by Michael Galvis
In 2009,13-year-old Dutch sailor Laura Dekker announced her plan to sail around the world over the course of two years – alone. But before she could hatch her plan to become the youngest sailor to accomplish such a feat, a Dutch court stepped in and, in an attempt to stop her journey, placed her under shared parental custody with the Council for Child Care, who forbade her departure.
Over the next year Laura, her family, and their story made international news. Criticism loomed over their heads. Commentators claimed Laura was delusional and insane, while others called for her removal from her parents’ custody. Meanwhile, others wondered whether a government had the right to intervene in a child’s risky behavior despite parental permission.
In July 2010, after many arguments, the Dutch court that had barred Laura’s journey ended its supervision, allowing her to finally hatch her plan.
In an interview, Laura said of the court’s interference in her solo sail: “They thought it was dangerous. Well everywhere is dangerous. They don’t sail and they don’t know what boats are, and they are scared of them.”
She departed one month later. Over the course of the next two years director Jillian Schlesinger and producer Emily McAllister chronicled Laura’s worldwide journey. The product of their endeavors was Maidentrip, an unabashed firsthand account of Laura’s trip.
The film provides an honest glimpse into her life aboard her modest boat, Guppy.
Within the film we find her a bold, stubborn and incredible young girl filled with passion and skill.
I met Jillian and Emily late one night at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival. Maidentrip had just shown in front of a large audience at an outdoor theatre within the shadow of the mountains surrounding Telluride. The next morning, I had the opportunity to meet with the both of them to discuss the film.
BFM: One of the big things that occurred to me while I was watching Maidentrip was that Laura was really alone the entire time, correct? She had her own camera and everything. But on land you guys were recording her, is that how it worked?
Jillian: Not every time, but in seven different places that she was going and then a couple times before she started and a couple times after she finished.
BFM: So that must have been a lot of footage to go through.
Jillian: Yeah! Between what we shot and what she shot we had about 100 hours. So there was her camcorder and the stuff she shot with the GoPros; she had a voice recorder with her the whole time, too. So it was a lot to sift through and get translated.
Emily: It was fun that every time we flew to meet her we would pick up footage from the previous leg. And she was filming in this format we couldn’t review right then; we had to wait until we were on my computer back in New York. So it wasn’t until we were back in New York and, you know, she was off on the next leg that we would see what she had captured. That was always cool – it was like Christmas.
BFM: So you were working on the film as she was doing the trip? Jillian: We were to an extent. We had such limited budget during production that we actually didn’t have money to translate everything until we finished and could raise money for post.
We were just so concerned [with] getting to each place and making sure we captured he whole thing that it kind of took precedence.
Once it was over, that’s when we started to get into [the footage]. But we would look at all of it and be like, “Oh, this one looks interesting,” but often we couldn’t understand what was being said. (laughter)
The coolest stuff was just visual, like when we saw the scene with the dolphins. Even though you don’t know what’s being said, it’s such a beautiful moment.
And then, in a way, the things that stood out to us the most were things that we didn’t even need to be able to understand.
BFM: You also traveled to numerous locations over the course of the two years that she was traveling.
Jillian: Yeah, so I met her twice in Holland; in Saint Martin; the Panama Canal; the Galapagos Islands; then, and this was totally unplanned, but I actually went on another cruising boat that just so happened to be sailing across the Pacific. At that time [the crew] was also sailing around the world. So I sailed with them with the goal or hope of at some point shooting Laura. She thought it was such a great idea too, but she thought it would be really funny to race us. And she’s such a good sailor, so even though I was in a faster boat, or what should have been a faster boat, she beat us.
And we never saw her. That was pretty funny. Then, I met her at the other end of the Pacific, The Marquesas Islands. And then I flew to Tahiti; then Darwin, Australia; Cape Town, South Africa; and then Saint Martin again when she finished [her trip].
BFM: But Laura’s family was never keen on interviewing or really speaking to the press before. Was that a big challenge you faced in the project’s inception?
Jillian: Laura always preferred when no one had any idea who she was, when they just thought she was in her early twenties sailing alone. You know, some places people did recognize her and she was always disappointed. I think she just wanted to be a regular cruiser and fit in with this world and not feel like people were treating her a certain way, because her story was well known. I think she just wanted to belong.
BFM: What challenges did you face then in getting her to agree to make the film?
Jillian: It’s interesting, because only afterward did I realize how many people were interested in wanting to tell this story.
Emily: Laura said no to Oprah!
Jillian: Yeah, it was interesting because, I had such an instinctive feeling of wanting to tell this story and to work with her, and I had this really strong idea of who she was. So I just reached out to the person I wanted to be on the other end, and that ended up being exactly who she was. You know, I just said, ‘This would be my first film as a director.’ I appealed to her more as an adventurer; it was sort of like I wanted to go on this adventure and work with [her] to tell her story. And we worked together on every part of the process – in planning it, in executing it and then she came and crashed with us in New York for a month while we were editing it.
The biggest challenge was that when we started working together her English was pretty limited. I really wanted to get to know her, and it was a more gradual process than I expected it to be. But we got closer and closer with every trip, and her English got better and better. But in the beginning I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to learn Dutch, and then I’ll be able to communicate!’ And that was a ridiculous thing to even try to do. I learned like four words.
