First coming: Davina Lee’s debut film

Katherine Atkinson finds out how debut filmmaker Davina Lee’s artistic vision was shaped by growing up in a creative household in St Lucia

Actor Jason Stifflet in a scene from the movie. Photograph by Clayton RhuleActor McDonald Dixon in a scene from the movie. Photograph by Clayton RhuleDavina Lee. Photograph by Clayton Rhule

Davina Lee is editing an episode of the bimonthly Carib Vision TV programme Smile Patrol, which she shot earlier in the week. The host has revealed to the unsuspecting subject that she has been nominated by her colleagues and selected for a day of pampering. Lee focuses on a frame of the woman’s face during the big reveal. Her expression is one of bewildered joy. I ask Lee if she likes this work. She has just returned from a months-long whirlwind of conferences, screenings, and premieres.

“You know what?” she confesses, “I do.”

Lee, thirty-four years old, is both an artist and a pragmatist, and she recognises that while she’d prefer to retreat from the world to focus on her next film project, there are bills to be paid. When she screened her first narrative film, The Coming of Org, to a home crowd in St Lucia, it was all worth it, she says. “There was a lot of pressure. I was excited, but nervous too — what if it wasn’t any good? But overall the feedback was encouraging.”

The Coming of Org is based on a short story by St Lucian writer John Robert Lee, who happens also to be Davina Lee’s father. She recalls: “The story intrigued me. I read it at a young age and couldn’t get it out of my head. It was essentially about how, at some point, we all find ourselves face-to-face with our inner monster. I wanted to put it out there visually.” The thirty-minute film illuminates that moment of confrontation for three characters whose lives are loosely connected. One character is transformed for good, another recognises — with regret — missed chances, and the other seemingly learns nothing.

The film is richly rendered with saturated colours, offset by a soundtrack of St Lucia’s Kweyol and both original and folk music, with some strong acting performances. “I wanted to make a St Lucian film to reflect the people,” Lee says, “but also the landscape, the music, the language, everything. That was deliberate on my part — to make it as St Lucian as possible.” That sensory tribute is evident.

Lee wrote the script (developed at an incubator sponsored by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation), and shot, directed, and edited Org herself. When asked if this was a budgetary or artistic decision, she laughs and says, “I am a control freak.” She continues thoughtfully, “I think that is something I would do differently next time. I had no distance from it, and I couldn’t really judge and see exactly where I was at. I think the next time around, I won’t edit; maybe I won’t shoot.” She hesitates. “I can’t guarantee that. I’m such a control freak.” Her advice to other budding filmmakers? “Don’t compromise. I compromised this time around — like, for example, you couldn’t get an actor for a certain scene, or you couldn’t get the location you wanted, so you said, OK, let’s just change this up.”

Lee grew up with not only a writer father but a photographer mother (both of whom have cameos in the film), so she’s enjoyed the benefit of an environment in which art was not a rarefied pursuit, but a daily commitment. Poetry readings and art exhibitions were part of her childhood, and her interest in St Lucia’s cultural canon and the narratives told by its artists was cultivated early.

Before The Coming of Org, Lee experimented with shorts that incorporated the poetry of Kendel Hippolyte, Derek Walcott, and her father. She used the camera in her laptop to shoot them. The format allowed her a lot of liberty and built her confidence. “It is up to you how you interpret. They [the writers] might write a story, but I visualise it. Because it was ‘experimental’ I felt free to do more with it,” she says.

In the meantime, commercial work pays the bills. When Lee returned to St Lucia after completing her BFA at Miami International University of Art and Design, she cut her teeth on TV shows, music videos, and commercials before even attempting her first short. She doesn’t regret this. “Commercial work was great for dealing with timelines and budgets and that sort of stuff — it is an important part of film-making.” Lee attended the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. “It was somewhat of an education, in terms of its being all business. There were four thousand films trying to be sold in the whole market place. I was a little naïve, but I made use of all the seminars on co-production and financing, and met with consultants.”

The time is right for Caribbean filmmaking, she feels. “There are young people springing up, making films on their cell phones, digital cameras. The industry is opening up. Things are more accessible.” She shot her own film with a DSLR camera, and says digital technology has democratised filmmaking. “The future looks so bright. There is so much happening in the region. Frances-Anne Solomon” — the Canada-based Trinidadian director, founder of Caribbean Tales — “has really connected Caribbean filmmakers through her festivals and incubators.”

Next on the agenda? Lee’s first feature-length film is in development. She’s reluctant to divulge too much, saying only that it will deal with anxiety disorders and loss. “I want to be able to show texture and feel and vibrancy and colour,” she says, “what the Caribbean is really like — not just the beaches, but the gritty side.”