When Jillian Schlesinger came across the story of a fearless Dutch sailor named Laura Dekker, she knew she’d found a subject worthy of her first feature film. But Schlesinger never would have read Dekker’s name if it wasn’t for the official resistance to her plan to sail around the world. Once her conviction was made public, Dutch authorities took partial custody of her and a 10-month legal battle ensued. Amid the controversial morass of legal and ethical considerations, Schlesinger noticed something: Dekker’s voice was conspicuously absent from the conversation.

She sought to redress this imbalance by illuminating Dekker’s perspective and attempting to chronicle her unprecedented journey. Take note of the word “unprecedented.” It’s not that the world hasn’t been circumnavigated before — it has, many times. But Dekker was only 13-years-old when she announced her trip. Think of the 13-year-olds you know. Even if they have the requisite enthusiasm to attempt something like this, it’s likely that they don’t have the courage, skill, or fortitude so apparent in Dekker. Maidentrip is the result of Schlesinger’s efforts to introduce Dekker to the world and capture the reality of her dream to be the youngest person to sail around the world alone.

Schlesinger has worked on documentaries before. She produced Minustah volé kabrit about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and did research for Blood Sweat and Gears: Racing Clean to the Tour de France. She’s also produced, edited, and written promotional material for AMC, Sundance Channel and BBC America, among other outlets. But it’s taken her entire career to find something — or someone — to craft a full-length film around. In Dekker, she found both. Schlesinger is careful to define her relationship with Dekker as collaborative, “The process was not your traditional filmmaker-subject relationship, but it was very much like two friends and collaborators working on a project and talking about how we want to do this.” This respect for Dekker is obvious and admirable, giving Maidentrip a strong cinéma vérité feel, the tradition from which it can rightly claim descendancy. We deeply appreciate the time Schlesinger took to answer a few of our questions about her first feature film, which can already boast of victories at South by Southwest (Visions Audience Award) and Mountainfilm in Telluride (Festival Director’s Award).

GALO: Maidentrip is your first feature film — did the production process surprise you in any way?

Jillian Schlesinger: I think I expected it to be very challenging. I’d worked on documentaries — both independent documentaries and TV documentaries in a lot of different capacities, and I think I expected it to be challenging, but it was probably even more challenging than that expectation. Any time you embark on something like this, it’s almost better not to know what obstacles and challenges you’ll eventually face. And, of course, there are a lot of reasons not to do something, but it’s kind of nice how little you know when you start off on a project like this. Once you get to the point where you’re facing a lot of challenges and getting it done, you’re so deep into it that there’s no choice but to just keep going through. And, obviously, I don’t have any regrets about any aspect of it. But it was not easy. In fact, we did a screening for elementary students in San Francisco and one of the kids asked, “What was the easiest part of making this film?” And there were three of us doing the Q&A — one of the cinematographers, the other producer, and I — and we all just sat there. I think the easiest part was just making up my mind to do it and not looking back.

GALO: What is it about Laura Dekker that you find “complex” and “inspiring”?

JS: I was drawn to a lot of things about it. The first thing was just the fact that such a young kid wanted to do this — it really intrigued me. And there were very strong opinions voiced about it in the media on both sides. But I felt like Laura’s voice was missing from the conversation in a pretty significant way. The things that I wondered about: who she was as a person, what made her want to do this, what this experience would be like for her, and for her to have a way to express her side of the story without the sort of sensationalistic media filter that I think typically makes it very hard for people like Laura to have a voice. So that really intrigued me. And I’ve always been really interested in seafaring stories — both fiction and nonfiction — and so many of them are so heavily male dominated. The idea of a woman, particularly a young woman, in a setting that seemed pretty off-limits to women for a long time, seemed really exciting to me. Also, the idea of a very powerful, defiant, adventurous, rebellious teenage role model for younger girls seemed like a great thing. Those are the kinds of characters both in fiction and nonfiction that I think are really important to broadening the scope of how young women are represented in media.

GALO: I’m curious about the resistance Laura encountered when she announced her trip in 2009. What were a few of the arguments put forth by detractors? Was public opinion generally in favor or against her right to sail?

JS: So many different things… I think a lot of them are cultural. The Dutch government is very involved with youth, especially youth in nontraditional situations. Because it wasn’t my focus in making the film, I don’t feel like I have great authority to speak about what the issues were in detail. But I think people were obviously concerned about the dangers and whether or not she was prepared.

I think it’s really hard for a lot of people to imagine what it’s like to be more comfortable, safe, and secure at sea than on land, but that’s Laura’s reality. Her background is so unique, her sailing experience is so unique, and everything about this story is so particular to her. It’s a very, very, very hard thing for people to be able to relate to or connect with. The sea is such a foreign, scary place that we associate with scary movies about storms and people dying, but there’s actually a huge community of people who do these long distance sailing trips. And when you’re traveling in the right seasons and being really careful about your weather windows, people with much less experience than Laura have safely sailed around the world. It’s just not something that a lot of people are aware of. When done responsibly with a high level of skill and a high level of safety precautions; you can’t control every element, but you can’t control every element of anything you’re doing, on land or at sea. There are always difficult things that you encounter.

There were also concerns about social development and being around people. That was another thing that I think people didn’t realize. Even people who come see the film imagine they’re going to go see a film about a girl who gets on a boat for two years and spends two years on a boat alone. In reality, she’s stopping all the time, she’s meeting people, she’s building relationships with kids and adults, and she’s actually highly social.

(Interview continued on next page)