Either that glass of knock-off champagne went straight to my head, or the Customs official who had stamped my passport weeks before is now dancing in front of me in a full-body Union Jack leotard that leaves little to the imagination. The resounding cry from him, and from the crowd of hundreds of others who have gathered in Stanley, the southernmost capital city in the world, to celebrate their right to self determination is “YES! YES! YES!” It’s unbelievable, magically quirky moments like this that keep me coming back to the Falkland Islands.
The average person couldn’t point the Falklands out on a map. Even in the U.K. (the Falklands are a “British Overseas Territory”), mention of the islands often invites remarks along the lines of “Oh, how I love Scotland!”
It’s understandable, owing to the fact that the archipelago lies more than 8,000 miles away, off the Patagonian coast. While military buffs may know it as a former conflict zone full of history and remote battlefields, and nature enthusiasts may know it as an oasis of marine life (including penguins!), to the roughly 3,000 people who live there, it’s home.
Ah, home. A familiar and simple notion — if it weren’t for tiny detail that the islands and its people have been at the center of a centuries-long territorial tug of war (Argentina refuses to recognize the existence of Falkland Islanders as a people, viewing them instead as an embedded population in a colonial territory).
My Falklands love affair began a few years back while working on a rather dull documentary series. After becoming stranded on a remote outer island (in addition to East Falkland and West Falkland, 776 smaller islands comprise the archipelago) with a less-than-enthusiastic crew, and subsequently missing the one flight back to the U.S. via Chile that week, I did what any sensible person in my position would do: I went in search of the essence of these islands by way of the local pubs. What I discovered there would alter my trajectory forever.
Inside the dimly lit taverns, I was introduced to — in addition to beer past its expiration date — people who welcomed me with open arms, inviting me to so-and-so’s mother’s to sample her homemade teaberry cakes and diddle-dee jam. The colorful mix of farmers, fishermen, contractors, and laborers I encountered — mostly Kiwis, Chileans, St. Helenians, and multi-generational Falkland Islanders – was nothing like the standoffish, introverted folks I had imagined living at the world’s extremes.
Inspired, I began working on what would eventually become an online documentary series called 51º South (the approximate latitude of the island nation) to capture the rarely glimpsed everyday life of this unique and misunderstood island community. And so I returned, year after year, in an attempt to bring their voices, and concerns about their future, to the world’s attention.
If you’re wondering what some of those concerns could be, simply Google “Falklands/Malvinas.” There you will find a convoluted history of settlement, colonization, and conflict. To illustrate what a challenge it can be to explain the situation here, I was recently tasked by the BBC to film a young Islander’s day at junior school, where they requested the teacher give a history of the Islands in less than 12 seconds. She ultimately refused, deeming it preposterous, when suddenly a young boy in the class leaped up and exclaimed “twelve seconds? I’ll do it! WEEEEEEE’RE BRITISH!”
And so, just this week, the Islands held a national referendum that posed a simple question: “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom? YES or NO.” When first printed in the local newspaper months before, many Islanders preemptively (and much to the dismay of the government) cast their vote by circling their response and sending the paper back to the return address. The outcome of the referendum appeared obvious, but it remained to be seen whether the community would come out in full force to reiterate their sentiments come voting day.
Meanwhile, journalists from all over the world began flooding into Stanley, pushing the limits of both local accommodations and digital bandwidth (trying to upload photos was a multi-hour affair). The stage had been set. And after a number of public rallies, the arduous two-day task of collecting the votes began. Bush planes and mobile polling units fanned out across the Falklands, reaching even the remotest corners of the islands, while an ever-lengthening queue of patriotic voters formed outside Town Hall.
On the final night of the referendum, Islanders gathered together on Arch Green to await the results. Young and old stood arm to arm, their eyes hopeful and nervous. Many people held flags or homemade signs in one hand and a can of Bud in the other while chanting “YES! YES! YES!”
Then, around 11:00 p.m., the radio crackled. The crowd fell silent as the voice of Chief Referendum Officer Keith Padgett announced that more than 90 percent of the eligible-to-vote population had turned out — and that of the 1,517 votes, only three had been “no.”
A roar went up in the crowd, and the exuberant crowd spilled into the streets. In the wee hours, as the celebrations raged, the wind began to whip up off the water, and snowflakes began to fall. For just a short moment, I lowered my camera and took it all in: the lights, the energy, and the emotion.
It was a beautiful, peaceful, and triumphant end to a much-anticipated day — but bad news, I feared, for our friend in the leotard.
Jamie Gallant is a documentary filmmaker who currently calls the Falklands home. His documentary series, 51º South, chronicles daily life in this unique island nation. Follow Jamie’s journey on Twitter @51_South and at 51degreessouth.com.