An island on America’s Atlantic Coast is the setting for Nick Brandestini’s involving documentary


Source: Visions du Réel


Dir: Nick Brandestini. Switzerland. 2020. 92 mins

It is impossible to stem the tide of history in Sapelo, a heartfelt elegy for life on an island that was once home to a thriving Saltwater Geechee African-American community. Nick Brandestini’s immersive approach explores the future of the community through the lives of a family inextricably linked to its past. The result is a measured but involving documentary with a tender human touch. In normal times, further festival exposure would seem a certainty and Sapelo also merits attention from streaming services and specialist distributors.

An affecting coming of age story underpinned by a lament for a vanishing heritage

Sapelo island on America’s Atlantic coast is only accessible by plane or boat and is presented to the viewer as a gothic lost world. A speck on a bleak horizon, it is composed of salt marshes and grey sands. Skies glower, oak trees hang with feather boas of foliage that sway in the breeze. It feels like the perfect location for a storm-tossed murder mystery. Once a destination for slave traders, Sapelo became a sanctuary for those freed after the American civil war. Homes were established, schools and churches were built but now only the community of Hog Hammock remains.

Cornelia Walker Bailey is a ninth generation resident of the island. A local graveyard is filled with her relatives. Growing up there in the 1950s, she revelled in the folklore, music, language and commonly held superstitions—a shooting star was the sign of a birth to come, a cock crow at the wrong time of the day was a sure indication of death. Bailey co-wrote the memoir ’God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia’. Excerpts from the volume are read by actress Bahni Turpin who appeared in Julie Dash’s Daughters Of Dust (1991), the story of three generations of Geechee or Gullah women. Her words are heard over mournful images of empty forests and deserted shorelines that may soon be the only witnesses to the past.

Cornelia’s hopes for the future reside with two grandsons that she has adopted as her own. Brandestini allows us to spend time with 11 year-old JerMarkest (known as Marcus) and his 10 year-old brother Johnathan as they experience a childhood that might have come straight from the pages of ’The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’. Mostly left to their own devices, the boys spend their days in the great outdoors, hunting and fishing. A catapult is their weapon, mischief is their aim, they love to eat oysters and ride their horse Dixie.

We assume that the boys will inevitably be torn between the lure of the wider world and the burden of meeting Cornelia’s weighty expections. It doesn’t quite turn out that way. There is material here for any number of documentaries, including the history of Sapelo and the life of Cornelia Bailey. Instead, Brandestini finds his star in Marcus, a mixture of cheeky charmer and exasperating delinquent. A problem pupil at school, he is growing into an angry young man with a very different temperament to that of his meek and mild brother.

Brandestini decides to follow Marcus’s story and the film broadens into a portrait of the wider Bailey family touching on the ties that unite the generations, the threats from gentrification, the damage done by absent fathers and the poverty of opportunity they have all faced. The film may meander a little in its early stages but once Brandestini concentrates on Marcus it develops into an affecting coming of age story underpinned by a lament for a vanishing heritage.

Selected for National Competition, ‘Sapelo’ plays for 24 hours from April 22 as part of the online 

Production company: Envi Films

International sales: Nick Brandestini

Producer: Vesna Eckert

Screenplay: Taylor Segrest (also co-director)

Editing: Nick Brandestini

Cinematography: Nick Brandestini

Music: Michael Brook

Narrator: Bahni Turpin