Filmmaker Focuses on ‘Unbreakable Virgin Islanders’

Peter Bailey introduces his newest documentary to a group of Virgin Islanders at the Helen Mills Theater in Manhattan. (Source photo by Shaun Pennington)
Peter Bailey introduces his documentary to a group of Virgin Islanders at the Helen Mills Theater in Manhattan. (Source photo by Shaun Pennington)

A journalist’s anger at the failure of national media outlets to acknowledge the fortitude of Virgin Islanders after the historic hurricanes of 2017 spurred him to document the story himself.

On Saturday, Peter Bailey screened his film, “Paradise Discovered: The Unbreakable Virgin Islanders,” for a small gathering of mostly Virgin Islanders at the Helen Mills Theater in Manhattan.

“We were the only place in modern history to survive two Cat 5 storms in two weeks,” Bailey said, speaking of the U.S. Virgin Islands as he introduced the film. “That makes us legendary people.”

Bailey was born and raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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During the 81-minute documentary that he began filming in March 2018, Bailey interviewed friends, family members and government officials about their experience of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The epic storms slammed the Virgin Islands two weeks apart in September 2017. Bailey also documented how locals managed the long drawn-out aftermath that followed.

One of the featured officials, then-education commissioner Sharon McCollum, spoke of immigrating to the Virgin Islands from Louisiana in the early ’80s. She recalled being driven by the Civil Rights Movement of her youth and her experience as a person of color in the South, as well as her attraction to the physical beauty of the Virgin Islands. McCollum also outlined a plan she developed to get the children of the Virgin Islands back into makeshift classrooms after the devastation of the storms.

The other reality that McCollum addressed, along with others in the film, was the massive exodus that occurred. Thousands of people left by any means possible in the wake of “Irmaria,” as the two back-to-back super storms were dubbed.

For those who didn’t or couldn’t leave, Bailey poignantly depicted the particular hardships faced by families with elderly and ill members by openly revealing his own story.

Bailey, who has lived in Miami for 14 years, happened to be at home on St. Thomas when Irma struck. He decided to stay through Maria as well. His father, a former pastor, had been suffering from Alzheimers, leaving his then 74-year-old mother and his brother as primary caregivers for the nearly 80-year-old Stephen Bailey.

Bailey’s mother and brother, Marcus, figure prominently in the film along with some friends in his Frydenhoj neighborhood.

In addition to family and friends, Bailey’s deepest commitment is to young people, who are also featured in “Unbreakable Virgin Islanders.” At the Miami Herald, he wrote a series titled “On the Margins,” which won the 2007 award for best education reporting throughout Florida from the Society of Professional Journalists.

On his NiteCap show, Bailey interviews entertainers and news makers before a live audience of young people and discusses social issues pertinent to his young followers.

Saturday’s showing was the 16th for the film that Bailey intends to enter into several film festivals. Many prior screenings have been held at universities and colleges, including the University of Southern California; Bailey’s alma mater, the University of Delaware; and Brown University. Bailey’s interest in education is foremost in his drive to create meaningful arenas where young people can be informed and their voices heard, he said, which makes showing the film at schools a natural choice.

The film is dedicated to Bailey’s father, who died in September 2018.

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