The Peter Matthiessen Center is teaming up with The Church in Sag Harbor on Sunday, Oct. 8 for a presentation on “Adapting Far Tortuga” with the director and actors working to bring to life Matthiessen’s 1975 novel about the last turtle hunters of the Grand Cayman Islands.
The novel came about after the New Yorker magazine sent Matthiessen on a reporting trip to the Cayman Islands in the mid-1960s to document this brutal industry in its decline.
“Their meat was sent as a delicacy to Europe and around the world, and when the industry ended, Peter spent six weeks on a schooner with these turtlers,” Peter Matthiessen Center Project Director Daniela Kronemeyer. “He saw the inner turmoil of these men who were doing these incredibly brutal acts, but also needed to survive. He told the New Yorker he would write them a pithy article, but he was saving the meaty stuff for a novel.”
It would later turn out to be his favorite of his books.
That novel, which took Matthiessen 10 years to write, was written entirely in a creole dialect almost in the form of a script. The filmmaker, 28-year-old Jack Evans, devoured the book as a teenager living in Knocksville, Tenn., who understood the language from the way people spoke in his neighborhood.
Mr. Evans, with his crew at the newly-formed Another World Entire Productions, has already shot a 22-minute prequel to “Far Tortuga” called Eden River, and they’re planning to return to Belize this winter to continue shooting the feature film. (The Cayman Islands, now an international banking hub, look nothing like they did when Matthiessen was there, but Belize is devoted to preserving its wild spaces).
Mr. Evans, an anthropologically trained journalist, has traveled the world doing conservation work and immersing himself in the lives of the people who live in tune with the land and the sea.
“It was the most visually clear novel I’d ever read in my life,” said Mr. Evans of “Far Tortuga.” “He [Matthiessen] had just gotten into Zen Buddhism, and was immersed in being present, and that led to a lot of visual imagery.”
Mr. Evans began his research by reading Matthiessen’s notes, in the archives at the University of Texas in Austin, and then visiting the Cayman Islands, where he met the descendants of the turtlers the author had traveled with.
“He took such meticulous notes. There is a truth to every detail of this story — every person, animal and object,” said Mr. Evans. “I found the descendants of the people who inspired the characters. They corroborated everything. I could see the dignity flowing through this completely overlooked history.”
Mr. Evans said he was struck by how much the turtle hunting industry pervaded the entire history of the island.
“There is no deeper interspecies relationship than the one between hunter and prey,” he said. “It’s a fascinating and spiritually fraught entanglement. They ran themselves out of their own trade, killing the thing they loved and lived on.”
But he also found a deep desire on the parts of the residents to keep their history alive.
“Sometimes, bringing my questions to them brings a tear to their eyes,” he said. “They talk about wanting the young people to want to know where they come from. The best possible thing you can do with recent history is recreate it. This is the Cayman Islands’ national epic.”
At The Church on Oct. 8, actors Joe Taylor and Ramsden Madeus will give a reading from the film’s script and share their thoughts on being involved with the production. The crew is planning this winter to build a turtling schooner, “recreating one of the most human things — fishing with nets out of wooden ships,” which they’ll sail into the recent past, while on the radio the modern world — chatter about Vietnam and Richard Nixon — are almost a dream.
“It’s about the chapter before our lives, and what brought us here, for the Caribbean diaspora,” said Mr. Evans.
Mr. Evans said he was contacted by the Matthiessen Center after Ms. Kronemeyer saw a trailer for the film on Instagram.
“It was so moving, and felt so right to be able to start hanging out with Peter Matthiessen’s family,” he said. “It’s like finding the people who also see the beauty and the vision. It’s been really moving to have their support.”
The event at The Church begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 for non-members of The Church and free for members, and are available at thechurchsagharbor.org.
More information on the film is at anotherworldentire.com.