"Saints", Dieter Deswarte, 2016. All rights reserved.“Once an airplane lands on the strip, our isolation will be… well, I guess, pretty much over. We will finally be linked into the big world.”
Saints begins with an excerpt from a radio broadcast, buzzing over a lengthy shot of the sprawling South Atlantic, the endless, choppy mass that surrounds the volcanic island of Saint Helena. Tony ‘Sidewinder’ Leo, the venerable presenter of a weekly show on Saint FM Community Radio, is addressing the ‘Saints’, the residents of the island, who are also the namesake of this new documentary from Dieter Deswarte.
It is these people – the dwindling yet spirited Saint Helenians – who are at the heart of Saints, which is a succinct, emotive and highly successful attempt to amplify their views and voices on a life-changing subject: the construction of an international airport at Prosperous Bay Plain on the east coast of their windswept island.
The airport, subsidised by the Department for International Development, will have a far-reaching impact on this tiny British Overseas Territory, currently accessible only by sea. Saints excels at capturing the complexity of this momentous occasion, cutting through the rhetoric of development to a very human side of the globalisation process.
Exhibiting a colourful collection of testimonies from locals, Deswarte sketches an alternative story of the new airport, a long-running and somewhat controversial project that promises to end Saint Helena’s chronic isolation from the wider world. In idiosyncratic accents, the Saints speak earthily of their experiences of this detachment, of their hopes and fears for the future of their homeland. Their stories are set against beautifully-framed, intimate cinematography that allows us to soak up the finer details of their extraordinary lives, but also to recognise the many points of convergence with our own.
Saints portrays a place that “feels as familiar as it does outlandish.” For me, this is embodied in the fragments of Saint Helena’s colonial past (which, technically speaking, still continues today). Cars and trucks driving on the left, three-pronged plug sockets, Union Jacks accompanying God Save the Queen, street signs like those you might see in the Sussex countryside – Saint Helena has inherited many traits from its mother country, and Deswarte ensures that this uneven relationship is not forgotten as he delves into the local community on the eve of the airport’s opening.
In the first third of Saints, we see a tranquil society set amongst a jagged and fertile environment, which appears to be ceaselessly battered by waves and winds. Lingering shots expose the distant lives of the Saints. We see routine, ritual and celebration amongst the sharpened beauty of their surroundings. We see possessions, ephemera, tools and technology, which all seem gilded and precious when considering the difficulty of importing anything to Saint Helena; for decades, this has been the job of the last working Royal Mail Ship, the St Helena, which takes five days to reach Cape Town on its shortest regular voyage.
This picture of a isolated, down-to-earth community is checked as hints are dropped of the impending upheaval. The sunshine and luscious green palette periodically give way to clouds and charcoal when we are shown glimpses of the ongoing construction project at Prosperous Bay Plain, where over seven million cubic metres of earth have been removed to clear space for the runaway. In their testimonies, residents start to speak of feeling powerless and leaderless, of losing agency to their “masters” or to “the highest bidder”. Vulnerable to the blunt edges of the market, the Saints are concerned for their livelihoods and their unique natural environment.
It’s not that the Saints are in denial. They recognise the importance of the airport to their troubled economy, along with the deserved recognition their island will receive from an influx of tourism. In their interviews they come across as proud and protective of their homeland, dismayed over its recent decline and eager to secure its future. Often, they long for the outside world with all of its opportunities. The airport could help reunite ruptured families and bring to Saint Helena the wealth, opportunity and connectivity that so many of us already enjoy.
But equally, and justly, the community is fearful of the consequences. Who will benefit most from tourism and economic change? Who will be left behind? Will Saint Helena’s flora and fauna – which represent 30% of all biodiversity across the UK and its dependent territories – be adversely affected? In one scene, as rare, centuries-old plants are examined in a National Trust lab, Rebecca Cairns-Wicks points to the anxiety of a shrinking, ageing population that isn’t being listened to. “The island is facing the potential impacts of a new phase of development, and you haven’t got enough Saints as leaders, because they’re not here.”
Saints leaves us with the overwhelming sense that the locals have had little agency in this transformative project. This is modernisation from above. We are reminded of a dichotomy familiar in the postcolonial world: the fragility of voiceless local societies and ecosystems against the inexorable tide of globalisation and development.
Perhaps disappointingly, Saints never grapples with the heart of this existential question, which I see paralleled in so many other technological and infrastructural initiatives under that elusive banner of ‘development’. Ever since their beginning under the decolonisation policies of the Macmillan government, the ‘winds of change’ have continued to blow across the old British empire, heralding modernisation, independence and self-sufficiency for the colonies, but often without regard for local voices. Finally these winds have reached distant Saint Helena, and not even the Saints can be sure of what will come next.
But for now, the winds are in fact postponing change rather than carrying it. As it emerged earlier this month, Saint Helena’s constant gales have been deemed a safety risk for commercial flights and the opening of its now-completed airport has been delayed.
Until a solution to the threat of wind shear has been found, Saint Helenian society must hold its breath for perhaps the most significant turning point in its 500-year history. Dietar Deswarte has made the anticipation and cautious optimism of the Saints as palpable as the feeling of isolation that pervades their island in this intriguing film. He has given them a much-needed voice in the face of this upheaval, and we are left hoping dearly that it will be listened to.
Saints is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival on 25 June 2016.