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Caitlin Durlak is an award-winning Canadian filmmaker whose non-fiction work has spanned media such as web series, short films, feature films, and factual storytelling. Her short film “Continuing to See” was shown at the 2015 Photo Festival. It won the Best Domestic Film and Best Student Film awards, and was also the Best Short Film Award at the Air Canada En Route Film Festival. In addition to directing, Dorlak produced her first feature-length documentary, “Mermaids” directed by Ali Weinstein, which was co-produced with Super Channel and premiered on Hot Docs in 2017.
“Dropstones” is shown at the Canadian International Hot Docs Film Festival 2021, which takes place from April 29 to May 9. The festival is digital this year due to COVID-19. Broadcasting is geographically restricted in Canada.
W&H: Describe the movie in your own words.
CD: “Dropstones” is a mid-length documentary set on the remote island of Fogo, off the coast of Newfoundland. It’s an incredibly intimate family photo that flies over the wall and follows mom, Sonya, over a year later, shortly after she returns to the home she once yearned to escape. She brought her two young sons, Sean and Locke, to learn the resilience that she feels comes from the freedom and community of Fogo Island.
The film immerses us in the unique rhythms of life on the island of Fogo, as it highlights both the hardship and satisfaction that come with calling this unique place home.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
CD: Visually, the island is captured in time, and it is easy to romanticize how life looks when you are visiting as a tourist and enjoying the stunning scenery. She worked on the island for a while and became friends with some of the women who were born and raised in this faraway place. As we shared the stories, I realized their lives were more complicated than I first imagined. However, despite the tough weather, limited employment opportunities, and the disconnection it feels from the rest of Canada, everyone I met was proud to call this place their home.
There was a feeling of confidence and belonging that came from here, and I was in awe. Specifically, women have learned from this setting a kind of flexibility that is often overlooked, with Hunters getting most of the attention when it comes to films made there or writing a novel about the place. I wanted to share what it meant to be a woman from this place, and what it meant to raise children there.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after seeing the movie?
CD: I want them to think about how space can shape our identity and how important our surroundings are in shaping identity. I want viewers to see the complex realities of living far away and celebrate the freedom that can come from it.
W&H: What’s the biggest challenge in making a movie?
CD: I think the biggest challenge as a documentary filmmaker telling a story about an individual is making sure that you represent them and their life in a real way. For me, this means making sure you are clear about your intentions, giving people a space in your film to see the work as it gets done, and providing a space for them to give an opinion before it’s complete.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some ideas on how to make the movie.
CD: I was very fortunate to want to make a movie where I had the last creative say, without a announcer interfering and forming the story, so I walked the Arts Board path and was able to get Holy Trinity grants; One from the city I live in, one from the province and one from Canada. It was a modest budget, but enough to pay everyone who worked in the movie a fair wage, and a little to pay myself.
I was able to make my small budget work because I was the director, cinematographer, editor and producer for the film, so I was willing to work for less.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
CD: There wasn’t a single moment that inspired me. I always wanted to photograph things, even as a kid. It was so normal to me, that no one ever indicated to me that I realized it was something I could do. Then I started seeing other women making movies almost on their own, and that became a huge inspiration for me. That was the classic realization of, “If they can do that, then I can too.”
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
CD: On the first day of Documentary School, they told us that being a documentary filmmaker was an expensive hobby. This was the best and worst advice I received.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female filmmakers?
CD: There will always be a stage when you make your movie where you think it’s complete bullshit, and you’ve hit rock bottom. When this happens, I always remind myself that this is normal, that I will work to get through it, and I need to be patient with myself. When feeling bad normalizes, it just becomes a stage in the creative process, as if you were unchecking all the boxes to complete your work.
W&H: Name your favorite movie directed by women and why.
CD: Naming my favorites is very difficult. One of the films that quickly comes to mind is Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann”. The movie is very simple, in that it is about a relationship between two people, but it does go to these fairy-tale places that still feel very authentic to me. I’m so different from the movie heroine, and yet I can really relate to her – sometimes I felt like the movie was reading my mind.
W&H: How do you adjust to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping your creativity, and if so, how?
CD: I completed the movie during a pandemic and it was the cherry over feeling isolated in the process of making this movie almost on my own. During the first year of the pandemic, I didn’t feel creative, and it was difficult to get any work done. I was happy if I completed more than 2 hours of work per day. Now, something has changed, and I’m working on projects with collaborators and I feel like I’m part of the community again, even if we’re never in the same room.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing – and creating – negative stereotypes. What measures do you think should be taken to make Hollywood and / or the world of documents more inclusive?
CD: I think we need to change some of the old guard who are the gatekeepers in this industry, into people or groups of people who have more contemporary and progressive views, who see the world as it exists now and are an activity trying to understand how to move forward.
In the documentary community, I think we need a better understanding of who has the right to tell stories, and we have to be able to raise our hands when we make mistakes, and create a dialogue about that, especially white people. I’ve heard from my BIPOC friends in the industry that they want more white people to stand up for them – and that they are tired of being the only instigators of change.
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