!” – he said. “Seamus is coming this afternoon!” And I could not have been more elated. My crew and I immediately started to prepare the scene of the afternoon: A visit to the Roseau Valley Church.
It was late afternoon and when Derek and his guests arrived, the light had turned into a soft but omnipresent shade of yellow. There was a funeral that had just ended in the church, so we still had to arrange the scene which required a great deal of improvising. But we made it happen. Things just came together as we shared a humbling mindfulness of the precious moments we were about to capture on film. Co-director Derek prepared his public and asked for my “Action.” He then spoke a few words as he opened the scene, and mentioned everyone there by name: Seamus, Bobby, Mary, Gandolph and Junior. He told us about the Altar Piece – an impressive mural with the Black Madonna, cradling baby Jesus, black Joseph, people from the valley, fishermen, bananas and plantation workers, painted by his close childhood friend, the late Sir Dunstan St. Omer.
Earlier Sir Dunstan had told me that he painted that mural during a time “nobody could imagine a black man in heaven.” Derek continued his introduction: “It is not paying homage, but I wanted you to see it.” After Derek recited the poem entitled “For the Altarpiece of the Roseau Valley Church, St. Lucia”, we all made our way to a location outside the church. With the valley in the background, Derek started a conversation about the mural with the group. Seamus joined in and commented on the mural, Derek’s poem, the village and the connections he saw between it all. He referred to an Irish word “Teach an Phobail” to describe the village church. And Derek listened.
This morning, I woke up to the image of Derek sitting there, outside the church, surrounded by his friends. I mentally zoomed in on Derek’s face as he was listening to Seamus articulating the exact intention and meaning of Dunstan’s mural, and Derek’s poem. In that moment, I saw what can only be described as blissful happiness on Derek’s face. Landscape and paintings, history and identity, aesthetics, poetry, friendship, it all came together. I look at him through my imaginary lens in that moment in Roseau Valley, St. Lucia, and I see a happy man. That is how I will remember Derek.
We mourn the loss of a great Caribbean icon. I am grateful and humbled to have had the privilege of working with him on this film, and being able to present the film to him and his family at the Trinidad & Tobago International Film Festival in 2013 and again – the final cut – in St. Lucia in 2014. As we all try to make sense of mortality, we can turn to Derek’s words for comfort. I once asked Derek what poetry gives us. After a brief pause he answered: “Poetry gives us consolation. It is the language of love, poetry. It’s what Larkin said: what will survive of us, is love.”
It is with immense gratitude that I pay my last respects to the great Sir Derek Alton Walcott. Thank you for the love – it consoles us all.
Notes: Seamus Heaney passed away on August 30, 2013. Sir Dunstan St. Omer passed away on May 5, 2015. He was present at the St. Lucia Premiere of the film in January 2014.
Photo - Film still of Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott.
More information: www.walcottfilm.com. For more on the film, see https://repeatingislands.com/2016/01/30/film-review-ida-does-poetry-is-an-island-derek-walcott/