Friday, May 24, 2013
Written for Toronto Screen Shots
The idea of a 13 year old girl nautically circumnavigating the globe alone would sound nutty and ill-advised to nearly anyone. Those were the circumstances that garnered worldwide media attention and touched off a contentious debate and court battle in 2009 when Dutch teen Laura Dekker announced her intentions to carry out the plan, and which set the stage for director Jillian Schlesinger's Maidentrip. After 10 months of legal proceedings, which included Dutch authorities verifying the soundness of both her sailing skills and mental capacity, Dekker eventually unofficially began her epic expedition by setting sail alone (which also means without a support team on a follow boat) from Gibraltar in August 2010, a month before her 15th birthday. Successful completion of the 27,000 nautical mile journey would make Dekker the youngest person to sail around the globe solo. The record attempt officially began in January 2011, as Dekker departs St. Martin on her 38 foot sailboat named Guppy. 366 days later, Dekker arrived back in St. Martin.
After spending a short amount of time onscreen with the sailor, it's clear that Dekker is mature far beyond her age and instilled with an unflagging drive to challenge herself, a fearless temperament, and little patience for those that question her abilities and decisions. The teenager was born on a boat and has spent much of her life on the water, even choosing to live with her father when her parents split up because it would mean more opportunities to sail. Because her dad had to work so much, Dekker was often left to look after herself and that independence serves her quite well during the solo excursion.
Armed with a video camera, Dekker contributes video diaries that detail various aspects of her experience like cooking disasters, the welcome companionship of a roosting bird or a pod of dolphins swimming alongside her ship, and some of the trip's weather-related challenges (at one point, there's been virtually no wind for a stretch of several days). Much of that might sound rather dull - it's anything but, however. Dekker's funny and thoughtful observations make for highly enjoyable viewing and the absence of very many dramatic moments in the film (largely because Dekker was unable to film them) isn't a major negative. The adventure, in and of itself, is drama enough. The hairiest things get in Maidentrip occurs during some dreadful weather off the coast of South Africa that results in waves as high as 60 feet. The weather is so severe that a South African newspaper referred to the conditions as some that "even the bravest skipper wouldn't attempt" to navigate, but Dekker makes her way through the storm safely, offering little indication of fear in her narration as her camera captures the raging sea surrounding Guppy. The same poise is shown at another moment in the documentary as Dekker casually mentions that her route had to be planned to avoid pirates on the Indian Ocean. Dekker's video diaries also fascinatingly chronicle the teenager coming of age on the water and increasingly feeling more connected to the sea than to people, even saying at one point that she no longer feels reliant on anybody. One of my biggest shocks with Maidentrip came at the post-screening Q & A when it was revealed that Dekker only shot a total of 10 hours of video for the project. Kudos to the filmmakers (notably editor Penelope Falk) for making the most of the relatively little on-ship footage that was available to them. The pleasing score from Ben Sollee also merits a mention.
Throughout Dekker's trip, helpfully tracked with effective use of some amusing graphics, Schlesinger meets up with her seven times to film at the many exotic ports the sailor stopped in, such as in the Galapagos Islands, French Polynesia, and Panama. We see Dekker soaking in the local cultures, participating in activities like bike rides and scuba diving, dealing with a customs official who struggles to grasp the spontaneous nature of her travels, and also bonding closely with a nice American couple who are on their own worldwide sailing expedition. There's also a scene where Dekker's wariness of the press is illustrated, as she snaps at questions from a journalist who has covered the teenager's story for a number of years.
I'm someone who couldn't have cared less about the activity of sailing prior to watching the charming Maidentrip, but it was impossible not be deeply drawn in by the film's improbable scenario, and mostly, its engaging subject and her amazingly pure love for the water and adventurous spirit. Laura Dekker's story practically demands a dramatic feature version from Hollywood.