Monday, April 20, 2015

Keeping up with The Benjamins

As I continue to work on the script with a goal of finishing it by the end of the month, there was a missing piece in my research. I have researched the owners of the house from the very beginning tracing them all the way back to 1777, tracing some of the owners back to Africa and the areas that they came from. But my house was owned by the same family for almost 100 years, starting in 1920, the Benjamins, and I didn't know much about them. I had the name and phone number of Earl Benjamin that I had obtained from the lawyer that represented them when I purchased the property. I had waited to call them, until last week. It was an interesting conversation.

 Mr. Benjamin left St. Croix many years ago as a child, around 10 years old in the 1940's, and like many Virgin Islanders went to NY with family. His memories of St. Croix are understandably limited. He said most of his family moved from the island and believes he has one cousin who resides in Frederiksted. He remembered spending time between my house on 18B and another house on Hill or Market St. where he lived. His grandmother lived in my house and he said he spent his early years back and forth between the two properties. He talked about having limited opportunities in St. Croix and that the move to the states had benefited their family.

The house was owned in 1920 by his grandfather, then passed to his father and then passed to him, his mother and siblings.  He said that the last family members who lived in the house were is grandmother and his aunt who was caring for her. After they both died the house was rented, and then started to fall into disrepair as the gaps became bigger between tenants. I'll have to look into my notes again to place when the fire took place. But the lawyer told me that it was a struggle to keep the building boarded up and the vagrants and drug addicts out. The building burned as a result of the one of the addicts, like many of the small wooden houses that are abandoned. I suspect the Benjamin story is not unique to our town. All we have to do is look around and wonder how many of these buildings are owned by family who has moved away and the relatives no longer have interest in the building or there is no clear title. I hope that this is something that we can address. It's critical for the town to move forward.

Friday, April 10, 2015

It's about the house, it was always about the house

Just came from a meeting with the historical consultant on the project to review a very rough outline/draft of the script. George Tyson has been essential with helping to keep me accurate, not making leaping inferences, keeping everything close to what we know from the records. It's finally beginning to come together and make real sense and what I came away with from today's meeting was this:

1. The story is not so much about the neighborhood, but the house. It's always been about the house, hence the title "The House That FREEDOM Built". The house anchors the renovation, the people who lived there and the neighborhood, it literally and figuratively "houses" the story.

2.The three African women who owned my house were magnificent. Magic. Super. Heroines. Every year the Danish government had to import 300-400 new Africans to offset the fact that the ones they brought here were dying at such high rates. The cane fields can accurately be described as killing fields. And to think that these women survived and endured and then become property owners under those conditions and historical times is just amazing.

image of cleaning young cane on the sugar estate
3. And the last great takeaway from this meeting was in going over the scope of history through my owners we see that this neighborhood has been fluid from the beginning. There have been parts where it had tremendous continuity and stability and you see how people begin to prosper as in the 1780's. But you also see that there were times when the neighborhood was also abandoned like after the sugar industry declined and slavery no longer existed. Thousands of people not only left the towns but left island, similar to what we have just gone through with the closure of Hovensa.

And so in understanding the ebbs and flows in the history of our town one can glean hope. We are unarguably in a down moment, true, but when we look back we see that we will rise again. We always have. History proves this. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

It's about the neighborhood

I had my colleague and friend Anil stop by about a month ago to take a look at the footage I had been editing thus far. I must confess I was floundering a bit with the process, lacking direction and swimming in circles. He looked at the footage, a montage of semi-edited sequences and interviews patiently and then about midway through stopped and said, "Ok, so what's your story about?" Instinctively, I responded with what I have been saying this story is about for about three years now, I started off with three concurrent narratives, "Well, it's about these three things: the renovation, the people who lived in the house and the larger neighborhood, Free Gut and...".

And he asked me again, "What's your story about? The central idea, what is it about?"

In slight panic mode, I wasn't sure what to say. I wanted to keep saying, it's about all those things, I couldn't pick one thing. It's about all of it. And then suddenly I picked one, or rather, one stepped forward and said, "It's me. The story is about me, it's about Free Gut".  "It's about the neighborhood", I said.

And then he reminded me of something I knew, but for some reason keep avoiding, "You have to write the story La Vaughn".

I responded impishly, "I know, but how do I do that? What's the format? Is it like a script with voice overs and image sequences, is it the narration? What is it?!" I wanted someone to show me. Give me an example I could follow. So we revisited the funding trailer that I did and the way I was talking into the camera and telling the story. He told me why he believed it was so effective, because it was me, telling my story. Not necessarily the physical me on the screen, but me as in my voice. He reminded me that no one could tell this story better than me, and that I had a strong voice and questioned why I had opted to not use it. "You need to tell this story La Vaughn, you are the one who will tie all the pieces together. When you have your story you can then revisit what you have shot and see what you will need from it. Until then, stop editing."

So here I am weeks later, tangling myself up again in this project with another self-imposed deadline to finish the script this April. I have this idea of using some of the techniques from this film The Beginners as a narrative device to help ground the story and move from the micro to the macro in a similar way as "The House That Jack Built". It's exciting and exhausting at the same time. But here I am, at it again. In the work. In the work.