Screen buzz (September/October 2004)

The animation, film, and new media festival Animae Caribe brings artists and storytellers together to find new ways to express Caribbean life • Trinidad and Tobago is crazy for Philomena Alexis Baptiste, the sassy new star of the Gayelle TV channel. Now Philo Mania is about to break out in New York

A scene from Roots, a short animated film by Adrian Lopez of Liquid Light Studio in Jamaica. Photograph courtesy Camille Selvon-AbrahamsDeborah Mailard as Philo. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell

Drawing from the life

Foreign content dominates Caribbean TV and visual media. Local stories, accents, and images are drowned out by a multi-channel bombardment of glossy programming, bearing little resemblance to the Caribbean experience. On TV, new stations like Trinidad’s Gayelle and Synergy help tackle this imbalance by airing local content. But other areas of the Caribbean media industry require different strategies.

Animae Caribe, now in its third year, is an animation, film, and new media festival held in Trinidad every October, and the major annual event for the fledgling Caribbean animation business. Founded by Camille Selvon-Abrahams, a Trini born and raised in Maracas Valley, Animae Caribe lets budding filmmakers, graphic artists, storytellers, and animators from across the region showcase their talents, learn new techniques, and network with multimedia professionals.

The 2004 theme, “Expressing a Caribbean Flavour”, is intended to encourage both the Caribbean animator within the global animation industry and the use of local material. “It’s important for us to see ourselves in animated pieces,” says Selvon-Abrahams. “The Caribbean is brimming with animation potential. Our language, faces, colours, all lend to strong, eye-catching, attention-grabbing pieces.”

A good example is Selvon-Abrahams’s own experience with her Royal Television Society Award-winning animated film Masterpeace, a four-minute short about spirituality and worship, told with local flair but with a message for all.

Masterpeace was a simple tale, but I used unusual visuals and a Trini voice. I strongly believe its difference got it noticed. At the BAFTAs screening in London, a lady came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I was sitting at the back reading my book and heard this different voice — it grabbed my attention and I had to look up.’”

After living and working in the UK for eight years, and making many connections within the London media world (to the point where the black British film community adopted her as one of their own), Camille has authority, experience, and contacts to help develop the industry here in the Caribbean.

“When I came back in 2001, there was nothing, no animation industry at all,” she says. “I was frustrated and left again. But while I was in London I realised the barrenness was actually a bonus, an opportunity. I saw a clean slate and the ability for many people to grow together.”

On her return, she was featured in a local newspaper article. “Mothers started telling me about their sons, what great drawers they were. Did I know where they could send them? What were their possibilities for their future? I’ve always thought we have a very visual culture here — Carnival, for example — and a lot of young people have an innate drawing ability. They just don’t have the outlets for that.

“The idea for a festival to showcase, bring together, and make connections for animators and graphic professionals, not just within the Caribbean but internationally, was the next step.”

Today, Animae Caribe has won international recognition, drawing submissions from the global Caribbean diaspora, and attracting award-winning animators to work with a new generation of Caribbean media professionals who, like Camille, want to use local culture as the foundation for an emerging Caribbean animation industry.

Dylan Kerrigan

 

Animae Caribe 2004 takes place at the National Library in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on 2 and 3 October. For more information, contact (868) 696-2288 or cabrahams@animaecaribe.com, or visit www.animaecaribe.com

 

Everybody loves Philo

“I’m upset!” says actress Deborah Maillard. “Deborah’s been in the media for ten years and Philo is on the scene for three months — and she’s more popular than Deborah!”

Philo is Philomena Alexis Baptiste, the character Deborah plays on two shows on Trinidad’s Gayelle TV channel. Armed with two shopping bags and sporting pinkish coveralls, yellow rubber gloves, a Punch-and-Judy makeup job, a head-tie with two Doberman-ear peaks, and two blinding gold teeth, Maillard arrives at Gayelle on an afternoon in full character, announcing her entrée with the cry, “Hold it down!”. And if you have any sense, you do. Because you don’t want to be on the receiving end of Philo’s wrath or scorn, or become in any way embroiled in the melodrama that is her day-to-day life.

