Visions du Réel review: Sapelo (National Comp)

Visions du Réel review: Sapelo (National Comp)

A nostalgic portrait of African-American Geechee culture on the isolated Sapelo Island, Georgia, focuses on the elderly Cornelia Bailey, spokesperson of the dwindling community, and her two adopted young sons, who represent her hopes for regeneration. 


Two young boys are playing outside, fishing. Along the waterfront, they’re throwing their nets, checking their lines. One of them cuts a finger, the other tells him not to be a ‘wimp’ about it, then looks at the camera, thinks for a moment, and says ‘’scuse my language’.


They walk away, over grassy lands, with oaks and pine trees in the distance, nature as far as the eye can see. They’re brothers, we soon learn, and that’s not a surprise. It’s an idyllic, old-fashioned ideal of childhood.


But all is not well in paradise. Sapelo, where we are, is an 11-mile long barrier island in Georgia, USA, on the Atlantic Coast. After the American Civil War and the end of slavery, former slaves and their descendants created communities here and all along the coast, calling themselves Gullah and Geechee (also featured in Julie Dash’s pioneering fiction film Daughters of the Dust, 1991). 


Isolated Sapelo Island, only reachable by boat and plane, retains much of its specific culture, with its West African roots. But the population is dwindling. Of the former five Geechee communities on Sapelo, only one remains. Hog Hammock has about seventy, mostly older inhabitants. There is no longer a school on the island – the two brothers have to get a bus, then a boat to the mainland.


Director Nick Brandestini (Darwin, 2011; Children of the Arctic, 2014) focuses on the elderly Cornelia Walker Bailey, best-known spokesperson for the culture. Saltwater Geechee, they call themselves here (as opposed to the Freshwater Geechee, further inland). 


“Our community was never integrated,” she says, with obvious pride. “We’re binyas,” she explains, “I’ve been here, so I know.” She tells the filmmaker, and thereby us: “You would be a comya.” Which means, as far as she’s concerned: welcome to come as a guest, but not to stay. 


“Cornelia was saying, ‘I know who belongs on Sapelo and if you’re white, you don’t belong,’” says an equally old, white scientist, who has been studying the local marshes since 1973 – he smiles, with obvious respect and understanding for her position, but he is building a house here. “We called them the Mud People,” says she – and also smiles. But she’s adamant, as she told the New York Times in 2008: “On the verge of sounding racist – which I have been accused of, which I don’t give a hoot – I would rather my community be all black.”


Which is one reason she and her husband adopted some twenty children over the years: “The selfish part of me wants them to stay [on the island], because I want them to help keep my community going.” 


This includes the two boys we met earlier, JerMarkest (called Marcus) and Johnathan. 


The two are very different. “One is a follower, one is a leader, but together they can be hell on two wheels,” sighs Bailey. Marcus especially gets into trouble – and although he’s disarmingly honest to the filmmakers about his anger issues, things only seem to get worse. Sometimes the boys spend time on the mainland, with their biological mother, allowing Cornelia Bailey some much-needed rest. But the mainland has drugs, and shootings, and is not necessarily a better place for young children.


Brandestini and co-director Taylor Segrest mention these and other structural issues – such as the new houses being built on the island by outsiders to the community, or the boys’ absent fathers, both missed and resented – but don’t dwell on them. They leave it up to the viewer to ponder the obvious connections between the introverted island community, the poor and unsafe black neighbourhoods on the mainland, and the legacy of slavery. And to interpret politically, what the documentary presents personally.


The filmmakers prefer focusing on the island, on Cornelia Bailey, and on nature. Long drone shots, from between the trees or from way up high, drift through a world which, at times, seems to be outside of time. 


The music by Michael Brook (whose previous soundtracks include An Inconvenient Truth, 2006, and Brooklyn, 2015) is gentle, forceful and melancholic, like the ocean waves in the background. 


In voice-over, actress Bahni Turpin speaks as Cornelia Bailey, telling us about her childhood – stories of ghosts and traditions which are already ancient history (partly based on her 2001 autobiography God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man). 


The sense of loss and the passage of time are palpable. But Cornelia Bailey doesn’t bend, and neither does the oak tree which as a young girl she sat under, midnight after midnight, until she would receive the dream which, acknowledged by the elders, would let her be baptized into the church – a combination of Christian and West African rituals. 


The filmmakers keep returning to this massive, beautiful oak, including during one hellish storm, which it withstands with ease. It’s still there, today, for the boys to find shelter under.


Even as Gullah-Geechee cuisine is gaining mainstream recognition, and the traditional Gullah-Geechee musical form of the Ring Shout (‘feet got to tappin’, hands started clappin’, and a stick began bangin’ on the floor’, as Bailey describes it) is kept alive by modern-day performers (the McIntosh County Shouters, featured in the documentary), it’s clear that nothing will remain the same. 


It is easy, even inevitable to imagine, in twenty or thirty years, JerMarkest and Johnathan watching this documentary, longing for their youth on Sapelo Island, hard though it often was. In this sense, the filmmakers have succeeded in something quite extraordinary: documenting, and sharing with us now, these boys’ future nostalgia.