Monica Uszerowicz (Filmmaker) reviews Dadli—a short documentary portrait of Antigua—and interviews Shabier Kirchner about this directorial debut.
[. . .] Tiquan, the thirteen-year-old narrator of cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s directorial debut, Dadli, has places to hide, the way teenagers need to. “I go far in the country,” he says. “Hunt, get high — nobody troubles me.” Dadli, a brief and searing documentary portrait of Antigua, where Kirchner grew up, is as short as Tiquan is young, but it provides plenty time to meet him. Kirchner evinces, slowly, the involuntary pauses taken, like breaths, in the perfunctory haze of the day — the way you might remember, long after the fact, the brief incredulity in a friend’s eyes during a conversation, or the song on the radio that hour.
We see Tiquan glowing in the in-between: his face in dark silhouette, illuminated like a half-moon. On a donkey, a stud in his ear as gold as the light yellowing the whites of his eyes. We see his friends in salmon-colored shirts, their cars nestled along the seawall that separates The Point, Antigua, from St. John’s, the cruise-ship capital and the actual one; babies, brows furrowed as their eyes adjust, rapidly, to the camera fixed on them. The sound is always thick — errant flies, the cavernous swoop of a seagull, inexplicable twinkling. Nights in the subtropics are like that, buzzing even in their quietude. Humidity and water insulate electricity, and you feel the voltage of everything; Dadli infers and often shows it: the sea, the curdling stovetops, the midday sun on a sleep-worn pillow.
Kirchner, who shot Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen and was recently listed as one of Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch 2018, didn’t mean to make Dadli. It was early 2017, and he was working the second unit for Benh Zeitlin’s upcoming film, Wendy, in Monserrat, Barbuda, and Antigua. He hadn’t shot on 16mm in a while; when Kodak generously provided him with two cans to shoot test footage, Kirchner drove around the island with his close friend and first AC, Kali Riley, and his father, Bert, an underwater photographer, documenting what they saw.
It was only when Kirchner showed the developed footage — silent and merely intended to test the light — to Elise Tyler, who eventually became co-director, that the two realized it might be a film of its own. “I only ever want to shoot the Caribbean on celluloid,” Kirchner tells me over text. “In my eyes it deserves nothing else.” Editor Diego Siragna compiled, he says, “a complete soundscape from scratch during the edit”; Gabrielle Dumon of Le Bureau Paris did post-finishing. “It gave a really interesting experience. The disconnect of what you see and what you hear aren’t the same time and space. It all feels a bit odd.” Ocean sounds mingle with street scenes. Crickets screech in places where there might’ve been none at all.
A year after the initial shoot, Kirchner sent his father, who still lives in Antigua, to find Tiquan, who’d until then been only an incidental repeat character on the exposure footage, and rigged a car with a zoom microphone. There, Tiquan spoke about his pet donkey (Mary), his birthday, his summer job giving horseback tours to white folks from the cruise ships, who insist his five-euro price is too expensive; the film was then shaped based on his words. That Kirchner captured Tiquan with his sisters, who he then discussed in the car, is pure coincidence; a sunset, bright pink and simmering at the film’s end, becomes a good backdrop for Tiquan’s monologue about a dream. Ahead of the film’s debut at the upcoming Third Horizon Film Festival in Miami, I spoke with Kirchner over the phone about the serendipity behind Dadli, the dreamiest of accidents. [. . .]
Filmmaker: You grew up in Antigua, and your dad was an underwater photographer. Did you have a relationship to his work?
Kirchner: Yes — my dad, Bert Kirchner, used to develop his own Super 8mm and 16mm film, and his 35mm photography, in our basement. We would have archives of his stuff everywhere. I think, on a subconscious level, I was surrounded by it, soaking it all in. It taught me how to articulate myself, because I saw how my dad spoke through images. I can be a terrible communicator when I’m talking about my emotions, so I think that’s also a way to help do that. My dad did a bunch of personal stuff, too; he ended up shooting a bit of Duran Duran’s “Rio” video in the 1980s. That was surprising to find out — it was one of those low-key things he did in life and didn’t tell anybody.
Filmmaker: So it’s great that your directorial debut takes place where you grew up. Had you always planned to film something there?
Kirchner: As a filmmaker and director, I only want to tell Caribbean stories. I’m a cinematographer by trade and by passion; it’s something I’ll always do, and it will inform me, on a global level, about telling stories with different stories, different people. But as a director, I only want to make films in the Caribbean — not just Antigua, but the West Indies in general. There are so many untold stories, especially in regards to the way the world views the West Indies on a global platform. It isn’t totally accurate in cinema; a lot of it features stereotypes or gets taken for granted. There’s always been this bone in me to go back to the Caribbean and tell a story there. I didn’t quite know what that story was going to be. Dadli, specifically, was a complete accident. [. . .]