The time I spent getting to know the very woman who brought the saga of Westwood Park and the comedic drama that unfolded on The Reef to life was not just enlightening – I realised that Danielle Dieffenthaller is quite the comic, but she harbours the soul of a sage. When asked her age, she unhesitatingly declared, "Ah ole, spelled with an O-L-E and that's all you need to know," and broke into uproarious laughter. She recalled the director's bug biting her from childhood, which was spent playing with a cardboard television frame and directing her "shows" like Aunty Hazel of Twelve and Under and Teen Talent fame. As she entered Happy Vale Montessori, the cardboard TV remained home while her education began at St Joseph's Girls RC. "Then I went to school in Barbados for a year at Ursuline Convent, then St Joseph's Convent in Port of Spain. Following that, I went to school in Kenya for my O's and A's at Loretto Convent in Nairobi. Yep, I was a pillar to post kind of gal," Dieffenthaller said with a grin. Her range of experiences (which amounts to more than 20-plus years) crisscrossed geographical borders. After leaving University, she literally hopped on a plane to London where she lived for two years and worked as a researcher and assistant director with broadcaster Darcus Howe. "That was my baptism by fire... I came in on Monday to work and he said, 'On Saturday you're going to Zimbabwe.' And my bam-bam was on a plane to Zimbabwe where I spent three weeks. I was enjoying the job and everything, but one day I was walking through London and thinking, 'This is my road. This is my ancestors' road; their blood, sweat and tears. Why am I here when I could be telling our stories? Who is telling our stories?' and boom, I was back in T&T on holiday. Timing is a hell of a thing, because just then, that huge recession of 1990 hit London and I thought 'should I go back to that?' knowing to myself that I cannot live on an island and not move (around) anywhere."
Luckily, a phone call from Alfred Augiton would start a new opportunity for Dieffenthaller; he asked her to work as a producer/ad agency representative for Ample with a couple other persons in Guyana for Banyan. This would prove to be the catalyst for the production company Earth TV which started with Georgia Popplewell, Walter Lovelace and Dieffenthaller in 1991, from which came the groundbreaking series Eco Watch. "You can catch the old episodes on Gayelle TV today," she said proudly. "I love television with a passion. You know, 50 years of Independence and I realise that hey, why not just recolonise ourselves one time? Do we know who we are after 50 years? Is this the price of progress? This is why I have to reminisce about the good old days like back at Trinidad and Tobago Television where I worked during the late 80s. I actually used to 'stalk' Horace James (dec.), he was one of my mentors as well. I used to go by Horace and read piles of scripts waiting to be turned into shows. One of them I remember well was the original basis for the comedy Desmond's. I read that by Horace and next thing you know Norman Beaton had come down, saw the script and next thing you know, there's a Desmond's TV show. I was like, 'Horace, how you could do that? How you could let it go?' But the thing is we had our programmes. TTT had a production department, and they produced shows. That was the commitment expressed by the late Dr. Eric Williams. I am not a lover of politics, but I will always remember Horace telling me that Williams sent him to school so there could be a national presence on television. This was mandated by him; a national television station with programmes reflecting US. When I went to TTT to work, I just wanted to be in the drama department 'cause I'll always remember coming home from university during the summer breaks and seeing these specials on TTT and they were talking just like me. It was so cool! I was so excited! I was like, 'Oh! This is what I have to do!"
So said, so done. Eventually she would get her feet, hands and forehead wet producing her very first segment of TTT's morning show Community Dateline, hosted by the late Allyson Hennessey. She also co directed a series of music videos sent to 80s hits with TTT colleague Lincoln Sean Karim (now at the Associated Press in New York). Her inner actress also came to the fore during the 90s as a member of the Immortelle Theatre Company, where, under the tutelage of Director Rhoma Spencer, she understood the complexities of the craft. She remembered Rhoma asking her to portray a drunk, middle aged, Southern American woman. "I thought I had it down, 'cause I was really good with accents, but I wasn't middle aged, wasn't American and had never been drunk," Dieffenthaller explained. But I did it. I thought I did it well, but Rhoma ran into me and was like, 'That's not good enough.' As you learn these things, you realise you had to be in a certain frame of mind to be a drunk, middle aged woman, and a lot of life's lessons had to have brought you to that point. So yeah, I really learned and understood, so much so that it irritates me now when I see superficial performances. Even then, I'm sure I didn't get it, but after that, I knew where I had to be in order to GET it. So when I hear someone come up with just one aspect of a character it just irritates me. You have to be multifaceted. People are multidimensional." It was this very multidimensionality that would be the genesis for the creation of Westwood Park, which Dieffenthaller says took a while to happen. "We had just taken a tour of Barbados with the Immortelle Theatre Company. Bernard Hazell, Deborah Maillard and myself were all talking one night on this high from our performances and we were thinking... so now what? So we thought about doing a soap opera and Bernard, who is Venezuelan, said he knew a lot about soap operas and wrote a pilot named Ramona, which we eventually changed completely because it was very Venezuelan and I said, 'That's not us.' So we changed it to suit and thus began the saga of Westwood Park, which every single season was a bacchanal to get the money to make it. It's frustrating because, like other filmmakers, I want to tell our stories, but at this rate, nobody else is going to tell our stories."
Much as her passion lies in telling our stories, it has been a difficult and lonely road, made all the harder due to our consumption of (cheaper) American television fare. Her second show, The Reef, is still in need of investments so the second season can be filmed. "There are points when it's really frustrating. Imagine, I called someone for an investment into The Reef. They said, "Oh we gave to charity already.' I was mortified. Filmmaking isn't charity. It is hard work. I work. My crew works 16 to 18 hours a day. Nobody asks for overtime or vacation. It is dedication. It is a labour of love on most of our parts." But Dieffenthaller is still hopeful, especially when she looks into the faces of her soon to be eight-year-old daughter Xica and her 3 ? year old son Maximillian. She wants to do children's shows and believes that we have the talent and capabilities to compete with the Nickelodeons and Disneys out there. Her company Different Style Films is still active and she is even perusing materials, including a script from Valerie Belgrave. "It's a Caribbean love story with a twist, and I would love to do this," she enthused. "For a country with so much money, it's really a pity that we are not seeing the necessity of investing in us buying into ourselves. People of the Caribbean need to see us and forget the bottom line with the American stuff. There is a lot to share, so many stories. This was like a gangster coming and telling one of my crew members years ago, 'Yuh know, they shut down the block last night!' I'm thinking, 'Oh Lord, with what? A gun?' He said, 'No, girl, everybody leave the block to go and see Westwook Park!' No joke, and that proves it. People are desperate to see themselves. Why not revamp what was there before? When last did you see a local show dedicated to teenagers, like Teen Talent? What about Mastana Bahar? If you want to retool Scouting For Talent, we could do it as Trinidad's Got Talent! We need to feel validated and we need to feel pride and if we don't see it on the most powerful medium we have, which is television and streaming on the internet, then what are we selling? When all you see is death on the front page or Ian Alleyne, then we are in trouble. We have so much more to give." All in all, Dieffenthaller has had a very colourful and exciting life. "One thing I would love to tell young people about this business is to trust their instincts. We have a lot of people in this industry that come into it and they don't really understand how it works. As I say to most people coming in, dot your i's and cross your t's and really trust your gut. Sometimes you have to take a lot of hard knocks in the earlies with people not paying you and all that, but 20 years down the line, I am not taking that. I didn't. And it was very