What I learned while making a film alone on a remote island

Caitlin Durlak shares the story of shooting her documentary Dropstones over the course of several years on Newfoundland's Fogo Island.

Caitlin Durlak shares the story of shooting her documentary Dropstones on Newfoundland's Fogo Island

Sonya's sons and their friend try their hand at construction. (Caitlin Durlak)

Cutaways is a personal essay series by Canadian filmmakers, asking them to tell the story of how their film was made. This edition by Caitlin Durlak focuses on her documentary Dropstones, which intimately follows a family on Fogo Island, Newfoundland over the course of several years.

Six years ago, I was living on Fogo Island, situated off the coast of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic. At first glance, you might think of the island as a quaint fishing village that appears trapped in time. Thought to have been named after the Portuguese word for fire, the vast rocky vistas of Fogo Island reminded me at times of the desolate surface of the moon, or what a Western film might look like if it was set by the sea. The population is small: one school, two pharmacies, a handful of restaurants, one bank and three fishery processing plants that process things like cod, cod tongue and cheeks.

I was on the island for work — not as a filmmaker, but instead for a short-term gig moonlighting as a server at its most famous location: the four star Fogo Island Inn, which had recently put the island on the map as a world-class tourist destination (Barack Obama, Gwyneth Paltrow and David Letterman have been among its guests). I once heard the island coined "a salty Narnia," a wonderland for tourists to dream of the past while escaping their present by indulging in the rugged rocky landscapes. Yet the lives of the people who lived on the island often contrasted those of the affluent, urban and in some cases world-famous guests who came to visit it.

The hotel's dining room was staffed primarily by women, most of whom had grown up on the island. I became friends with a few and quickly learned that their lives required resilience in ways that the average tourist might not have assumed. Life on the island could be challenging; jobs were limited and often seasonal, like fishing or tourism. Homeownership was a stretch if the property wasn't passed down to you. Common medical procedures like giving birth were no longer done on the island, meaning you had to leave weeks in advance of your birth and stay in a hotel away from your family. Yet, despite these limitations, I kept hearing stories from my peers who had left the island to pursue stable jobs but yearned to come back, so they did. I was fascinated; what made these women want to return home?

Just over a year later, in the dead of winter, I found myself back on the Fogo Island ferry with a car full of video equipment. I was looking for answers. I am not the first filmmaker to come to Fogo Island and be captivated by its beauty and people. But unlike many of my peers, my interest was not in filming the traditions of the men who worked in the fishery. Instead, I wanted to go inside the homes of the women and their children to capture the island's heartbeat. I wanted to know what made them so attached to this place.

Lucky for me, when I showed up at the door of Sonya Foley — one of my former colleagues at the Inn — she greeted me by saying, "Welcome home."

Sonya's sons go for a swim on Fogo Island as she looks on. (Caitlin Durlak)

Sonya quickly made me feel like just another family member. I would find myself lying next to her and her youngest son, watching Disney movies in bed, or listening as they chatted about their plans to spend the afternoon looking for leprechauns and fairies. There I was with my camera on my shoulder, documenting such intimate moments, trying to uncover the lure of this family's life on the island. My quest led me and my camera on many adventures: on the back of a skidoo scooting across a frozen bog; in a small skiff covered in fish blood; inside the back kitchen of the inn; or being awed by the elegance of a group of caribou eating in a field.

Many afternoons, I would interview Sonya. She often talked about the freedom she felt as a child growing up. The sea was her alarm clock and her neighbours were all family members. As a pre-teen, she learned big lessons like conflict resolution literally in the field, while arguing over how to properly build a fort out of old wooden pallets. Early in life, she learned independence and confidence. When Sonya found herself in her mid-30s — living on the other side of the country, spending her days as a homeowner, a mother of two young kids, a social worker and a wife in an unhealthy relationship — she felt she needed change. She looked at her boys one day and knew that the only place she felt she could raise them to become two good men was home.

Sonya on Fogo Island. (Caitlin Durlak)

One snowy day after one of our interviews, I went for a drive alone and my eyes began welling up with tears as I reflected on what Sonya had shared with me. I felt like I was missing something I never had — or maybe something I had never known I could have. I began to realize that this island, its community and their traditions had made Sonya confident and resilient.

After intermittently filming with her family over the course of a few years, I now understand the freedom she felt as a child after experiencing it firsthand through the eyes of her two boys. It is my hope that our film, Dropstones, immerses others in the unique rhythms of life on Fogo Island, illuminating both the hardships and the fulfilment that come with calling this singular place home.

Dropstones is currently playing at the virtual 2021 edition of Hot Docs. Watch the film from anywhere in Canada here through May 9th.

Caitlin Durlak on Fogo Island. (Caitlin Durlak)


Caitlin Durlak is a Toronto-based documentary filmmaker whose work often focuses on individuals and perseverance.

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