“I Only Want to Tell Caribbean Stories”: DP Shabier Kirchner on His Directorial Debut, the Short Film Dadli
I read a book on architecture and design in the subtropics, once, a long time ago, that described the region as inherently cozy. Palm trees and big-leafed plants, it said, are made for hiding cozily; enough of them, bundled together, will look like home.
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 shot a film called Memoirs of the Blue a long time ago, then moved to New York and shot some independent films. Are you relatively self-taught?
Kirchner: I’m almost one hundred percent self-taught, really. I did have some background—at 18, I did a program in Vancouver, where I wanted to learn about cinema, how to make it. It ended up being a foundation for a bunch of different art studies, a fraction of which included video. I learned a little bit there, but not much. Instead of finishing the course, four other classmates and I dropped out, thinking: “Let’s save the rest of this tuition money and go make something.” That was the cornerstone, I guess, the beginning of my education.
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.
Kirchner: I was on the set of Benh Zeitlin’s new film, Wendy, in the Caribbean. It was an awesome, insane production, shot in Antigua, Montserrat, and Barbuda. I’d known Benh for a while, and when he started crewing up for the film, he hired cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who asked me if I was interested in doing some of the second unit for the movie. Sturla told me we were shooting on 16mm, but I hadn’t shot 16mm in a while, so I wanted to familiarize myself with it. I called my friend and first AC, Kali Riley, and told her I wanted to rent a 16mm camera and get two cans of film, and I’d fly her down to Antigua to shoot some exposure tests.
Filmmaker: So Dadli happened because you were readjusting to shooting in 16mm.
Kirchner: Exactly. We didn’t have any sound. It was just me, Kali, and my dad, driving around, shooting a bunch of stuff, testing exposures. There was this place in Antigua, The Point, that’s always attracted me. It’s a really fascinating neighborhood. Not only was it a slave burial ground in the 1700s, it was one of the first places in Antigua where slaves started a revolt that led to a big uprising. It’s one of the only tenement yard systems left in Antigua. On top of that — being one of the poorest areas in the island — it shares walls with St. John’s, the capital and a duty-free port for cruise ships.
It’s an insane juxtaposition: this extremely poor area that’s so rich and full of Antigua’s history, and this cruise ship district where the island survives off tourism, where cruise ships come in and unload tourists who trample across the island, drive on the outskirts of these neighborhoods, take photos, and leave. I always thought it was an interesting example of modern-day colonialism.
Filmmaker: Tiquan, who’s narrating most of the film, has a summer job doing horseback tours for cruise ship tourists.
Kirchner: They offer whatever they can to tourists to make ends meet. But cruise ship tours never spend any money on islands. They get off, do a taxi or boat tour, and get on the ship again. A lot of this demographic of the island has never really seen the money. Tiquan would charge very little money, and he’d still get negotiated down from that. It’s wild.
We shot there for two days and met Tiquan — I didn’t think anything of it at the time. It was only after we’d come to the end of shooting Wendy that I showed my friend Elise Tyler — the co-director — the footage, and she said, “We should do something with this.” She and I and the editor, Diego Siragna, a dear friend of mine I met in Antigua, strung the images together. It wasn’t until a year later that we got Tiquan to add a voiceover. I was in New York and got my dad to find Tiquan and rig a car with a zoom mic. We got on speakerphone with him and just had him talk in a stream-of-consciousness: about life, Antigua, what he likes, what he doesn’t like, what he dreams about. That was all done over the phone and plugged into the short film, and we structured the edit according to what he talked about.
Filmmaker: So it’s coincidence that you got footage of him with his sisters, and then he talked about them in the car with you and your dad?
Kirchner: One hundred percent coincidence. I shot only a little bit of footage of Tiquan; there were so many people in the area, and I had friends there, so I only really met Tiquan while revisiting the footage. I had to go out after that and find out who this boy was in the flesh.
Filmmaker: How did you meet him in the first place?
Kirchner: I have a few friends in the neighborhood, and we were shooting, documentary-style, whatever we could: interesting light, or a person we’d started talking to. You can’t just go in there and shoot. This is their home, and they take their community extremely seriously. To be allowed in to shoot was a privilege. Tiquan was one of those kids who engaged with the camera — he just rolled up on a donkey; the shot with him on the donkey is one of the first times I’d seen him. I wish I had more of a story of how I met this boy and learned about him, but it wasn’t like that. I learned a lot about him after I’d shot the footage, which was an interesting process.
Filmmaker: In one scene, there’s a massive, gutted building in a forest. What is that? Tiquan was talking about a place where he hangs out, but since his dialogue came after you shot the film, maybe it wasn’t a place he visited at all.
Kirchner: That’s Antigua’s old sugar factory. It’s been abandoned for many years; I used to go there as a kid. It was like Tarkovsky’s Stalker. You could completely lose yourself there, let the imagination would run wild. I always loved that place. Visually, I’ve been shooting it for years, and I knew I had to shoot it on 16. It’s a coincidence that Tiquan was talking about running away from home and finding a place where he could just let loose. It wasn’t that specific place for him, but I’m assuming it was similar. What he described was what the sugar factory was for me.
Filmmaker: How old were you when you left Antigua?
Kirchner: My dad is German, so I used to travel back and forth every year. I lived in Antigua until I was about 21, but in between, I would zip out to Germany for a couple months or just travel somewhere else. There were gaps in it, including going to school in Canada, but I would always come back. I officially moved to New York five and a half years ago. That was the first time I picked up and said, “I’m going to choose filmmaking.”
Filmmaker: Was Wadadli Productions founded for the purpose of releasing this film?
Kirchner: No, Wadadli Films was started years before I made Dadli. It’s a production company my dad and I created in Antigua. Rathaus is a new collective we started in New York City, who I’m developing my new film with.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you why you kept this film as a short, but I suppose that was simply the footage you got.
Kirchner: The question of “why not longer” is really interesting. There was never really an agenda behind making this. But after we’d strung the footage together and before we finished it, there was a moment — I’d cooked up this entire treatment, these vignettes and moments that would paint a longer mosaic of what it’s like to live in Antigua. It was just this moment I realized I wanted to finish this as a short, and just put it out there.
Filmmaker: What does the title refer to?
Kirchner: Antigua is actually a name given to the island by Christopher Columbus, after his boat. Its native, indigenous name is from the Arawaks, and they called it Wadadli. Growing up, we shortened it and called it “Dadli.” One of the strains of the weed was called “Dadli” too.
Filmmaker: You were both cinematographer and director for Dadli. How did you toggle between these two roles? I’m curious if there are elements of being a cinematographer that feel naturally directorial.
Kirchner: Yeah, I use the camera to help articulate myself. Shooting and directing were one and the same for this project, because I was trying to use images to tell the story — nothing but images. There are films that use a narrative or characters to move forward, and there are some that use the camera to do it. This is one of those pieces that uses the camera to help push us through this stream-of-consciousness.