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Island Expressions: In Midst of International Success, Filmmaker Lilibet Foster is ‘Here Now’

There’s really only one thing filmmaker Lilibet Foster wants to talk about these days and that’s her latest documentary: “Be Here Now.”   You can’t blame her.  It generates good revues wherever it’s presented, and next month it will open The Forum’s 20th season in her hometown, St. Thomas.

But the film is just the latest bit of Foster’s own life story.

The daughter of two prominent Virgin Islands residents, real estate magnate and champion sailor John Foster and businesswoman and community activist Claire Foster, Lilibet Foster spent her formative years on St. Thomas.

She attended Montessori School, which she says was pivotal in her development, not only nurturing creativity but instilling a sense of belonging to a wider world and having a responsibility to other people and to the planet.

For high school, she went to Kent School in Connecticut. Then, she says, it was “a very good friend of the family,”  V.I. statesman Louis Schulterbrandt, who suggested she go on to Duke University, where she majored in comparative literature and art, and earned her bachelor’s degree.

It wasn’t an obvious choice.  The school was known at the time for law and medicine and had just begun to venture into the arts.

“I was really interested in public policy,” Foster said, and the cross-exposure to different disciplines Duke offered seems to have suited her.

She was still thinking she’d end up with a career in graphic design or maybe fashion design when she encountered visiting professor Robin Wright, “and she just turned me on to journalism.”

Wright helped a lot of her classmates get into broadcast journalism, Foster said.  But she was interested in composition and sound, and compelling stories, so the natural synthesis for her was documentary filmmaking.

In the last 20 years, she has completed scores of them, some as writer, some as director, some as producer and many in dual roles.

Her documentaries have appeared on television, debuted at prestigious film festivals and garnered numerous awards, including an Oscar nomination in 2000 for “Speaking in Strings,” which presented a year in the life of violinist Najda Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Foster says her style is inspired by Cinéma Vérité, or “Direct Cinema,” although she doesn’t claim to be a master of the form.  As a filmmaker, she doesn’t direct the action, she captures it.

“I’m following extraordinary people through a pivotal time of their life,” she said.  “I’m drawn to really compelling people.”

Only a few of those people have been celebrities. Most are not well known and many are caught in situations that would strain the greatest heroes.

Foster said she sets out to reveal an individual’s story, not to motivate an audience.  Yet some of her films have brought injustice into focus.  She was one of the first to draw attention to the role sexual violence plays in modern warfare, directing and producing “Operation Fine Girl: Rape Used as a Weapon of War in Sierra Leone” in 2001. 

“Soul in the Hole” about basketball and at-risk teenagers in Brooklyn was another early success.

“By telling a small story, you’re telling a large story that resonates,” she said. “There are certain things in our lives that are universal … love, security, health, family … I don’t like the word ‘values’ … These are universalities that we share.”

Personal documentaries are inherently intimate and Foster is obviously adept at getting people to open up to her.

“It’s all based on mutual trust,” she said. “I’ve got to be a stand-up person” and be honest with and about the people who are being filmed. “I’m just here to capture something … The camera is really what’s living with the person.”

Whether it’s New York firefighters after 9-11 (“Brotherhood: Life in the FDNY”) or those left behind when Marshall University’s football team perished in a plane crash (“Remembering Marshall: Thirty Years Later”) rape survivors, young basketball players or a world-famous musician, “You develop a relationship with them,” Foster said, adding she invariably ends up being friends with the people whose lives she has shared.

Most recent case in point: Vashti Whitfield who will be on St. Thomas for the Caribbean premiere of “Be Here Now: the Andy Whitfield Story,” the film that documents the last months of her husband’s life and the decision the couple made to live every moment in the present. The popular star of the TV series “Spartacus” died from cancer in 2011.

As she often does for a showing, Foster has partnered with local organizations that may benefit from the wider message of the film.  Besides The Forum, that includes various health initiatives and cancer support groups.  With the film presentation scheduled for Oct. 15, it falls neatly into the middle of breast cancer awareness month.

“It’s not just about a movie,” Foster said. “It’s also about making a difference in some way.”

Until recently, Foster lived in New York, and she still spends considerable time there, but her primary home now is St. Thomas. A few years ago she married her longtime boyfriend, Chuck Pessler, who runs C. Pessler Construction, is a realtor and is the director of the St. Thomas International Regatta.

She and Pessler have done considerable sailing together, taking a boat up the States one summer and spending a couple of summers sailing the East Coast.

“I’m by no means as good as my brother (John) or my father,” Foster said, (but) “I am a sailor.”

So far, Foster hasn’t made a documentary specific to the Virgin Islands.  But she said she’s certainly given it a lot of thought – even making a proposal to the PBS Television a few years ago for a history of three main islands.

It seems like just a matter of time.

For information on “Be Here Now” and related events:

–                 Audiences may reserve tickets for the VI Red Carpet Premiere here: https://www.instantseats.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.event&eventID=B179D187-CC26-FD33-5FDA4139FD757F38

–                 Tickets for the PINK OUT! Health Fair & Zumbathon® may be found below, with corporate and individual teams and vendor encouraged: https://www.zumba.com/en-US/event/view/pink-out-health-fair-zumbathon

–                 “Be Here Now” (The Andy Whitfield Story) for trailer, reviews and more information go to: BeHereNowFilm.com

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