Horace Ové: Coming Home

A boost for the Caribbean film industry? Film director Horace Ové is returning to the Caribbean after many years working in Britain

Director at work. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonDirector Brooding. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonHorace Ove. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonOn location in Dominica. Photograph by Sarah QuillRelaxing with Jamaican actress Madge Sinclar (who played the nurse Lally) on the set of The Orchid HouseShooting in the Old Market, Dominica. Photograph by Sarah Quill

One moment Horace Ové was busy filming on a Caribbean beach, solving the sort of intellectual and technical problems that beset any director worth their fee. The next moment he was gone, wading out to a rickety fishing-boat, poking around at the catch and drifting into the vernacular as he bargained and joked with the local fishermen before triumphantly emerging from the waves with some magnificent lobsters for supper. Then, back to the director’s chair.

Ové is Trinidadian, and he puts down his ability to fit in with anything and everyone to his eclectic Caribbean childhood. His conversation constantly returns to Belmont, the crumbling but inspirational suburb of Port of Spain where he grew up in a big, somewhat bohemian family – a mixture of African, Indian, French and Spanish. He uses the pageantry of the place as a benchmark to illustrate the richness of Caribbean culture.

The Caribbean has never been far from his senses – he never lost his accent, and the style of his family home (he is married to a Trinidadian) in London was distinctly Caribbean – and now it is back centre stage. He has never been a sedentary man, and won’t be saying goodbye to Britain completely (“It was a struggle, but it gave me opportunities”). But after 30 years away, breaking through many barriers as a pioneering black film-maker, he has returned to the Caribbean, to make Caribbean films and help to develop a Caribbean film industry.

It was Trinidad that pushed Ové into films. Post-war Trinidad was packed with more than 300 cinemas, a legacy of the war-time American bases. You could see anything from the French avant-garde to the latest cowboy spectacular. The local in Belmont was the Olympic Cinema, where young aficionados like Ové cultivated the projectionist (“No-Teeth Harry”) who held seminars on the latest blockbuster on the sidewalk outside the theatre.

Story-telling is part of the Caribbean, and Ové maintains that as many extraordinary stories unfold on the streets as in the cinema. He is a great people-watcher: it’s a hobby, he says, observing how people talk and walk. He loves telling stories himself, his mind racing with a restless enthusiasm. The Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a favourite writer. Dickens is another.
And Belmont was a melting-pot, a community of myriad peoples spilling out into the maze of streets from the district’s gingerbread houses. It was a place where the guy on the corner could be a hero. Ové remembers that when the steelbands were banned from coming out onto the streets to rehearse they used to appear late at night around Belmont. “I used to follow them into Laventille, where the free slaves and settlers had first lived.” Most of that spirit of Belmont has gone, he says, but what remains, once a year, is Carnival. “Trinidad is a different society now, but in the Carnival period you still come together.”

Carnival was a great creative influence on Ové his documentary King Carnival, made in 1973 for the BBC, remains one of his favourites. But the problem with Carnival is that “it sucks up all the creativity”. All Trinidad’s sense of organisation and energy goes into it, so little is left for much else including film-making. “In Trinidad,” he says, “I’m just another Trini – they don’t treat me as a film-maker.” Jamaica, on the other hand, is making serious official efforts to promote film-making, a fact that arouses Ové’s keen interest.

Ové left Trinidad to go to art school in London, but left it to live in Rome as a painter (he worked as an extra on productions like Cleopatra, and on Italian and French productions that exposed him to realist and surrealist film fashions), then returned to England to go to film school. Little work was available to a young black film-maker in those days (the establishment kept the doors firmly closed), but resolve and resourcefulness led to his first film, The Art of the Needle, about acupuncture, in 1966.

The subject was a warning that Ové was not going to be seen simply as a Caribbean film-maker. “I am a film-maker and a black film-maker, but that does not mean I am only going to be making black films. I’ve tried not to do that in my career, as that limits me as an artist. I’ve always wanted to make films about anything, anywhere, about anybody.”

Since then he has made more than 35 films, ranging over a wide canvas, both features and documentaries. Most, but not all, have turned out to be on black themes.

Ové’s approach is to ask the question “Why?” This was the angle of his film Pressure, the first feature film to deal with contemporary black life in Britain. It centres on the growing disillusionment of a young British-born black youth who discovers that conventional paths to adulthood are closed to him. First shown in 1974, it remains an important landmark. “I made it because the papers were full of stories about muggers, but no-one was dealing with the question why?”