BFM: When you were working on the film, were you working out of hostels or…?
Jillian: We would stay out on the boat with Laura at ports; just crash with her and eat what she ate. So budget was definitely the biggest challenge because when you’re making a film about something that’s unfolding as it’s happening, we always felt committed to not letting our lack of resources impact the quality of the film.
So we always tried to find creative ways to overcome our lack of funding.
Emily: Because there are times, like when she was rounding the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, that we said this is only going to happen once, so how are we going to make this happen?
BFM: So how did you get that aerial shot in the Cape of Good Hope?
Emily: We found these amazing guys who have shot for BBC and National Geographic, and they had a helicopter. We approached them and it was one of the few times we got to the location before Laura did. It was kind of hilarious, because there was this huge storm coming as Laura was coming up the cape, so we tell these guys we want to go 15 miles out to sea in this storm and we’re going to find this sailboat – we’ll get the coordinates, and you guys can plug the coordinates and we’ll go find her.
And they said, ‘Okay, I think it’s too stormy to go,’ like it was gale force winds. And so Jillian was able to send Laura a satellite text to just say, ‘Hey how does it look out there? Because here in Cape Town it’s pretty stormy and the pilot doesn’t want to go.’ And we knew that Laura was going to say, ‘Oh it’s fine!’ no matter what.
Jillian: Because she thought it would be really cool to have a helicopter flying above.
Emily: So we convinced them to take us, and it was just a wild ride. We had never been in a helicopter before.
Jillian: Yeah, fifteen miles out at sea in gale force winds and I’m telling them, “Get closer to the water!” Looking back I wonder what I was thinking! But that was a perfect example of when we really didn’t have the money to do something, but we just knew it was never going to happen again.
BFM: What did you aim to accomplish in Maidentrip?
Emily: I think we were both really inspired by Laura and wanted the film to be inspiring for other people, too. It was always important for Jill to tell Laura’s story.
Jillian: I wanted it to be true to her voice. And I think she has a really optimistic voice and presence. Even the way she processes and talks about more difficult things, I think, is just with such a sense of not only optimism, but a sense of being able to surmount any obstacle. And I think it’s really her energy, her personality that gives [Maidentrip] that sort of feel good sense.
BFM: What were you looking for audiences to get out of the film?
Jillian: For me, I like the idea that everyone takes something different from it. In a way you’re let into this really remote and extraordinary world where, you know, most of us will never sail around the world alone and see all these different places and go on this adventure.
Emily: It’s also great that she’s a young woman doing this great thing, and all of the key crew on the film were also young women, so we really just wanted to empower girls to go out and do something awesome and not get stuck in this mold that film and media typically tell you to do. I don’t think we expected the response. It’s been really overwhelming and inspiring for us that we did something that affected people so deeply. Like, this one girl came up to us and said she was just quitting her job and doing what [she had] been wanting to do [her] whole life.
Jillian: It was especially weird for me because three years ago I was reading this article in the New York Times in this little cubicle at Sundance Channel and I had this dream to make a film, and this 13-year-old girl was fighting a government to be able to pursue her dream to sail around the world on her own. It had this big effect on me where I was just like, ‘What am I doing? I have this really awesome job that I like, but I want to fight for my dream and go pursue it.’ So I guess I never expected the film to have the effect the article had on me. That was really overwhelming for me to learn, was to hear people reacting the same way I reacted to her story – that I could share that with other people.
BFM: So, what would you say was your happiest moment or a moment that stood out to you during the making of the film?
Jillian: I don’t know; there’s so many. I think in terms of production and Laura, the trip where I sailed across the Pacific and the time we spent together filming in French Polynesia was a really happy time where the filming was almost secondary to just two friends going on an adventure and exploring all these places.
Emily: Honestly, all of it. We did a lot of exploring. One of the saddest moments was when production was over. (laughter)
Jillian: We were like, ‘What, we’re just—’
Emily: ‘Going to sit in a dark room in New York for six months and just edit forever?’
Jillian: I would say in this part, last night was a total highlight.
Emily: Actually, it was really emotional to see Laura finish the trip. I cried a lot while we were filming.
Jillian: Yeah, we were all in tears. I don’t know if it hit me that she sailed around the
world alone until we were there.
Emily: She was so cavalier about it! And just seeing that there were just hordes of
people and everyone’s just making a ton of noise and screaming, cheering for her. It
was really emotional. I was so proud that she did it.
Jillian: And so many people told her she couldn’t do it. And she proved them wrong.
BFM: So what are you guys planning now? Are there new projects on the horizon?
Emily: Well, we want to be really involved in the release [of Maidentrip] and just make sure that everyone who wants to see it can.
Jillian: We also hope it has a big life in schools too.
Emily: For the immediate future, we’re still taking it around.
Jillian: And other things are sort of bubbling.
Emily: Tiny little things.
Jillian: It’s funny, we’ve been talking about how, when you make your first film you don’t realize quite how much of a commitment it is, so then with the second film you’re sort of like, ‘I have to really care about whatever this topic is—’
Emily: ‘Because it’s going to become my life.’ So, I also think we’re kind of waiting. It’s like you just come across an article and—
Jillian: You just know.