Frances Anne Solomon: Beating the System

Bruce Paddington on the career of young Caribbean film-maker Frances Anne Solomon

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When she directed Peggy Su in 1996, Frances-Anne Solomon became one of the few Trinidadians to have directed or produced a feature film. She joins a select group of pioneers that includes Horace Ové, Anthony Maharaj, Kamalo Deen, Horace Wilson, Michael New, Gerald Joseph and Mary-Jane Gomes. As with Horace Ové’s films Pressure and Playing Away, Peggy Su was financed and filmed in England where Solomon has lived since 1986.

Set in Liverpool in 1962, when the Beatles were beginning to make waves, Peggy Su tells the story of a 19-year-old Chinese woman who lives with her brother and his wife above their laundry. Their life becomes complicated when her father arrives from Hong Kong with a new wife, a 28-year-old Jackie Kennedy wannabe, and Peggy Su’s husband-to-be, the socially inept, unattractive, Gilbert.
Solomon recounts why she wanted to direct a comedy about Chinese people: “When I was growing up in Trinidad, I was surrounded by all kinds of different people, so it was really joyful for me to have an opportunity to explore that culture, because one of my best friends was Chinese when I was growing up and there were Chinese people all around. So I had a curiosity about it. I wanted to find out more.”
Peggy Su was made for £1.2 million and was the first project to be jointly funded by the BBC and the Arts Council of England’s Lottery Board funds. It was one of the films made under BBC’s Black Screen initiative to encourage work by African, Caribbean and Asian writers.
Solomon, who was working at the BBC in the drama department, proposed the Black Screen project and became the script editor and series producer. She had to read and judge 600 submissions, short-list 36 for interview and eventually commission six screenplays. It was originally supposed to be a Black Writers’ workshop. Solomon wrote about the experience in BBC’s Ariel publication: “Funny how it grew from being a weekend workshop to a six-month development project. That felt more sensible, more useful. More work . . . As the deadline approached the avalanche began . . . One day I moved the piles of scripts from my office to my bedside and took to reading them before I went to sleep. Days spent in coffee shops and restaurants, moving through stories in a haze, like in my dreams. Leaving one script to plunge into the world of another, seeking the imaginative kernel in each that made its story unfold and enfold me . . . I felt proud of my people. And there were scripts I hugged to me in the night, silently blessing the writer.”
She remembers when she was one of the few black people working for the BBC. “There was a time when I stood in the middle of the BBC canteen in Birmingham and could not see another black face anywhere in the sea of white heads. Now I do see them, carefully speckled around when I’m eating lunch. That day in Birmingham I wanted to burn the place down.”
Since leaving the BBC, Solomon regrets that there is now a major backlash going on. “There are still no black people in the drama department. The only black people worked for me and when I left, they left. It is braincrushingly depressing.” Many black producers have left the business: “what the system wants now is not a subsidised worthy product, they want a commercial product that will sell. The whole institution now is competing with Hollywood. And they want to make The Full Monty and more.”
The Black Screen Project did, however, result in the production of a number of films. The first was a made-for-TV movie Flight, made for £500,000, starring Roshen Seth (My Beautiful Laundrette) and written by Tanika Gupta, who had worked with Solomon on an earlier short film, Bideshi. Flight was a very different look at family life in the Bengali community of Accrington in Northern England. It is a tragic story of a father and daughter relationship which goes terribly wrong.
Solomon enjoys working on films that explore the diasporic perspective. “I feel that I understand particularly about the Indian experience, through having worked with a lot of different Indian writers and directors here. People who came originally from Africa, from Kenya or Tanzania. Families who lived in Canada and whole groups of indentured labourers who went to live in Trinidad at the turn of the century. A whole wave of them came over here to England. I mean the movement of people is really across the globe. My mother lives in Canada, part of my family lived here, Trinidad, India, Africa. I went to Kenya; it looked like Trinidad to me. Once you can grasp that kind of thing, I don’t know if it is about one perspective or another.”
“I was just re-reading Naipaul, talking about finding his voice as a writer, and that when he was growing up, there was no way for him to understand where he came from. And it was when `e started to tell stories of his childhood, of growing up in Port of Spain, as an Indian, that was a strange thing to be and he had never seen that reflected anywhere, that he found his voice. And it was this very combination of different things that confused him and made him think that he didn’t have a right to talk about it. It is the fact that he was Indian in the Caribbean, a minority, didn’t know that he was Indian, didn’t know anything about the indentured labourers coming over and he had to piece all that together. And I think that is what I have done.”
