How collaborating on a film about a Jamaican housewife helped me stop being so judgmental
Michelle Serieux went on a considerable journey while making the film Don't Come Searching
Cutaways is a personal essay series by filmmakers, asking them to tell the story of how their film was made. This Hot Docs edition by producer Michelle Serieux focuses on her film Don't Come Searching, which chronicles the relationship of migrant farmworker Delroy and his partner Sophia as they grabble with his terminal cancer diagnosis.
When the Canadian documentary director Andrew Moir first reached out to me to help him work on this film, I had some serious reservations. The honest truth is that, initially, I said no.
I thought: Who is this blond, green-eyed dude asking me to make his work legit by being the token Afro-Caribbean woman on the team? I made a lot of assumptions and I felt affronted. I watched the cut and was unsettled. The film is about Delroy, a migrant farmworker who returns to Jamaica from Canada to spend his final months with his partner Sophia and their family after finding out he has cancer. Why did the filmmaker think he had the right to shoot this man's private and personal moments? Even his death? Honestly, I felt a little violated. The ferocity of my response startled me, so I forced myself to take a few steps back and I tried to access my objectivity.
Who exactly was this filmmaker? What was his connection to the work? Why did he feel that he had the right to tell their story, this story? Did Delroy really give him his consent? On our first follow-up call, I came out with guns blazing. I didn't pull any punches as I felt it was my responsibility to ask the hard questions. He answered them openly and honestly. And I listened with an open mind and realized that, aside from his friendship with Delroy, which had developed over the period Delroy worked on Andrew's uncle's farm, we actually had quite a bit in common, including our family backgrounds, rooted in small, rural agricultural towns — his in Lucan, Ont., and mine in the community of Mamiku/Micoud in the south of St. Lucia. Andrew's paternal grandfather, an immigrant himself, had made a good life for his family in Canada. But Andrew realized early on that the conditions of his grandfather's time, the opportunities available to him, were starkly different from those of present-day migrant workers, like Delroy. And with this astute observation, his curiosity and friendship with Delroy blossomed. Delroy consented to let Andrew document his story and this is where the journey of Don't Come Searching began.
A question of authorship? Authenticity?
Who gets to tell whose stories? We have grappled with these questions, especially within BIPOC communities. During the course of this process, I explained to Andrew some of the things that were causing me discomfort. I thought this was a teachable moment, especially since I was part of a very "woke" doc community through my past affiliations with the Tribeca Film Institute and Chicken & Egg Pictures, which are both strong advocates for authentic stories from marginalized communities — be they BIPOC, identifying as women and/or LGBTQIA+.
In the back of my mind, I thought this film would probably get made with or without my input. But there was a reason this filmmaker chose me at this time. I had to ask myself: What is my role here as a Black woman from the community, who's also from a strong agricultural background, and who would actually be working from a remote rural community very much like Sophia's? Every day, from my little creative hideaway in rural Mamiku, I saw female farmers, like Karen, Myrtle, and Ma Anderson, going to work on their farms, creating employment opportunities for themselves and for others. And then there was Sophia — almost completely dependent on Delroy; spending considerable time and money on lottery tickets, so she could "travel the world." I was judging her as well as the filmmaker. If I could be so unforgiving, what would an audience have to say? I looked again and recognized my own bias. I was also guilty of projecting my own value systems onto this woman's life. Did I have the right to do that?
I agreed to work on the film, but I still had anxiety about it. I knew I wanted to imbue Delroy's death with dignity, while preserving his sense of privacy. But in the quiet moments, I started to see something else — or someone else. I truly started to see Sophia. I started to soften up towards her. I started to root for her, in her spirited little retorts to Delroy's understandably rocky emotional vulnerability. It's so easy for us to judge someone based on our own reality, but what if we dared to meet them where they stand?
And that's when I saw Sophia. In the quiet moments with Delroy's mother, for instance, who refers to Sophia as a nurse, but Sophia quickly quips to correct her: not nurse but "doctor." Or in a scene when Delroy tries to boss her around while installing a medicine shelf and she defiantly shuts the window and keeps standing there, holding up the shelf, determined to play her role in the perhaps gendered activity. In these little moments, I started to see that despite the role she was expected to play as mother and housekeeper — the traditional housewife — there was a fighting spirit within her that vaulted up from time to time. Who was I to judge this woman's choices? I started to advocate for her, insisting that certain scenes were included in the narrative so audiences could really see the character and nuance of this simple but complex woman. After two years of refining, discovering little gems that would have been left on the cutting room floor, we arrived at a final film that we all believe is stronger for our efforts.
I hope that audiences receive our portrait of this woman with an open heart and allow her strong moments to resonate. I hope they see this woman's story for what it is: a portrait of an individual, making the best out of a difficult circumstance — as West Indian women have been doing for decades and centuries, in both pre- and post-colonial times. Caribbean countries like Jamaica continue to send farm workers across the globe to find opportunities for themselves and their families. At the time of writing, St. Lucia has just celebrated sending off its first-ever cohort of female farm workers to Canada, a historic event in the two countries' 50-year work relationship. This got me thinking again about Sophia and the pain of her family's separation. Maybe in a different life, she and Delroy could have spent all 12 months of the year together in the same place, as opposed to spending half the year apart.
The film we made is a quiet but honest look at a unique family's life. I hope that Sophia and Delroy's family rest easy knowing that his life, their life, their strength and their love has been documented and captured forever in this special little piece of world cinema. Every life — even the most humble — deserves to be witnessed. That act alone is worth volumes.
Don't Come Searching is screening both in-person at virtually at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Get tickets here.