“Poetry is an Island” is a hidden gem of a documentary where Dutch filmmaker Ida Does takes the audience on a heartwarming journey into the life of one of the most beloved scholars the Caribbean has ever produced. Poet, playwright, author, painter and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott opens his life up onscreen to share in what is a very personal and intimate look at what the humble life of a literary genius truly is like.
From the film’s inception, it becomes clear that this documentary is one steeped in emotion, rather than witty anecdotes intermixed with tactile facts. Ida Does takes the approach of showing the audience the true face of Walcott. That being even with all his numerous awards and accomplishments, he is just as human as any of us. Maybe not the same, but human nonetheless. She shows us a man, with an unparalleled devotion to the country of his birth. The kind of patriotism that is ever present in so many Caribbean natives, which immediately draws the audience in and allows us to begin to relate with the literary giant.
Throughout the film, excerpts from his 1992 Nobel Lecture are played, and I found myself moved to the point where my spine tingled at the exquisite use of cinematography in emphasizing the points Walcott was making at the time. Between the score and the scenery, the imagery conveyed during these excerpts almost makes you feel as if you were there in the mind of the artist, gaining a partial glimpse into his brilliance.
Aside from passages from his literary works, there are many interviews with peers and family members who help further humanize Walcott. Stories of his early career with friends from his youth, along with testimonials from those whom are closest to him show us a side of Walcott that I’m sure many literature students out there would have never imagined. Through the experiences of those he has influenced, he seems at times as the lovable grandfather many of us remember from our childhood, while at others he emulates that strict Professor from whom we tried so hard to garner approval.
Although friends and family members paint a vivid picture of the man behind the words, none do it as powerfully as Walcott himself. A particular scene comes to mind where he is describing the history of how he came to publish his first book of poetry. To fund his first book he simply asked his mother for $200 one day (a fortune in St. Lucia at that time) and she simply said okay. No questions asked. The scene then shifts to him reciting a passage from a poem written about his mother from said book. In this most intimate moment the mask that many of us imagine our hero’s wear fades, and Walcott becomes overwhelmed with emotion. No longer were we seeing a man who fought all the stereotypes of a St. Lucian born Afro-Caribbean native, who rose up to become one of the most respected poets of our time. We simply were seeing a man who missed his mother, and could not finish reading a passage that reminded him of a loved one lost without coming to tears.
It was there and then that I realized this documentary was something unique and special. The catastrophic level of emotion displayed by Walcott would make even the most petrified heart bleed. Anger, frustration, sadness, joy and love are all played out in this masterful work of art. As a student of literature and an Antillean writer myself, it was a pleasure to experience. “Poetry is an Island” derives its name from his 1992 Nobel Lecture where he states “Poetry is an island that breaks away from the main.” This documentary is akin to that phrase in that it breaks away from the standard formula, and takes the audience deep into the soul of a man who changed the face of Caribbean literature. “Poetry is an Island” is a film that I would recommend as a must see for all audiences. You need not be a student, scholar or artist to appreciate this film. Not even a Caribbean native. All you need be is human.
Poetry is an Island is currently available for pre-sales which can be found here:
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