Speak Like A Child, another of the Black Screen films produced by Solomon and her production company, Leda Serene, for the BBC, premiered at the 1998 Toronto Film Festival. Directed by John Akomprah, a founder member of the Black Audio Film Collective, Speak Like A Child is a dark psycho thriller set in a children’s home in Northumberland. It is a semi-autobiographical tale of a mixed-race boy growing up in an all-white establishment. Solomon admits to a fascination with stories and themes that focus on the family. “I really like to explore family relationships, even if it is a psycho-drama, for lack of a better word. What My Mother Told Me was semi-autobiographical, Speak Like A Child is about a bunch of kids who don’t have a family, who bond with each other and make each other their family; and Peggy Su is about a Chinese family. In a way it’s ironic, because I don’t have a family, but I enjoy exploring family dynamics . . . Maybe it’s because, when I was growing up, my own family life was very tumultuous, so I had to pit my mind and try to figure things out and it’s something I’m always doing.”
Solomon was born in England, but grew up and went to school in Trinidad. She credits her secondary school as having a great influence on her: “I think going to Bishop’s [Bishop Anstey High School] had an effect, because it was a pretty extraordinary place. When I was there it was all brown, mostly, predominantly brown girls, completely separated from boys and therefore no sense of sexism, for example, no sense of being inferior or having any other role but to achieve and to fulfill themselves to the absolute. Nobody ever said we had to have children and get married.” Solomon admits she is constantly running into Bishop’s girls who demonstrate that same independence of spirit. The composer Dominique Le Gendre, who has worked with Solomon on a number of radio plays and films, was in the same year as her, while Martina Laird, who worked on Solomon’s film Reunion, attended Bishop’s a few years later.
Solomon was raised mainly by her father, one of Trinidad’s leading lawyers, while her grandfather, Patrick Solomon, along with Dr Eric Williams, was one of the politicians who led Trinidad to independence from Britain. She explains that her father “came from this family of men who took Trinidad to independence and all that b———. No, but a really serious visionary, role-changing ideology that you can do anything. And I think that had an effect as well. And that was a very specific thing to do with the Caribbean at that point in time. My parents’ generation; and I was part of the first generation that went to UWI (the University of the West Indies). We grew up in a brown society believing we were the top and could change things and run things and do whatever we wanted to. And there are still things in my head that I feel I could do (laughs).”
Solomon did not go to UWI, but instead to the University of Toronto where she took a degree in theatre arts and then went to France to study mime. When she went to England she did a post-graduate diploma in film and worked as researcher/ director for Bandung Productions, a company co-owned by Trinidadian Darcus Howe that produced documentaries for Channel Four. In 1989 she joined the BBC as a radio drama producer/director and later formed Leda Serene.
Solomon explored her own family’s story in her 1994 film What My Mother Told Me. Part autobiographical and part fiction, the film was based on a short story she wrote when she was 17 years old, about a moment in time when her parents’ relationship was breaking down. It is shockingly personal. Like her father, the father in the film is an attorney named Frank; the grandfather, like her own, is called Patrick and is a leading politician in Trinidad and Tobago, and the mother’s surname is Stewart, just like her real mother’s. It tells the story of a young woman, Jesse, who comes to Trinidad to bury her father and meets the mother she never knew.
The main location is Gaspar Grande, one of the small islands off the north-west coast of Trinidad, while the film is intercut with black and white flashback sequences of the breakdown of Jesse’s parents’ marriage in England. It is a beautifully photographed film, superbly acted by British actress Adjoa Andoh (Jesse) and the Jamaican actress Leonie Forbes (the mother, Miss Catherine). The actresses also collaborated with Solomon on the script and drew from their own experiences to create intense, honest and convincing dialogue.
Solomon recognises the significance of this film to her career. “Well, it was a kind of turning point and it is not like I am comparing myself to Naipaul, but in the sense that you never think your own experience can be the material for a story. I had a difficulty understanding my own experience, accepting that I was middle class, from the Caribbean, another very specific experience. There is something about class, that if you are writing Black stories, they must be stories of deprivation and oppression. They can’t be stories about people who are over-achievers, who are violent (laughs), who are lawyers and doctors.”
