In late March, more than 200 people gathered at the Carter Center by invitation of the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta to attend the screening of Swiss director Nick Brandestini’s award-winning documentary SAPELO. It depicts the life of two brothers growing up on the barrier island of Georgia after they were adopted by Cornelia Walker Bailey, who sadly passed away during filming. In memory of Cornelia, whose influence still lingers in the Gullah-Geechee community, the screening featured a Q&A with her biological son Maurice Bailey, as well as Taylor Segrest, co-director of SAPELO, and Nick Brandestini, director of SAPELO. Despite Nick’s busy stay in Atlanta, which included not only the screening but also a workshop with young adults aspiring to have careers in film and media, we were fortunate to have a more in-depth conversation with him.
Nick, take us along your way. Right after obtaining your degree in business administration at the University of Zurich, you turned to television. Today, you work as an independent filmmaker. Did you feel this enthusiasm for filming and cinematography already growing up?
Nick: In my case, the saying “the apple does not fall far from the tree” seems to apply to a certain extent, as my grandfather, Sigfrit Steiner, a Swiss film, television and stage actor, already belonged to this industry. But in the end, it was not my grandfather but my aunt who first brought me into contact with the world of film. I was about ten years old when she, working for public television in the cultural department, let me experiment and play with unused film material in the editing room. I had a lot of fun putting together short videos. Despite this attachment to the industry, I did not realize at the time that there was a way to actually study film, so I decided to pursue a degree in business administration instead. Yet, the passion for filming and cinematography was never far from my mind, so right after graduating, I was fortunate to land a job at Viva, a Swiss TV station. From then on, the world of film had me firmly in its grip.
Let us talk about SAPELO, your most recent documentary. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience during the filming on the barrier island, including your relationship to the protagonists?
Nick: When I go to a place to film, I always try not to have any expectations and to be open to everything that happens. This is the actual life of these people, and I have to adapt to their reality. It is very important to go there with a lot of time and without a fixed schedule. Of course, that doesn’t mean one should have no plan at all, because you can certainly arrange to be on site for certain key events and prepare interview questions, but sometimes all you need is patience. You can never force a certain reaction or answer, you really just have to wait for the right moment. After all, it is the people who decide the schedule, and they will let me into their lives whenever they are ready.
Regarding SAPELO, Cornelia was the first person I met. The other members of the community had great trust in her, once she accepted me, they trusted me too. I noticed that each time I have made a film, it has taken a little longer because I really want to immerse myself in the place and the community and build a deeper and trusting relationship with the protagonists. For example, I started to get to know the boys in the documentary by accompanying them on their fishing trips, by fooling around a lot, and by giving them the opportunity to interview me too. This way they were able to relax and get into the filming mode, sometimes being surprisingly reflective for their age. Again, the best results can be achieved by letting it happen naturally and not pushing for a specific scene.
“Darwin” (2011), “Children of the Artic” (2014), and now “SAPELO” (2020). This is not the first time you have given us a glimpse into the lives of isolated communities on American soil — a coincidence?
Nick: The fact that I started filming in the United States had two main reasons: First, I wanted to make a film in English, which usually appeals to a wider audience. And secondly, I have always had a particular fascination for desert environments. So when my colleague and co-director Taylor Segrest discovered the remote community of Darwin near Death Valley, I was thrilled. Since my experience during and after filming my first feature-length documentary in Darwin was very positive, I decided to shoot more community portraits in the future. For me, the biggest challenge starting a new project is usually right at the beginning, when I try to find an idea that convinces me. Once I have a concept in mind, I look for a place that has a lot of “good ingredients” for a film, such as its people and its history. This has taken me as far as the Arctic and then here to Georgia on Sapelo Island.
Often times, you take on several roles simultaneously during one project. Not only were you the director of SAPELO, you also filled the position of the cinematographer and the editor. How do you manage to wear all these different hats at the same time?
Nick: Well, it is certainly not that I think I am the best at all of these things, I just really enjoy doing each of these tasks. It gives me a lot of variety. But there are still a lot of people involved in the films as a final product. Besides the protagonists, of course, I have been working with Taylor Segrest as far as compositing and editing, but on location I am shooting by myself. I think it is easier for the protagonists when there is not a whole team, because it keeps the setting as natural as possible. However, when it comes to editing, I appreciate bringing in an outside perspective with Taylor, so we can see if it is actually accessible to the audience. Because after all, I hope that the audience will empathize with the people in the film, that I can create an environment where they can relate to them and be moved by their stories.
Nick, we would like to conclude by asking the following: what’s the best thing about being an independent filmmaker?
Nick: I should perhaps add that I earn my living by making promotional and educational videos, as very few documentary filmmakers can make a living solely from their films. Even though making documentaries cannot be considered my main profession, it is more than a hobby — perhaps it could be called a labor of love. While I always enjoy learning about other directors’ techniques and approaches in their films, my biggest inspiration is other people’s lives. My greatest interest is in travel and experiencing life with a particular focus on how other people live it. I appreciate the opportunity to get a very different insight than a regular tourist, and I am grateful for the relationships that come from that, as I am still in contact with all the people from my documentaries. The protagonists of “Children of the Arctic” even visited me in Zurich while I have been to Alaska many times since to see how they are doing. And who knows, maybe one day I will return to one of these places for a longer period of time to produce a sequel to the first film.
Learn more about SAPELO here:
SOLO’s mission is to preserve the culture, heritage, and traditions of the Saltwater Geechee people on Sapelo Island. It was founded by current president and CEO Maurice Bailey, son of Sapelo Island griot, writer, historian, and activist Cornelia Walker Bailey.