Ové has seen some changes in Britain since he first started making films there. “It’s easier now for black film-makers because there is ‘ethnic’ money available. But what’s frustrating is that we’re not supposed to go further. I should be allowed to make a film about anything, but I’m not allowed to: that’s a form of racism.”

In the music special Reggae (1970), the first in-depth film on reggae, Ové recognised and promoted a young art form that was soon to revolutionise world music. Other key films include two documentaries shot in India — Who Shall We Tell?, on the Bhopal gas disaster, and Dabawallahs. The documentary The Skate Board Kings (1978) and the feature film Playing Away (1986) both received critical enthusiasm.

Playing Away is about culture shock. A West Indian cricket team from South London is invited to play a charity game in a small English village to mark the conclusion of “Third World Week”. Scripted by Caryl Phillips from St Kitts, the film featured Norman Beaten, who starred in the TV comedy series Desmond’s.

In contrast to the raw, grey-skied tensions of Pressure, the TV mini-series The Orchid House, developed for Channel Four and shown in Britain and the Caribbean in 1991, was filmed knee deep in the overwrought topicality of Dominica. Based on the book of the same name by Phyllis Shand Allfrey, the series explored the secret lives of a creole family in decline before the war.

Once again, Ové drew on his childhood, tenderly reconstructing the street scenes as he remembered Belmont. He is particularly good at showing the social complexities and nuances of Caribbean life. The Orchid House, he says, allowed him to discover what had remained closed to him in childhood. “As a little middle-class brown boy I used to watch the huge gingerbread houses beyond the gigantic gates and wonder what those families were like. Working on The Orchid House gave me that insight.”

While The Orchid House has a glossy high-quality look to it, it also has a strong Caribbean element. Over half the crew were black. “I practically hired the whole of Dominica, as we used local carpenters, builders, drivers, horse trainers and extras. Actors came from Martinique and Jamaica as well as England.”

A part from Pressure and Playing Away, Ové’s feature films include A Hole in Babylon, based on the Spaghetti Restaurant siege in London. His early low-budget film Baldwin’s Nigger (1969) covered a visit to London by James Baldwin as he addressed an audience at the West Indian Students Centre, and was later used as course material for London film students. In 1988 he was named Best Independent Film and Television Maker by the British Film Institute.

But he has spent most of his working life in television; he directed a major comedy series, Empire Road with Norman Beaten, and an episode of The Professionals, as well as a number of documentaries.

“I was part of the freelance movement in England,” Ové says, “the first black face amongst those guys. But Britain does not really have a thriving film industry, and it was hard enough for a white bloke to make films. So if you wanted to keep on working, you had to go into television in order to work, and make the films I wanted to do. It’s still a battle, because I’m still doing television, but television has grown in a big way, and I can still make programmes I want to make in television. I am also planning three or four features that I would like to make in the future.”

These days Ové is looking more and more towards the Caribbean. The filming of The Orchid House helped him make up his mind to leave England. Ové aims to make his base in Trinidad, but still spends time in London and considers himself a Caribbean man – “I can arrive in almost any Caribbean island, and I am home.”

He is a strong supporter of Caribbean film-makers and of the Federation of Film and Video Professionals. “I know that the Caribbean cannot exist with people only speaking English. We don’t know how to speak Dutch, French, Spanish or patois, but when I grew up in Trinidad, people could. Your mother and father spoke French and Spanish, although they called it patois, my father spoke Hindi, and there were a lot of African words and mannerisms that were being used but are now lost.”

Ové recognises the critical importance of the media, of films and television, in defining the Caribbean. While metropolitan television companies and stations continue to rewrite Caribbean history, he insists that Caribbean film-makers must go on exploring and promoting an independent Caribbean vision. In 1992 Ové’s own contribution was recognised by the country of his birth, when Trinidad and Tobago awarded him the Humming Bird Medal.

Ové has always wanted to produce high quality films in the Caribbean. “I believe in quality. I have been a film maker for over twenty-five years and I’ve always made up my mind I’m going to make films as good as anybody else in any country, England, France, Hollywood or wherever.” That is what he has been doing. But now, back in the Caribbean.