The 60-minute drama What My Mother Told Me was made on a shoestring for £60,000 and first shown on Channel Four in England. Solomon had to invest her own money during the early stages of the film. It involved the creative talents of a number of Trinidadians: the composer André Tanker, who wrote the music, Karen Martinez, the production manager, Christopher Pinheiro, the designer, and a number of others who worked for little money. “It was so healing, as so many people wanted to work with me on it. It was so wonderful. So many people clued into what it was about. And forget the fact that there was a level in which I was “badtalking” my family, so many people clued into the spiritual aspect, that it was about a woman who was trying to free herself. There was a kind of liberation. And this is what they clued into, whether it came across in the film or not, I’m not saying it did. I’m just saying the process of making it brought those feelings out in people. People felt enormously liberated by working on it, both the actors, the designers, the make-up people.”
While What My Mother Told Me is Solomon’s most Caribbean film, she has worked on a number of projects with Caribbean themes and talent. Her 1990 film I Is A Long Memoried Woman, which won the Gold Award for TV Performing Arts at the 1991 New York International Film and TV Festival, featured the poetry of Grace Nichols from Guyana with music by Trinidadian composer Dominique Le Gendre. Another Leda Serene production for the BBC, the documentary Reunion, centred on some 300 West Indian women who joined the British Army during the Second World War. The film cleverly mixed archive footage with dramatisations by talented Trinidadian actress Martina Laird and Adjoa Andoh (What My Mother Told Me). Solomon was pleased with how well the film was received: “It was mostly documentary, but we recreated some footage of the soldiers and Martina played one of the women. There was some archive footage of the actual women arriving, doing this and doing that. They were all dressed up in ATS uniforms and pratting about on Brighton Beach. It was lovely.”
Before leaving the BBC, Frances-Anne was the executive producer responsible for another major project, Screen On The Tube, a collaboration between the BBC and the British Film Institute to create low budget art-house feature films. Two features were produced. Sixth Happiness, directed by the veteran director Warris Hussein, with music by Dominique Le Gendre, is based on a very funny novel by Firdaus Kanga, Trying To Grow, based on his own experience of growing up with brittle bone disease in a Parsee family in Bombay and having to cope with being confined to a wheel chair. It premiered in 1998 at the British Film Institute.
The other feature was the critically acclaimed Love Is The Devil, about the English artist Francis Bacon, played by Derek Jacobi. The film was directed and written by John Maybury, one of England’s most successful music video directors. He had the challenge of making a film about a painter, without showing any of his paintings, as Bacon’s estate had refused permission for any of them to be shown. Jacobi remarked that Maybury got around the ban on Bacon’s art by turning his whole film into a Bacon painting. The film was one of the talking points at the 1998 Cannes film festival.
How did Frances-Anne Solomon achieve so much in such a short time? She believes it is due to two things. “I came with the kind of arrogance that comes with being brought up in the Caribbean, as a very privileged person, and I didn’t know that doors were going to be closed in my face, so I just bulldozed them. And I was prepared to work incredibly, incredibly hard. I think I had a kind of arrogance that people that grow up here don’t have and . . . maybe I’m good. People saw that and wanted to work with me and I got in the door and I did things. And I was prepared to make compromises . . . I think a lot of black people here would not have done what I have done, because it would have involved them in contact with the white organisation in a way which they would have found dehumanizing. And I just didn’t care.”
Solomon is developing a number of features that she hopes to direct, including one about the “war” that occurred in London in the 1970s between the traditional cab companies and the new mini-cabs being run by black entrepreneurs, as well as The Dinner Party, a sequel to What My Mother Told Me, about a relationship between a little boy and his father. She hopes to stop producing and concentrate instead on directing her own stories.
“In terms of working in the Caribbean, there are all kinds of stories that I can tell. I would love to tell a story of my great aunts, my grandfather’s sisters. He had three sisters, one was a nun, one a schoolteacher, and one stayed at home and looked after her mother. And I just find those women so extraordinary. They never got married, any of them, and I am sure they were the prototype of what I am. There was a kind of commitment to a larger goal when there weren’t any options for women.”
She is ready to work in film, radio or the theatre, and recognises that many of the projects will have to be commercial. However, she also accepts that if she wants to make things that are closer to her heart culturally, they will have to be low budget
“I want to concentrate on being an artist (laughs), maybe I will make small films, small films that have integrity and are really close to my heart. And I won’t be more ambitious than that. I won’t try to kill myself, but I will always love telling stories.”