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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Q&A with Michael Lees | Screenshots

Filmmaker Michael Lees talks about his documentary Uncivilized, recording the six months he spent living in the rainforest of Dominica

  • Michael Lees. Photo courtesy Michael Lees

“I wanted to portray an honest version of myself”

In 2016, the then–twenty-four-year-old filmmaker Michael Lees left the United States after eight years and returned to his native Dominica with an idea. Disillusioned with metropolitan life, he decided to spend six months alone in the Nature Isle’s forested interior. Like any good filmmaker, Lees brought along his camera. Then in September 2017, halfway through this modern Thoreau’s sojourn, the unthinkable happened: Dominica was struck by Hurricane Maria, its worst natural disaster on record.  

Not unlike Werner Herzog’s found-footage classic Grizzly Man (but with a good deal more self-awareness than that documentary’s doomed protagonist, Timothy Treadwell), Lees’s Uncivilized is a layered document of a young man’s attempt to live in harmony with the natural world. (It’s also a ripping adventure story.) Jonathan Ali speaks with Michael Lees about his remarkable film.

Did you always intend to film your time living in the forest?

From pretty early on I decided I would film my experience. One thing I’d always read was, if you want to be a filmmaker, then just make a film! To me, this was a way to shoot something with potential far-reaching interest without much cost, as well as to practice my filmmaking without too much pressure.

You no doubt shot much more footage than appears in the film. How did you decide what sort of portrait you wanted to create?

Choosing what to keep and what to discard was one of the big challenges. You’ve got an hour or so to tell a story, and there’s a lot that has to get cut. Originally my plan was to trace the evolution of humanity from hunter-gatherer to agrarian society. I started off strictly eating food from my immediate environment, later expanding to include fruit from nearby farms, and while I filmed footage of this, it simply didn’t fit the story. At the same time, I tried to show things warts-and-all — my fear, lack of discipline, anxiety. I wanted to try my best to portray an honest version of myself, something that was relatable and not too sugarcoated.

You made a brave — some would say foolhardy — decision to remain in the forest when you got word of Hurricane Maria. Why did you stay?

Part of my rationale was that my project was about facing the realities of nature, good and bad. Hurricanes are something we would have had to face throughout the ages, so I figured it only made sense to stick it out. I also had no idea it was going to be a Category Five super-storm. Had I known that, I don’t think I would have risked it. To be totally honest, part of me knew it would make compelling footage, but again, had I thought it was going to be life-threatening, I wouldn’t have risked it.

Some might say you couldn’t have survived Maria, that there must be some cinematic sleight-of-hand.

I’ve heard all sorts of things, my favourite being that I filmed my experience after Maria and then faked waking up in the forest. But it’s all good fun. Of course in editing sometimes you’re taking clips from different times and putting them together to build atmosphere and tension. But I can promise you, I was there alone in the forest in my palm leaf and bamboo hut during Maria. I think people underestimate how much the forest breaks the wind.

You went into the forest looking to “find out where man went wrong” in his evolution. But you came out with mixed feelings about going back to nature, and the supposed evils of civilisation.

We often love to paint things in black and white. Some argue that everything natural is better, while others argue that everything new and modern is better. I think what the experience showed me was that this sort of argument maybe isn’t the best way to contextualise things, and that often there are great and terrible things in both the new and the old. I still think it’s crucial that we protect the natural world, and find our place in it. I also think it’s crucial that as we “develop” we keep time for self-reflection. If our lives are enriched materially but not spiritually, can we really say we have progressed?

Uncivilized
Director: Michael Lees 
Dominica
71 minutes