The accidental festival

How do you stage a film festival on an island with no cinema? The founders of the St Barth Festival of Caribbean Cinema had to get creative...

The “screening room” at the St Barth Film Festival, with the projectionist in the window of the tennis club behind. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell

On the face of it, the island of St Barthélémy (St Barts to us anglos, St Barth to the locals) is an unlikely venue for a Caribbean film festival. Besides the inescapable qualities of climate and topography, the tiny island (21 sq km) in the Leewards, a ten-minute flight from St Maarten and administratively part of France, bears little resemblance to its neighbours. St Barth has a majority white population (descended from peasants from the French regions of Brittany and Normandy who landed in the 17th century) and practically no poverty. There is a distinctive local culture, whose features include a small but vibrant pre-Lenten Carnival, a craft tradition based on the latania palm, two dialects, and charming creole architecture; but in recent times all of these have taken a back seat to the more dominant “culture” of de luxe tourism.

But the fact is, St Barth wasn’t really chosen at all. According to the legend (which also happens to be true), Ellen Lampert-Gréaux, the festival’s co-founder, visited St Barth, and met and fell in love with her future husband Rosemond Gréaux. Once they were married and Ellen, a New Yorker, started commuting from the US, she discovered that the beach bum lifestyle wasn’t for a city girl like her. A conversation back in New York with Joshua Harrison, whom Ellen knew from her days programming a festival in Avignon, France, put the idea of a local film festival on the table. “But there was one catch —” goes the oft-repeated line. “The island had no cinema.”

The story of the St Barth Festival of Caribbean Cinema, which celebrates its 11th anniversary this year, could in fact be described as an exercise in embracing limitations, structural and otherwise. The lack of an obtrusive local culture, for instance, turned out to be a plus. “An island like this is like a blank slate,” says Joshua, who took up Ellen’s challenge and became the festival’s co-director, “where you could bring filmmakers from the different cultures together and support the idea of Caribbean cinema as a general regional idea.”

The absence of a cinema was in fact a simple one to solve. St Barth locals had been using the AJOE recreation centre as a makeshift cinema for years, projecting films on a huge white wall which bounded the tennis court. This meant, however, that it was only possible to show one film per night — daytime screenings were not an option. Which meant that festival invitees — usually filmmakers and others involved with the films being presented — had more time to spend together, exchanging ideas and forging networks, usually in the casual setting of restaurants or the villas of generous festival patrons. And it also meant that invitees had time to participate in the festival’s outreach programme by visiting schools and giving talks at the municipal library.

“Other big film festivals show 150 films in one year,” said Joshua last year as the festival took stock of itself. “We’ve shown one-third of that in ten years.” Which is just as well, as the Caribbean isn’t exactly a world cinema powerhouse, to which you must add the complication of all films having to be available in a French-language version in order for the local population to understand them. The organisers have worked around that problem by keeping the selection criteria very flexible. One of the highlights of last year’s festival was Madame Brouette, a film by Senegalese director Moussa Sene Absa. Many Latin American films have also made it onto the roster, including the first-ever feature made in Guatemala. The Caribbean mainstay has, of course, been Cuba, the region’s most prolific film producer.

One film which touched audiences very deeply in recent times was Jonathan Demme’s documentary The Agronomist, based on the life of late Haitian journalist and human rights campaigner Jean Dominique. Dominique’s widow, Michèle Montas, who came to introduce the work, spent 90 minutes talking with the audience after the screening. “I think that kind of direct contact gives a tremendous boost to both the filmmakers and the public,” says Joshua Harrison. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. People talk about a film needing a public, and this is one of those places where it works very viscerally.”