Riding the new wave of Caribbean cinema

Jonathan Ali zooms in on how new technology is helping regional filmmakers revive the industry

A still from Children of God (2009), directed by Kareem Mortimer. Photograph courtesy Kareem MortimerA still from The Wind and the Water (2008), directed by Vero Bollow and the Igar Yaga Amerindian Collective of Panama. Photograph courtesy Vero BollowFilmmaker Kareem Mortimer of the Bahamas. Photograph courtesy Kareem MortimerTrinidad and Tobago filmmaker Yao Ramesar. Photograph courtesy Yao Ramesar

There was a time when it seemed the Caribbean might be the next big thing in world cinema. In 1970, the first indigenous feature film in the English-speaking Caribbean, the historical drama The Right and the Wrong, was made in Trinidad. The Harder They Come, Jamaica’s first feature – and arguably the finest film yet made in the region – was released in 1972. Further films, such as Bim (Trinidad & Tobago, 1973) and Smile Orange (Jamaica, 1976) followed. A Caribbean New Wave seemed about to put the region on the cinematic map, much as the region’s writers had brought Caribbean literature to the world’s attention a generation before.

But the wave petered out. The ideological fervour that fueled the best of these releases, born of the social and political upheavals of the day, dissipated. Much of the region’s top filmmaking talent struck out for greener pastures due north. Then there was the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster, the phenomenal global box-office success of spectacles such as Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) reminding everyone just who was number one in the cinema business.

Perhaps most crucially, the surge in the popularity of television, with the attendant revolution in video production, meant a shift away from the much more costly medium that is film, to TV production. The next three decades were lean ones for the Caribbean film industry – if such a thing could even have been said to exist.

Now, however, there’s a resurgence in Caribbean cinema. From the Bahamas right down through the islands to Trinidad, a new generation of filmmakers is emerging. One of the main reasons for this is purely practical: the technology has changed. More than any other, film is a technology-led art form, and the advent of digital technology – vastly cheaper than film – has put movie cameras into the hands of more would-be filmmakers than ever before.

“The coming of video might be why the emphasis moved away from feature films in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Bruce Paddington. “Now, with digital video and high-definition video, we’re having a renaissance in filmmaking.”

Paddington is co-ordinator of the film programme at the University of the West Indies at St Augustine in Trinidad, and founder of the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival. The film programme, which offers a bachelor’s degree, turned out its first set of graduates in 2009, and the film festival celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. Also key to the growth of the local industry is the state-run Trinidad & Tobago Film Company, which was founded in 2006 and which, among its various services, provides production grants to local filmmakers.

“Hopefully,” says Paddington, “this renewed activity will one day soon bear fruit, and we will see local films being shown at cinemas throughout the country.”

 

Robert Yao Ramesar is an established Trinidadian filmmaker who has been working steadily over the past two decades. The director of numerous short films and two feature-length films, Ramesar has developed a unique personal style, which embodies what he calls the “Caribbeing” aesthetic and which includes shooting almost exclusively in natural light. Ramesar’s films are experimental, avant-garde works – he shuns the conventional, commercially driven model of filmmaking, especially the Hollywood style that some emerging Caribbean filmmakers favour.

“A cheap imitation of Hollywood coming out of the Caribbean will not be very commercial in the long run,” says Ramesar, who is also filmmaker-in-residence at the UWI film programme. “Why pay for a ticket that gets you an imitation, when you can pay the same price and go to Avatar?”

Ramesar’s persistence in following his vision is paying dividends. His first feature, Sistagod (2006), a tale of mythic proportions about the coming of a black woman messiah, was accepted into the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. He has just wrapped production on his third feature, Stranger in Paradise, shot in Barbados, about a Chinese woman who mysteriously finds herself all alone on an unnamed Caribbean island.

“The best thing is to be true to where you come from, what your experience is like, and to enunciate your own vision,” Ramesar insists. “That, I think, is going to break through anywhere.”

 

One filmmaker who has been following her vision, a writer and director from a new generation of Caribbean filmmakers, is Maria Govan of the Bahamas. Govan started working on international film shoots in her native land before she moved to the United States, ending up in Hollywood. After four largely unfulfilling years there she returned home, which is when, ironically, her career took off.

“I remember my friends in Los Angeles telling me I would never make films if I left, especially if I returned to little Nassau,” says Govan. “They could not have been more wrong. It’s the best decision I’ve made. Had I stayed in LA, I doubt that I would have a completed feature film under my belt.”

That film, Rain (2008), is the coming-of-age story of a girl, living in deprived circumstances, who has a talent for sprinting. Like Sistagod, the film premiered at Toronto, and earlier this year ran on Showtime, the US cable television network. Govan, who is writing her follow-up feature, feels optimistic about the future of Caribbean filmmaking.
“A number of Bahamians are making strong work, and if we as a small country can contribute to cinema in the way we are in this moment in time, I have complete faith that as a region there are truly great things ahead.”

 

A compatriot of Govan’s who has also been having success is Kareem Mortimer. His debut feature film, Children of God (2009), a poignant look at a young man’s search for acceptance of his sexual orientation within a deeply prejudiced society, has also been plying the film festival circuit, and was the closing-night film of this year’s London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.

“The film was warmly received in Nassau,” says Mortimer, of the local reaction so far to Children of God. “We’ll have a better gauge of its success when it is released to the general public.”
Like Govan, with whom he has collaborated in the past, Mortimer trained and worked in the US before starting to make films back home. The Bahamas’ proximity to North America has been of tremendous benefit to the country’s film industry. Not only is it a popular location for Hollywood productions, which gives people in the local film industry vital work experience, but being close to the US means easier and cheaper access to equipment and labour.

Jamaica, too, has been host to many Hollywood productions over the years. This, allied with the country’s highly developed music-video industry, as well as its robust theatre scene, has helped to produce a skilled group of filmmakers, actors and other professionals, and films such as Dancehall Queen (1997) and Third World Cop (1999).

Over the last decade, however, as funding became more difficult to get, the Jamaican film industry produced very little in the way of feature work. Yet that seems set to change, with the advent of something called the New Caribbean Cinema initiative. Young, talented and irrepressible, the filmmakers of the New Caribbean Cinema collective came together with one goal: to make films by any means necessary.

“There’s simply not enough content being created,” says Michelle Serieux, one of the members of the collective. “That’s what we’re about, creating work, so that we can get better, tell all of these diverse stories, and just have a voice as filmmakers.”

Serieux, who is from St Lucia, began her career in the theatre, as a personal assistant to Derek Walcott. In 2009, after graduating from the Columbia University School of the Arts, she founded New Caribbean Cinema with the Los Angeles-trained Storm Saulter. Their plan was to make a series of short films, each by a different director. Production costs would be covered with their own money, and they would work on each other’s films without pay.

“We said, we cannot wait for funding,” recalls Serieux. “Your creative spirit is going to die if you sit around waiting for someone to give you money. You just need to be innovative and use what you have.”

So far, three of the projected eight shorts – including Serieux’s 20-minute drama, Missed – are in the can, with another three in pre-production. All the films are due to be completed by the end of the year. The intention is to run these eight different slices of Jamaican life together as a single feature, like the highly successful 2006 French film Paris je t’aime.

Saulter has also finished his own feature film, the politically charged Better Must Come, which is in the final stages of post-production. And Serieux is in pre-production for her feature debut, about looking for love in Kingston, tentatively titled Hope Road. She doesn’t know as yet where all the money to make it is going to come from, but she isn’t letting that worry her unduly.

“It’ll happen. I’m going to make it happen. And that’s how it happens.”