On Tour: David E. Simpson visits the US Virgin Islands

9 Apr

It’s great to be on island time. I’m unsure exactly how the Virgin Islands qualifies as part of a “mid-Atlantic” arts tour but hey, I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth!

I could feel my body slow down in the course of three days here. When I arrived at the ferry dock en route to St. John I was still a Chicagoan: when I saw that gangplank had been raised and the engine was running, I raced across the dock hollering “hang on!” and talked my way onto the boat, climbing over the rail (which wouldn’t have been allowed stateside).  3 days later, my response to missing a ferry more likely would be “No problem mon. I’ll just wait here for the next one.”

On my way up Caneel Hill, above town.

The morning before my screening I climbed Caneel Hill overlooking Cruz Bay, then worked my way down to the white sand beach.

The view from the top.

I usually get hot and bored on beaches. But I must admit that lounging in the shade of mangrove trees; looking out on, and occasionally dipping into, a crystal clear, aquamarine ocean; catching up on back issues of the NY Times Book Review; was pretty close to heaven.

The view from my idyll

Unfortunately I did my usual dumb-ass Chicagoan move by lying in the sun with insufficient sunscreen. When it’s still 40 degrees at home, it’s hard to get the brain wrapped around the concept that the sun can hurt you in 20 minutes flat. I’m now a bit of a lobster, but I’ve been worse.

A friend

It’s great to be on the road again with MILKING THE RHINO; it’s been several moons since I presented it. And especially cool to show it in a place where the film resonates with local issues. One of the themes of my film is the complicated, often-tense relationship in Africa between the luxury safari-trade and local, indigenous people who historically lost access to wildlife as a natural resource, but have shared no piece of the tourism pie. Some of those same tensions linger in this island air, as confirmed in several conversations I’ve had.

St. John’s economy is predicated on the twin engines of upscale tourism and a building boom related to trans-located expatriates (ok, can’t really call them expats because this is a US territory, but lots of people who seem to be retirees or starting on their “second act”). Basically every white person over 30 on this island comes from somewhere else. The third group on the island are locals of African and Caribbean descent. Some benefits of tourism and construction trickle down to them, but most money on the island flows from the tourists to the newcomers who own the businesses.

The full irony of this becomes apparent in light of another parallel with MILKING THE RHINO. The attraction to this place for tourists and new residents is its natural splendor; and the crown jewel is a National Park, created in the 1950s when John D. Rockefeller bought a big chunk of the island and ceded most of it back on the condition it never be developed. This act of philanthropy involved the displacement of indigenous people from suddenly “protected” areas, and a curtailing of their access to natural resources. In this way the creation of Virgin Islands National Park resembles every large nature preserve since Yellowstone (which was the model for displacing native peoples to create a Garden of Eden theme park showing how the earth would look if free from those pesky humans).


“The adoring public”

All of these parallels with MILKING THE RHINO started emerging for me as I watched the film on the island, and continued coming into focus in discussions afterwards. In this sense I was a bit disappointed that the screening, though very well attended, was conspicuously lacking in indigenous locals. I suspect the Q&A could’ve been a lot spicier.


The show did have a nice grass roots feel. In an old, wood and glass-walled dance studio, my host, Andrea Leland, our volunteer projectionist Ken, and I hauled out dozens of chairs from the wings and set up the screen, projector and the sound system.  And a first for me: I was a raffle prize!…. kind of. The first prize was a gift certificate for drinks in the Tap Room; but it was billed as “drinks with the filmmaker.” I dutifully showed up the next day at happy hour.  The rough life of the itinerant artist.

I’m now sitting at the airport on St. Thomas, enjoying my last stretch of Island vibe: the flight is delayed several hours, and I’m watching several birds walk around inside the terminal. I’m tempted to open the emergency exit door and let them out. But I suspect that TSA won’t be as tolerant as the ferry workers.

Island time

Post by OSIP touring filmmaker, David E. Simpson

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