For Laura Dekker, the new documentary “Maidentrip” is an audiovisual record of her unique achievement: in 2012, she became the youngest person to sail solo around the world. For Jillian Schlesinger, it’s another kind of maiden voyage. It’s the first documentary feature for the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based filmmaker, and it took quite a bit of international navigation to make it.
Dekker, who was born on a boat in New Zealand during her parents’ seven-year global voyage and after their divorce, grew up with her father in the Netherlands, sailing on her own since the age of 6, announced her intentions in 2009. People called her crazy and child protective services put the trip on hold when it accused her parents of endangerment in a lawsuit that dragged on for a year before the Dekkers ultimately won.
Finally, in August 2010, Dekker, then 14, set out from Gibraltar in her 38-foot sailboat Guppy, with no crew or follow-boat. In addition to boat-mounted cameras, she had a hand-held videocam to document her days, thoughts, and feelings during the voyage. Schlesinger met up with Dekker at various ports to continue filming, culminating in a triumphant finish in St. Maarten after 17 months at sea. A few weeks before “Maidentrip’s” Jan. 17 release, Schlesinger gave MNN insights into both her and Dekker’s adventures.
MNN: How did you first hear about Laura and her quest?
Jillian Schlesinger: I first read about Laura in an op-ed piece in the New York Times with the headline "How Young is Too Young to Sail Around the World Alone?" This was not a question I had ever considered, but it caught my attention and I was extremely intrigued by the particular details of Laura's story — her unconventional upbringing at sea, close relationship with her father, and her determination, against harsh media criticism and government opposition, to pursue such a bold dream. There was so much chatter at the time about the story, and every possible point of view seemed to be represented with one glaring exception. Laura's perspective seemed all but missing from the conversation, so I reached out to her with the idea of collaborating on a film that would allow her to tell her story from her unique point of view. It took a few tries and a long personal letter with a detailed illustrated proposal for the film to get her attention. Then I took a solo bike trip across Holland to go meet Laura and talk about doing the film about a month before she got permission to do the trip and embarked on the creative journey to transform her life and adventures into a film.
What captivated you about her and her story?
I loved the idea of a powerful young woman protagonist in a genre so overwhelmingly dominated by male heroes. Laura struck me as the perfect non-fiction counterpart to the new wave of badass young women in fictional films and I thought her story would be incredibly inspiring to women (and men) of all ages. I also felt there was something really beautiful about the universally relatable adolescent journey captured so intimately in such a remote and extraordinary environment.
You weren't allowed to film her yourself at sea because she had to be alone — you had to trust that she could, and would, do it. Did that worry you?
Not at all. I considered that one of the most creatively exciting aspects of the project. It required a lot of trust in Laura and respect for her as a filmmaker and collaborator. I never pressured her to film more or film certain things while at sea. That was between her and the camera. I think letting that relationship evolve on its own without intervention was essential to making something genuinely intimate that people could connect with on a personal level.
What kind of filming instructions did you give her? Were you pleased with what you saw?
I observed Laura's natural talent with the camera the first time we met and knew giving any sort of instruction would be a mistake. It was always very exciting to collect the latest footage each time I went to meet Laura at stops along her route. I was especially delighted by how her relationship with the camera evolved over the journey. At the beginning it was a lot more straight-to-camera traditional updates. By the Indian Ocean, Laura's approach to filming became much more daring and experimental, and I thought that was cool, since it wasn't something we discussed or that I influenced at all.
How many hours of footage were there to go through? Was editing a daunting task?
All told, we had a little over 100 hours between what Laura shot and we shot. I enjoyed the editing process a lot. We started by cutting the physical journey around the world and then weaving in the backstory and emotional narrative. The process was helped a lot by having Laura in on it for a bit. She crashed on my couch in New York for a month right in the middle of the edit. Given that our goal was to tell Laura's story from her point of view, having her there to weigh in felt really essential.
Filmmaker Jillian Schlesinger
How often did you meet up with Laura during the voyage? Was that a logistical nightmare to coordinate?
I met up with Laura in the Netherlands, St. Maarten, Panama, the Galapagos, took an unplanned trip across the Pacific from there on another sailboat, met up on the other side in French Polynesia, then met Laura a couple more times in Australia, South Africa, and at the finish in St. Maarten. This required staying really nimble and flexible about timing, which was often really complicated to coordinate with my freelance work schedule in New York. I realized quickly that it was actually much more efficient and financially wise to book one-way tickets. This also gave me the flexibility to do things like sail across an ocean when the opportunity arose.
Laura learned a lot from the experience. What did you learn? What is the takeaway for the audience?
I think the takeaways for everyone are different, and I love that. I do get especially excited when people experience the film as a sort of personal call to action, to live according to one's true nature, to pursue a deeply held dream that has perhaps been lying dormant for many years. I didn't know the film would have that impact but that's how I experienced first reading about Laura's story in the New York Times — in a way, it was the catalyst I needed to go do the thing I truly wanted to do in life, which was to make movies. For the film to have a similar effect on people is emotional for me and very gratifying.
What does Laura think of the film? What is she up to now?
I believe Laura is very proud of the film and the way it has been received by audiences and critics. On a more personal level though, I don't think she's crazy about the attention it brings. She is now living on her own in New Zealand, doing a bit of traveling and speaking about her experience. She is also plotting for her next adventure.