Philo Mania, one of two Gayelle shows featuring the character, was originally created as a device to clear the channel’s all-purpose studio set between the talk show Hototo and the evening news broadcast. It still fulfills that role, but the show, with its mix of humour, topicality, and semi-reality, has also evolved into a self-referential soap opera about the channel itself, not to mention required viewing for many Trinidadians.

At the end of Hototo, Philo — the station’s cleaner — arrives on set, and, while polishing and dusting, banters with Hototo’s presenters, Kailash Bedi and Marcia Henville. The action — which is all unscripted; the show is also broadcast live — then moves to the kitchen, where Philo and Kailash continue the chat over coffee.

“The more Deborah worked on developing Philo, the more incredible she became,” says Gayelle’s director and executive producer Errol Fabien, who originally developed the character for a local calypso tent. “She has a real strong position on many things.” That may be the understatement of the year. The day I visit the set, Philo is complaining that Dennis James, who does the pre-news teaser between Hototo and Philo Mania, looks like he could do with some makeup. “Mista James, you want some powder?” She turns back to Kailash and Marcia. “Because he looking oily, like a aloo pie. That is not right. Because he is not a bad-looking man.”

Interacting with Philo isn’t for the faint of heart. Gayelle staffers who cross her are likely to hear themselves pilloried on the airwaves. Kailash Bedi, who plays straight lady to Philo and is deliberately kept in the dark about the show’s evolving storylines, admits that she’s often put on the spot. “But that’s part of the thing,” she says gently. Bedi, who more or less plays herself, was in fact selected because her upper-middle-class East Indianness contrasted nicely with Philo’s working-class creole. “Women find things in common to chat about regardless of their stations in life,” Bedi says. “She’s finished doing her cleaning, I’ve finished my programme, and we talk about various issues that concern us — mainly issues that come from her social background, more so than mine.”

The day I visit, the conversation in the kitchen centres around Philo’s son Michael, who may or may not be showing signs of being gay. There’s also talk of Philo, Kailash, and Marcia’s upcoming trip to New York, a storyline which was developed specially for a series of 13 episodes of the show which will appear on the Caribbean International Network (CIN), a Jamaican-owned regional channel in New York.

Philo Mania is simply one aspect of Gayelle’s success. Since its arrival on the airwaves in January 2004, the community television network (which, thanks to the cable TV system, actually covers most of Trinidad) has woven itself into the country’s social and cultural landscape with a programming format Errol Fabien calls “radio you can see”. The bulk of the channel’s programming up to prime time comprises live in-studio shows anchored by “video jockeys”, who cut to a playlist of documentaries, magazine programmes, and talk shows taken primarily from the archives of Banyan, the production company which is one of the main forces behind the channel. The veejays also take on-air phone calls from the public, a feature that initially threatened to overwhelm the schedule. “But that certainly had its value in the start-up of the station,” says Fabien. “Because apart from just seeing us there on air dealing with stuff, Trinidad and Tobago wanted to hear themselves, and they took ownership of the station immediately in that regard.”

“People have started to get a very different relationship to the medium of television — to the fact of television,” adds CEO Christopher Laird. Laird and Fabien point to a stack of dictionaries in a corner of Laird and Fabien’s office: they were dropped off at the station by a viewer after a discussion about word origins on Cock-A-Doodle-Doo, Gayelle’s early-morning talk show. Viewers and well-wishers also drop off food, herbal medicines, craft items. “One day we didn’t have water and we talked about it on air, and within a hour we had a barrel of it,” says Fabien. “You only have to sit there and express a need, and somehow or the other they find a way to bring it to you.”

Georgia Popplewell

 

Gayelle’s Philo Mania will be broadcast on the Caribbean International Network in New York starting in August 2004