Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Caitlin Durlak – “Dropstones”

Caitlin Durlak is an award-winning Canadian filmmaker whose non-fiction work has spanned media such as web series, short film, feature film, and VR storytelling. Her short film “Persistence of Vision” premiered at the 2015 Images Festival. where it won prizes for best local film and best student film, and was also awarded Best Short Film at the Air Canada En Route Film Festival. In addition to directing, Durlak produced her first feature-length documentary, “Mermaids,” directed by Ali Weinstein, which was made in association with the Super Channel and premiered at Hot Docs in 2017.

“Dropstones” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

CD: “Dropstones” is poetic mid-length documentary that takes place on the remote Fogo Island off Newfoundland’s coast. It’s an incredibly intimate fly-on-the-wall family portrait that follows a matriarch, Sonya, over a year, shortly after she has returned to the home she once yearned to escape. She brings her two young boys, Sean and Luke, to learn the resilience that she feels comes from Fogo Island’s freedom and community.

The film immerses us in the unique rhythms of life on Fogo Island, illuminating both the hardship and fulfillment that come with calling this singular place home.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

CD: Visually, the island is captured in time, and it’s easy to romanticize what life must be like when visiting as a tourist and taking in the stunning landscapes. I worked on the island briefly and became friends with some of the women who were born and raised in this remote place. As we shared stories, I realized their lives were more complex then I had first perceived. Yet despite how challenging the weather can be, limited work opportunities, and the disconnection you feel from the rest of Canada, everyone I met was proud to call this place home.

There was a sense of confidence and belonging that came with being from this place, and I was in awe. Specifically the women from this place learned a type of resilience that is often overlooked, as the fishermen get most of the attention when it comes to films being made there or novel written about the place. I wanted to share what it was like 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 they watch the film?

CD: I want them to think about how place can shape who we are and how important our surroundings are in forming identity. I want viewers to see the complex realities of living in a remote place and celebrate the freedom that can come from it.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

CD: I believe the biggest challenge as a documentary filmmaker who is telling a story about an individual is making sure that you represent them and their lives in a way that is authentic. For me, this means making sure you are clear about your intentions and to give space for the people in your film to see the work as it is being made, and providing space for them to give feedback before it is complete.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

CD: I was very fortunate in that I wanted to make a film where I had final creative say, without a broadcaster type jumping in and shaping the story, so I went the arts council route and was able to get the “holy trinity” of 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 on the film 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 of the film, so I was willing to work for less.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

CD: There was no one moment that inspired me. I just always wanted to film things, even as a kid. It was very natural to me, and it wasn’t until one day that someone pointed it out to me that I realized it was something I could do. And then I started seeing other women who were also making films almost entirely on their own, and that became a huge inspiration for me. It was that classic realization of, “If they can do it, so can I.”

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

CD: First day of doc film school they told us that being a documentary filmmaker was an expensive hobby. This was both the best and worst advice I received.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

CD: There is always going to be a stage when you are making your film where you think it is complete shit, and you have hit rock bottom. When this happens I always remind myself that this is normal, that I will work past it, and I need to be be patient with myself. When you normalize feeling bad, it just becomes a stage of the creative process, like you are checking off all the boxes towards completing your work.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

CD: Naming my favorite is too hard. One that comes to mind quickly is Maren Ade’s film “Toni Erdmann.” The film is so simple, in that it’s about a relationship between two people, but it goes to these fantastical places that still feel so authentic to me. I am very different from the female protagonist of the film, yet I could really relate to her – sometimes I felt like the film was reading my mind.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

CD: I completed the film during the pandemic and it was the cherry on top of feeling isolated during the process of making this film almost entirely on my own. During the first year of the pandemic, I did not feel creative, and it was hard to get any work done. I was happy if I completed more than two hours of work in a day. Now, something has changed, and I am working on projects with collaborators and I feel like I am part of a community again, even if we are never in the same room.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

CD: I think we need to change some of the old guard who are gatekeepers in this industry, to people or groups of people with more contemporary and progressive viewpoints, who see the world as it exists now and are activity trying to understand how to move forward.

In the documentary community, I believe we need to better understand who has the right to tell what stories, and we need to be able to raise our hands when we make mistakes, and create dialogue around that, especially white folks. I have heard from my BIPOC friends in this industry that they would like more white folks to stand up for them — that they are tired of being the only instigators of change.

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