Q&A with Lisa Harewood | Screenshots (September/October 2019)

Barbadian filmmaker Lisa Harewood talks about her new virtual reality project exploring families separated by migration

  • Courtesy Lisa Harewood

“Having many tools only makes my storytelling stronger”

Love and seawater don’t mix, goes the Caribbean saying — a reflection of the experiences of generations of economic migrants and the ones they’ve often been forced to leave behind. Love and Seawater is also the name of a new virtual-reality project by Lisa Harewood, the latest in a series of works by the Barbadian filmmaker on the often fraught issue of parental separation by migration.

Harewood first approached this subject in the acclaimed short fiction film Auntie (2013), about a woman who must reckon with the day when the child she has spent years caring for in Barbados leaves to be reunited with her mother in England. This was followed by Barrel Stories (2015), a series of digital-audio testimonies from people affected by economic migration — the name comes from the shipping barrels filled with goods sent back to the Caribbean as a means of support for those left behind. 

Harewood, who currently lives in London, spoke with Jonathan Ali about Love and Seawater and embracing new technology to further her storytelling. 

Is there something about the medium that makes virtual reality (VR) especially suited to this subject?

VR has some unique affordances. Some of the people I’ve interviewed for Barrel Stories have used the recordings they made to start conversations with their loved ones. So I wanted to extend that and ask whether I could inspire more conversations if I could literally have you walk in a parent’s or child’s shoes as they talk about what they went through — getting barrels of goodies, parenting through phone calls, the grind of working several jobs to save up money for immigration procedures, being cared for by someone else. This is a piece of work meant to bridge the experience gap between Caribbean migrant parents and their children.

What is working with VR like?

I came in as a sceptic. VR felt so far removed from what I was doing. It’s also a technology that isn’t widely distributed and costs a lot to make, so there were barriers to even trying it out. Fortuitously, there was some research funding available for new voices in VR. I was encouraged to apply and was awarded one of three commissions. I now believe we have to really engage with new kinds of technology to tell our stories, as Caribbean people. We have to engage with these tools so we can continue to have ownership of our narrative.

How is Love and Seawater progressing, and how will people be able to access it when it’s done?

In June, we were selected to pitch the project at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. We then completed and presented at a showcase in Bristol a prototype of the first chapter of what will ultimately be a three-chapter experience. The feedback was very positive, and we’re eager to do some user testing with the Caribbean community here in the UK before making a plan for building out the full experience. We want to do a library and community centre tour of the piece, and we’ve designed it for one of the relatively affordable VR headsets to enable more people to access it.

Has working across different creative forms — film, digital audio, and now VR — endeared you to one particular form?

Working in Barbados for most of my career, I had to become a Jack-of-all-trades. I used to see that as a weakness. I didn’t even know what to call myself professionally. But now I know that having as many tools in my arsenal as possible only makes my storytelling stronger.

Are you interested in telling longer-form stories on this subject?

I see Barrel Stories as a database that will constantly be replenished with new material, and then as we sift through that material it will be possible to extract specific oral histories and give them a longer treatment in other formats. But at heart I’m a filmmaker. I would love to do an observational documentary with families currently separated or about to be reunited. I’d love to show our resilience in the face of the difficult physical and emotional journey that so many Caribbean people continue to make.

Find out more at loveandseawater.com and barrelstories.org