By ELLEN VANSTONE
Saturday, April 23, 2005 Page
Special to The Globe and Mail
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC -- The bottom has fallen out of the banana industry, the power-tripping prime minister refuses to set a date for a coming-overdue election and a main tourist attraction called the Boiling Lake has mysteriously stopped boiling.
But the really big question in Dominica these days is, "Where's Johnny?"
Disney is producing two sequels to its 2003 hit Pirates of the Caribbean, and using nine locations on this Caribbean island in the back-to-back shoots, which means Johnny Depp, as the sexiest, quirkiest, most adorable rum-sodden pirate who ever brandished a cutlass, is going to be in town for several weeks. The built-up has been intense. I was in Dominica two weeks ago, sent by The Walrus magazine to interview politicians, business people, locals and expats for a serious-minded culture-travel story, but there was no avoiding the Johnny factor. The first clue was a collection of grotesque plastic huts on the side of the road south of the capital, Roseau. I asked about them at the hotel: Was it a new kind of prefab, forest-preservation, cheap-housing alternative for a population that suffered a 23-percent unemployment rate and of whom 30 per cent lived below the poverty line? Nope. "Pirates" was the answer. The huts were props.
The next clue was an overheard conversation at dinner. The waitress asked a table of boisterous American men, "How was your day?" and the answer was "Long!" This is not the response of tourists who have been drinking rum, watching whales, snorkeling or napping in the sun. Sure enough, they went on to discuss what they'd been building all day: gangplanks. Not that tourists were exempt from the Pirate fever. I met several Californians on an expedition to Titou Gorge, where we all hiked up to a mountain pool, swam into a dark cave and ended up in a spookily lit, underground gorge. Beside the waterfall that crashed through a gash in the rock ceiling, our guide mentioned that Johnny Depp would be filming -- and swimming just like us! -- in this very gorge. One woman gasped and almost went under. I wondered how the filmmakers would black out a faint patch of graffiti on the wall. She wondered if she should scratch her own message: "Hey Johnny for a good time call Lynnie in Fresno. . . ."
And so it went: A Peace Corps worker, Bobi from New Mexico, who weighed about 90 pounds and had the colouring of Cate Blanchett, told me she had auditioned to be a pirate extra (piratescasting.com): "We're all a little obsessed with it." And after a long interview with Dominica's éminence grise, author, historian and former politician Lennox Honychurch, who earned his PhD from Oxford with a thesis titled Carib to Creole: Contact and Culture Exchange -- well, Mr. Honychurch was also quite comfortable in revealing that he wouldn't mind a glimpse of the famed Mr. Depp either.
It's easy to see why Disney chose Dominca, despite its relative rusticity. There are few major roads, no major franchises and a small airport that shuts down at night. The island -- population 70,000; 750 square kilometres -- consists mainly of mountains covered in rainforest. Miles of unspoiled shoreline look exactly as they did hundreds, probably thousands, of years ago.
For Pirates 2 and 3, Disney is employing some 250 locals in full- or part-time capacities, has brought in 400 of its own personnel, and is pouring U.S. dollars into the economy: filling up the hotels, consuming gallons of Dominica's pure spring water (the island has 365 rivers), building roads, a bridge at another set, a replica of a 16th-century church and half a ship (CGI will fill in the blanks). The shoot is not without controversy. The entire production is banned from the Carib Territory, a reserve on the northeast coast and home to 3,000 Caribs -- the last remaining aboriginals in the Caribbean -- because the script depicts them as cannibals. It's a touchy topic. One hates to sacrifice the comic potential of seeing Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow (already tenderized by years of rum consumption) tossed, at least temporarily, into a cauldron, but in fact there is zero evidence that Caribs ever ate other humans.
There is, however, ample evidence that the cannibalism rap was cooked up by invading Spaniards in the 1500s. After documenting the sight of human bones that Caribs kept out of respect for ancestors (much the same way we might keep Granny's ashes on the mantel), and then being dismayed when they refused to be peacefully enslaved, the Spaniards exaggerated the savagery of the Caribs in their reports home, and were subsequently rewarded with reinforcements and a clear mandate to exterminate the natives. "We have been stigmatized throughout history, in every history book," says Carib Chief Charles Williams, who also runs the Carib Territory Guesthouse where I'm staying for part of my trip. At 55, he is quick-moving and laughs a lot with his wife, Margaret, and the other guests, but his expression turns solemn when Disney comes up. "The world now knows the truth of what the Europeans did," he says, and for Disney to go ahead and exploit the false cannibalism story despite their protests "is a big slap in our face. It is not respecting the moral and ethical rights of the people."
At the same time, he is aware that many Caribs have signed on as extras. "Each individual has the right to make their own decision," he says carefully. The problem, he says, is the extreme poverty of most Caribs, who are "falling prey to a few dollars rather than standing up for the integrity of our people." The story's not over yet. Williams is still giving interviews almost daily to reporters from neighbouring Martinique, the United States, France, Britain and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, over the past week, the news in Dominica is picking up. The prime minister has called the election for May. There are signs that the volcanically heated Boiling Lake is starting to boil again. And my contacts in Dominica report that Johnny has landed -- that is, probably or, well, maybe. "I pretty sure he's here," said one Dominican who lives on the west coast near Roseau, and who preferred not to go on the record with her views of Johnny and what she'd like to do if she met him. "There's a lot going on. I've been hearing helicopters and there are transport trucks on the roads." Another resident, conservationist Rowan Byrne, says, "No, I haven't seen Johnny, but I've met his stunt double, and I've seen Keira Knightley, and I stood next to Orlando Bloom in the bar the other night." Byrne is an unreliable scout, however. He's more interested in browbeating members of the film crew into helping him protect endangered sea turtles whose nesting season coincides with the shoot. "They called me Saturday to report a leatherback nesting," he says.
"I never would have known. They're very, very helpful. It's helping my research immensely." He's got more Disney cast and crew coming out to help him look for turtles this weekend. From the other side of the island, I receive an e-mail report from Mardi Dauphinée, a Calgary native who is working on a Foreign Affairs-sponsored youth project in the Carib Territory: "No sightings of our dear Johnny yet! But one of our staff who is working as camera crew has indeed met him," she writes. "The film crew's presence is definitely felt all over the island, everyone's talking about it." She ends by promising that "as soon as we see/meet or smell Mr. Depp we'll be sure to give you all the details of the encounter!!!! Send us your positive vibes in the endeavour Ellen!"
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