Unseen: Chronicles of a premiere that never happened

A filmmaker’s personal account of debuting a film just as COVID-19 hit

6 mins read

This Coronavirus story begins in an unusual way, under the palm trees of a beautiful Caribbean island, amongst warm waters and perfect sunsets. It all seems so distant now, even if it was only a few months ago. On the 7th of March, after a long-haul flight and a placid ferry ride, my friend Jan and I arrived on the tiny island of Montserrat. That evening, stroked by a pleasant tropical breeze while going through customs, our biggest worry was explaining the big projector and the nest of entangled cables that filled my luggage. We could not imagine that today I would be writing this piece as I self-isolate in my London home, gazing out of the window and contemplating the trees in bloom.

This journey really began just over two years ago with our first trip to the island, when Jan and I landed on Montserrat with the idea of making a film about the resilience of its community. In 1995, the Soufrière Hills volcano on the south of the island exploded, and the eruption carried catastrophic consequences that would change the face of the small country for many years to come. Almost 25 years later, the volcano is still erupting, claiming for itself one third of the island which remains inaccessible. It left the capital city of Plymouth a ghost town, now nicknamed the Pompei of the Caribbean, as well as a lagging economy and a great deal of nostalgia. In less than two years, the population of Montserrat dropped from 13,000 people to less than 1,200. Some decided to stay, and throughout the years, some decided to return. As ever-curious documentary filmmakers, we were fascinated by the stories of those who live in Montserrat today. And so, we decided to collect these stories in a little film called No Island Like Home.

When you put your heart and soul into making a documentary, showing that film to the community you tried so hard to represent in a genuine and honest way can be a terrifying feat. No matter how well you have done, there will be always an element of anxiety and self-doubt. Nonetheless, we had no intention of shying away from this, and on that Saturday in early March, we arrived in Montserrat with the dream of a big island premiere. Unfortunately, COVID-19 had other plans.

As luck would have it, Friday the 13th proved to be a terrible day, as the first case of Coronavirus was confirmed in the neighbouring islands of Antigua and Barbuda. Just one day later, the virus was in Montserrat, and everything started to unravel with unprecedented speed. With a current population of 5,000 people alongside the hundreds of tourists arriving every day, Monserrat’s small hospital is ill-equipped to cope with a crisis of this magnitude. Understandably, fear and paranoia began spreading like wildfire. The government soon issued the necessary restrictions on large-group gatherings, creating the first dent in our premiere dream. The venue for that night’s screening refused to open—and who could blame them? The next night, we held an invite-only screening. You could count the audience members on one hand, each spread out in the 450-seat auditorium. It was a very sorry sight for our long-awaited premiere.

The idea of leaving Montserrat without showing the film to the community that made it possible was heart-breaking, but the sacrifice was small in comparison to what others are enduring all over the world. Soon, the government invited visitors to leave early, and so we jumped on a 6AM ferry for Antigua. It was only then that we were met with a taste of the extent of the crisis. The small ferry docked as planned, but would the Antiguan authorities let us disembark? We waited in limbo for hours on end, passengers panicking about the possible spread of the virus through the ferry’s AC system. Gradually, we were allowed to leave five at a time, to be then greeted by medical personnel in full protective gear fastidiously checking everyone’s temperature.

We eventually did make it back home to London, bringing with us No Island Like Home basically unseen. We left for Montserrat with little to worry about, and we returned to England at a time when both countries were facing unimaginable adversity. Looking at the sun shining outside of my window, I cannot help but think of our friends in the tropical Montserrat, in the hope that we will be able to share our film with them soon. In the meantime, I wish them the same strength they demonstrated in ’95: to work together as a community, leaving petty disagreements aside, and fighting to get out of this big, global mess.

No Island Like Home – Documentary Trailer from Big Hair Films on Vimeo.

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