Laura Dekker in Maidentrip

More than just rock climbing documentaries, this weekend's Mountainfilm festival celebrates humanity's relationship with the planet and the indominable spirit of the adventurers among us. Both themes are on full display in the festival's opening night sneak preview of Jillian Schlesinger's MaidentripThe film follows a 14 year old girl named Laura Dekker as she sets out to becoming the youngest person to sail around the world, a dream that first required her to take on the government of her native Holland. We spoke with Schlesinger about her documentary and its dynamic protagonist.

How did you meet Laura and decide to do this film?

I read an op-ed piece in The New York Times about Laura in 2009 with the headline “How Young is Too Young to Sail Around the World?” The story instantly captivated me. It sparked something in people, such strong reactions from every angle. As I read more, I observed that the only voice not represented in the media conversation about it was Laura's own. I reached out to her with a proposal for a collaborative film project that would allow her to tell her own story from her point of view in a way that's not possible in mainstream coverage of such a sensational story.

I was so curious about who Laura was as a person, as a young person with the desire to pursue such a courageous adventure and the tenacity to fight for it against government authorities and public opinion. I was delighted when Laura responded to my proposal and then I took a solo bike trip across southern Holland to meet her and her dad on the boat where they were living in Den Osse in 2010. That was about two months before Laura got permission to do the trip and set sail.

Did you meet up with her at each of her destinations? Was that difficult to schedule given the uncertain timing of her voyage? 

I met Laura in St. Maarten, Panama, the Galapagos Islands, took an unplanned trip across the Pacific on another boat with a Canadian family, met up again on the other side of the Pacific in the Marquesas, Tahiti, and then Australia and South Africa before returning to St. Maarten for Laura's finish. And between these trips I was working crazy hours on freelance work in New York, so scheduling was extremely difficult and unpredictable. It wasn't until South Africa that we were finally able to beat Laura to a place and get aerial shots of her sailing. Since Laura sailed alone with no support crew or follow boat, she did all the filming at sea on her own, meaning if we had not gotten those shots, there would have been no visuals in the film of Laura sailing taken from off of the boat. Last minute one-way tickets, we quickly learned, were the best way to go and actually saved money compared to making a million changes to round trip tickets purchased in advance.

Much of the film relies on footage that Laura shot herself, which seems like it would require a lot of trust on your part. What kind of instruction did you give her? And were you worried about the footage getting damaged at sea?

We were careful about process and collected footage at every stop where we met Laura. We sometimes had to replace the cameras that were mounted outside on the boat if they were malfunctioning. In terms of instructions about filming, I observed early on that Laura had a really unique and natural gift with the camera and didn't want to interfere with that at all. People are often surprised to discover that I never told Laura what or how much to film. It was important for it to be her thing—something she wanted to be doing for herself, to share with her children and grandchildren someday—not just because someone told her to do it. The camera was a friend, not a chore, so whatever we got was what we got and what we'd work with. I experienced that as a exciting challenge of the project, accepting that lack of control and viewing it as an asset, a really interesting creative constraint.

Laura reflects on emotions and obstacles during her time alone on sea. Did you guide her in that respect or did it all come from her?

While I didn't give any instructions regarding the filming, I did provide Laura with a Zoom sound recorder and would give her lists of topics that I was interested in having her reflect on. Beyond the list of topics, I didn't give any direction for the recordings, and often Laura would speak about other things that weren't on the list as well. These unscripted reflections were made throughout the trip and after. Sometimes it was something Laura did totally on her own, sometimes she required more cajoling. In one port, I even did Laura's laundry so she would have more time do the recordings. I always felt it would be a really important part of telling the story from Laura's point of view and a great, self-directed alternative to traditional on-camera interviews, which Laura found uncomfortable and invasive. The recorder gave her time and space to reflect on her experiences without pressure or people around and in her own environment, on the boat, where she felt most comfortable.

Director Jillian Schlesinger

What was the editing process like?

We were very fortunate to be able to work with an exceptional doc editor, Penelope Falk, whom I had met about six years ago when I was doing archival research for another film she was cutting. Our process was to first focus on the natural physical arc—the journey around the world—and then weave in the backstory and emotional content, which we all felt was the heart of this story and what makes it so universally relatable even though the backdrop is so extreme and remote. It was an unusual process for a doc, starting short and continuing to add pieces. We never had that four hour rough cut where you're like, “Oh god how will we ever cut this down?” The film gradually increased in length, scene by scene, we didn't have to kill a lot of darlings. And it was great to have Laura in on the edit and learning about that stage of the process. She stayed on my couch in New York for a month while we worked and she seemed to really enjoy it, picking up on a lot of the editing lingo we were using and giving great feedback, thinking as much like a filmmaker as a subject. I felt lucky to be able to collaborate that way in post-production and I think it worked out so well, particularly because our goal was to tell a very subjective story expressly from Laura's point of view, so having her there in the room was great, even, and often especially, when we disagreed about how best to tell the story.

Laura established adoptive parents with fellow sailors Mike and Deana during her journey. Do you know if she has kept in contact with them or sailed with them again?

Yes, Mike and Deana have been like family to both of us and they continue to keep in touch with Laura. When Laura came to New York from New Zealand last year, she had a quick layover in LA and they went to meet her for dinner at LAX. I stayed with Mike and Deana in Marina Del Rey when Emily (McAllister, producer) and I were out at the Film Independent Documentary Lab earlier this year and we talked with Laura on Skype. They are wonderful friends and Laura was very fortunate to encounter them and a lot of other really warm, supportive sailing friends along her voyage. There's an amazing community of cruising sailors that most people don't know about, and they have been like a big family to Laura during her solo trip as well as now that she has settled in New Zealand.

Maidentrip screens Friday, November 15 at 9:00pm on opening night of the Mountainfilm festival with director Jillian Schlesinger and producer Emily McAllister in person for Q&A.