Over a week ago, videos began to pop up on social media with a simple, yet shocking message — the version of St. John that ancestral natives once knew is being erased at an alarming rate.
The videos are hosted on a barebones website, www.sunlitsaintjohn.com, that gives no indication of who is behind the project — an intentional move, said Eric Zucker, a director who was born and raised on St. Thomas and has lived on St. John for more than half his life.
“It’s been a labor of love with heartache,” said Zucker, who directed the project, including filming interviews with 12 multigenerational Virgin Islanders.
Zucker was inspired to act by what he says are the drastic changes St. John has gone through since the devastating 2017 hurricane season. The island is losing its “sought-after, precious status” that it once enjoyed, said the filmmaker.
“What we see now is shameless opportunism driven by money, both in the private and the public sector,” said Zucker. “As I observed and experienced the changes, I grew really concerned for the well-being of St. John and St. Johnians, for my family and friends and for what the future might portend for my own children, who are being raised here. I thought to myself, ‘I’m a filmmaker; what can I do right now?’”
Sunlit Saint John kicked off with “witness videos,” three to four-minute-long films featuring clips of interviews with the 12 multi-generational Virgin Islanders. The videos are simple and subdued, allowing the message itself to take center stage in a clear, concise way. Each video ends with the same entreaty: “time to heal.” Sunlit’s mission as outlined on its website is to “highlight St. Johnians who are urgently opposed to visionless development and cultural erasure. It speaks truth to power, and, more importantly, to the rest of us.”
“The tag we’re using is ‘a future where we sell our fruits without selling out our roots,’” said Zucker. “It’s a conscious oversimplification of what the objective is for this project, which is essentially to find ways to monetize our truths in all of their myriad complexities without selling out the very things that make us special, and have made us special. The only way to accomplish that is to have a really honest conversation about who we are and who we want to be.”
Zucker’s initial idea was to create a documentary highlighting the developmental and cultural shift that’s happening on the island, but as he filmed the interviews, he realized the message needed to be shared sooner rather than later.
“As I started to film, the urgency and the sincerity and the authenticity of the plea shook me,” he said. “This is happening now and fast.”
Filming began in summer 2020. Three short films and three commercials were released last month, and there is more to come including longer formats, said the filmmaker. Phase two is next, and will be guided by the material that’s already been filmed, and by the way it’s being shared and reacted to.
“It mandatorily needs to morph into something bigger, because it’s doing it on its own,” said Zucker. “It’s not just a personal project anymore. It needs to be grown to a place that has the major impact it can have. The freestyle strategy is a function of the original smallness of the project and the speed at which it’s been finished, and now, blown up. I’ve needed to let go of the need for perfection because of the urgency for timing.”
The Sunlit Saint John website hints at the project’s possible future direction. The site’s “challenges” page suggests solutions of closing the island’s brain drain with education, retooling the economy with diversity, and confronting climate change with leadership. One page called “a suggestion” urges the V.I. National Park to establish a living ecological and heritage museum and exchange by re-imagining Caneel Bay Resort as such alongside a 21st century boutique Virgin Islands eco resort.
“We need our leadership to step back and listen to the people,” said Zucker. “Please, stop playing games with St. John. If they don’t, they will destroy it. If they do, we can, as a community, make this once again the nicest place in the world.”