Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Maidentrip: A Tale of Two Storytellers

by |

I’ve got a thing for seafaring documentaries. The best of which is Deep Sea; a good one, Leviathan, just hit theaters. What’s been missing from this subgenre of adventures on the high seas is women. Until now. Maidentrip, which will be premiering this Sunday at SXSW, is the story of 14-year-old Dutch girl, Laura Dekker, the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Director Jillian Schlesinger also missed the inclusion of women and boats, and approached Dekker before her  trip. What they ended up with is a great adventure, with grand images of churling seas, but it’s even more an exploration of Dekker as she comes of age.

Dekker shoots most of the footage for the film-it was a solo voyage, after all—in what Schlesinger had thought would be a documentary told entirely from the girl’s point of view. That is, until Schlesinger realized it was her story to tell as well. Her approach was pretty unconventional (but effective!), as you’ll see in her answers to my questions regarding her relationship with Dekker, and the film’s authorship.

There’s a moment in the doc when Laura chafes at the journalist’s questions. Did you have any moments like that with her? Were there any scenes or themes that you disagreed on? Something that she didn’t want included but you convinced her that it would be good for the film?

We actually didn’t have moments like that. Instead of traditional on-camera interviews, I gave Laura lists of questions and topics that she would talk freely about into a voice recorder while sitting alone on her boat, where she felt most comfortable and most free to be herself. She came alive in a different way in that setting. That contrast is really clear in general in the film I think, especially between the Laura you see at sea on her own and in her element, and the Laura you see in that scene with the journalist (who incidentally has a very positive relationship with Laura–it was very rare for Laura to even give interviews at all during her trip.) Almost all of the narration in the film comes from those extemporaneous voice recordings.

This approach started on the very first shoot in the Netherlands, primarily in a response to the language barrier–Laura’s English was very limited at the time. While that obstacle went away with time, as you can see in the film (which transitions from Dutch to English in a way that mirrors Laura’s actual experience), her aversion to cameras and questioning became apparent as I got to know her. So over time this process with the topics and recordings became a defining part of our production even once Laura’s English had improved.  In terms of overall approach I felt my role was to give Laura the tools and (perhaps more importantly) the space to be able to tell her own story from her unique point of view in a deep and honest way. There were plenty of tough questions that challenged her to think deeply and reflect on various experiences–they were just presented to her in a very different way that gave her the open space to consider and answer them on her own.

There was certainly more creative conflict in the edit room–I wanted Laura to be in on the edit in a way that is pretty unconventional for doc subjects, but it helped us to tell her story through her eyes. We would often disagree, talk things out and find solutions. And I think she learned about the process. That said, there were plenty of times where we made a final call that we felt was important for the film and the story where Laura would not have made the same choice. Laura’s a very strong, independent thinker so I wouldn’t say we convinced her of our point of view in every case, but we certainly always explained the thinking and reasoning for our creative choices.

Q: Do you think it’s fair to say that Laura, as opposed to you, is the primary story teller here? How would you parse that?

My original goal in making the film was to tell Laura’s story from her point of view. Only in finishing the film did I realize how much my role as filmmaker and storyteller unavoidably has influenced the story and the film, and that my original goal may actually be close to impossible. I think I underestimated my own agency and role in a project where I was so determined to put the subject at the helm. So if you had asked me this question before I finished the film, I would have said, yes Laura is the primary storyteller, but now I’ve embraced that it is in fact a bit of a blur between what we’ve each brought to it. As the subject, Laura is growing up and experiencing adolescence and documenting her journey as she’s living it. And as the filmmaker, I’m observing her observing herself and telling a story of adolescence and self-discovery having already experienced that journey myself. So the film is both her telling her story as well as me telling her story of telling her story…if that makes any sense at all!

Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki