Jillian Schlesinger lets teen sailor steer the boat in ‘Maidentrip’

Documentarian Jillian Schlesinger directed "Maidentrip," about a teenager who circumnavigated the globe. Credit: First Run Features
Documentarian Jillian Schlesinger directed “Maidentrip,” about a teenager who circumnavigated the globe.
Credit: First Run Features

The documentarian Jillian Schlesinger first heard about the person who would become the subject of her debut feature, “Maidentrip,” in the news. Laura Dekker was 14 when she announced her intention to sail around the world by herself. It became an international conversation piece, with people accusing her parents of neglect and the government having to be convinced to let her do it. Schlesinger reached out to her with a long proposal for a film that would incorporate footage she would shoot as she sailed. And among the many book and TV shows and movies thrown her way, it was the one that most intrigued her.

What did you think you could bring to the story that was interesting? What most intrigued you?

It felt like her voice was missing from the conversation. It seemed really clear she had a really unique upbringing and a set of experiences and skills. It didn’t seem like there was any place for her voice in that crazy sensationalized media conversation. The idea of the film was to tell a very subjective story, which is the story of her life and her voyage around the world, exclusively from her point of view.

How involved was she in actual shape and structure of the film?

While she didn’t come to the project with any previous filmmaking experience, she was naturally gifted with a camera, and had a lot of great instincts. It was her reality we were trying to recreate on screen. I met her 10 times in the course of her journey and she came and stayed on my couch in New York during the six months of editing.

How did your working relationship work?

We would pick up the footage at every stop, in each trip. We would gather everything, but we didn’t have it translated until the very end because we didn’t have any money to do that. It was interesting: We would get the footage back to New York, then look through it, but of course we couldn’t understand anything that was in Dutch — which was actually really cool because what ended up standing out were the moments that completely transcended the language and were just universally powerful. The scene with the dolphins, for example, which seemed really beautiful even though we couldn’t understand most of what she was saying.

How much did she shoot?

She didn’t shoot that much for somebody who had a camera with them on a boat for 17 months. She shot a lot of traditional straight-to-camera diary-style updates. As the trip went on I felt her relationship with the camera really evolved in an interesting way. I made a point of staying out of that entirely. I never told her what to film or when to film or what quantity to film. That was between her and the camera. I thought it was important for that relationship to remain pure and not feel like a chore she was doing for someone else. It should be her thing. As a result, I think that relationship evolved naturally, and she started doing more experimental things with the camera.

It really does feel like it’s a film made by Laura Dekker. It’s as calm and light and optimistic as she is, and it doesn’t get bogged down in drama.

I really wanted it to feel like Laura’s story. After screenings people — particularly people who are not involved with filmmaking — have come up to me and say, “But what did YOU do?” The idea was that the director becomes invisible, to make it feel like it’s completely conceived from the subject’s point of view. For me that’s the most flattering thing that someone could say. It feels like you’re just going along on this ride with her. Even the animations on the map — the idea was it should feel seamless, like Laura just drew a map and you’re watching it.

Another filmmaker possibly would have made the film longer and dwell more on the loneliness and the longeurs. What was the decision to make it relatively fast-paced and only 80 minutes?

I had a really strong desire for it to be accessible to people of all ages, and especially to reach young women. That was the audience I was thinking most about when I conceived the film. That was part of the reason I chose to work with Penny [TK] as an editor, because my instinct is make everything REALLY long. The movies I tend to love have really long takes and move very slowly. I read this interview with David O. Russell and he said, “I can’t go back and watch ‘Spanking the Monkey’ (his first film) because every shot is way too long.” I think that helped me dial back my need to make every shot longer. It was like, that is something you do on your first film that you really regret later. So I went with that.


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