As seen on screen
The majority of TV shown across the region is shipped in from overseas. But the newly digitised Banyan Archive provides a rich document of decades of Caribbean culture, as created for the small screen by Caribbean people. Yolanda Zappaterra investigates this incredible resource
For more than four decades, the Caribbean has been well served when it comes to representation on film. Beginning with Perry Henzell’s Jamaican thriller The Harder They Come (1972) and through to Robert Yao Ramesar’s Trinidadian fantasy drama SistaGod (2006) via the multi-award-winning La Rue Cases-Nègres (Sugar Cane Alley, 1983) from Martinique’s Euzhan Palcy, filmmaking has been a major part of the creative scene across the archipelago.
This year’s Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival promises to unveil a new batch that continues those endeavours, encompassing work from many Caribbean countries and beyond, but with a strong focus on the output of Trinidad & Tobago. There will be a broad mix of documentaries and dramas in both short and feature-length formats. This includes Shakirah Bourne’s modern-day retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Barbados; Nannan, an hour-long documentary about Martinique’s alternative art scene; the distinctly Naipaul-esque feature film Back to Freeport, by Trinidadian directors Jian Hennings and Kyle Sahadeo; Michael Mooleedhar’s Green Days by the River, a 1950s period film about a love triangle; and Vashti Anderson’s Moko Jumbie, an elegiac feature about a homecoming that is sure to make an impact with viewers at the festival and beyond.
A rich repository
When it comes to television, however, the Caribbean has been far less prolific in producing meaningful representations and documentation of its history, culture and achievements. But four decades ago, Banyan – a small production company in Trinidad & Tobago – set out to address this absence, creating a broad range of content that turned the lens on local people to ensure the voices of a post-independence Caribbean would be heard amongst the onslaught of foreign (predominantly American) TV shows flooding into the region, a flood that threatened to drown out those voices.
Over 40 years, Banyan produced more than 400 television programmes including interviews with and documentaries on writers Derek Walcott and CLR James, novelist George Lamming, musicians Machel Montano, Byron Lee and Fitzroy Coleman, and artists Jackie Hinkson, Dunstan St Omer and Lari Richardson. Cultural events were also covered, with programmes looking at Orisha rituals in Trinidad, the Phagwah festival in Guyana, La Marguerite and La Rose events in St Lucia, and various Amerindian traditions in Guyana and Dominica.
As Christopher Laird, managing director of Banyan, explains, “Since independence in 1962, 95% of Caribbean television has been the result of US shows dumped in the region at low cost. Generations of young people grew up – and still grow up – in a media environment that ignores our culture and history, which has resulted in the severe alienation of our people, especially the young. Banyan has had as its driving force the mission to counter this imbalance, providing Caribbean people with the means to see themselves and the world through their own eyes. It set out to show how we, as a people, through patience, determination and existential need, built a foundation for a Caribbean civilisation. We believed that, by documenting and mirroring our culture and society, a repository could be constructed, a resource would be created for a more Caribbean-centred perspective.”
This repository was built up in a time of fast-changing technology, and existed only on a number of different formats that were likely to be lost. Something had to be done to ensure that this fascinating store of indigenously produced material be preserved for future generations. And so, in the late 1990s, the Banyan Archive was formally established in a purpose-built climate-controlled vault. Fast-forward to the 21st century and, with the assistance of York University in Toronto and the National Library Services of Trinidad & Tobago, every single tape has now been digitised, creating an archive of 2,500 videotapes containing 1,000 hours of video documenting the cultural life of the Caribbean over the past 40 years. And with a database of 15,000 entries, the collection is easily accessible at the click of a mouse.
Celebrating the Caribbean
It’s an extraordinary achievement – driven largely by the sheer will (though scant finances) of Laird and his Banyan team – and one Laird is passionate about for a number of reasons, chief among them the need for Caribbean voices to be heard in the chaos, noise and sheer number of outside productions broadcast here.
“Our region is often treated as if it’s a basin of diasporas, our languages often viewed as ‘broken’ versions of European languages and our cultural forms as bastardised versions of old-world cultures remembered, instead of being extraordinary examples of cultural resistance which resulted in original art forms that have changed the world,” he says.
It’s a familiar argument, and one eloquently summed up by Marion Patrick Jones at the First Conference of Caribbean Women Writers in 1988 (and contained in the archive). She defined the problem as “a struggle against Spanish colonialism, French settlerdom, British colonisation and American imperialism. A struggle as important now as it was at the beginning. A struggle that does not make us overseas Europeans, that does not make us overseas Indians for whom missions must come out to teach us the ‘real Hinduism’; we have kept ours. We are not overseas Chinese… We are not overseas Africans. We are nobody’s diaspora. We have our own diaspora… We are Trinidadians, born in the Caribbean, with roots in the Caribbean, with a culture we fabricated and we struggled for.”
That culture is not only represented in the archive by documentary material. Drama, soap operas and theatre are also here because, as Laird sees it, “they are deeply rooted in the society and deal with social issues, acting as a mirror of the society of the time and thus extremely important as ‘documents’ of specific eras of our post-independence society.”
The southern Caribbean’s first TV soap opera, Who The CAP Fits, is here, as is the region’s first made-for-TV movie, The Rig, written and directed by St Lucia’s Derek Walcott. Shows such as Musical Epidemic offer a real Top of the Caribbean Pops, featuring performances and interviews from the world’s finest calypso performers and bands, including Mighty Sparrow, Gypsy, Brigo, David Rudder, Bally, Singing Sandra, Charlie’s Roots, Sound Revolution and Byron Lee. Individual performances from the likes of Antiguan soca band Burning Flames, Bajan soca band Spice and Arrow in Montserrat broaden the musical scope beyond Trinidad & Tobago.
Seeing is believing
But it’s the documentary material that forms the bulk of the archive, from the groundbreaking cultural magazine, Gayelle, which for six years chronicled Trinidad & Tobago’s creative and cultural lives, to the documentary And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon, which looks at the effect of US television on Caribbean culture. It also includes the 13-part series Caribbean Eye the only TV series on Caribbean culture made in and by the Caribbean, helmed by veteran Caribbean broadcaster Ken Corsbie; it documented French Caribbean music, steelband, literature, carnivals, film, indigenous peoples, theatre, visual arts, dance and festivals across the Caribbean, from Belize to Guyana.
Then there are the interviews. Farmer and union leader Earlene Horne talks to Ken Corsbie as she sprinkles fertiliser on her farm in St Vincent; writer and filmmaker Michael Gilkes discusses the significance of the indigenous presence in the Caribbean; from Guyana, poet Martin Carter and novelist/artist Denis Williams feature; from Martinique, poet Aimé Césaire; musician Eddie Grant in his Blue Wave studio in Barbados; Lloyd Best, Roaring Lion, Lord Kitchener, Ras Shorty I, Boscoe Holder, Louise Bennett, Henk Tjon, Rex Nettleford, Beryl McBurnie, Carlisle Chang, Alfred Mendes, Rosa Guy, Perry Henzell… and so many more writers, musicians, poets, artists, filmmakers and influencers.
It’s arguable that transcripts of the interviews would suffice as documentary evidence of their happening, of these people’s importance to the culture and history of the Caribbean, but as Laird points out, “When people see recordings of their own history and culture it is more than academic interest. A personal connection is made.” He cites a moving example of this in the archive: George Lamming’s eulogy for Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, filmed shortly after the latter’s murder in 1983. A film of the memorial service for Bishop held in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port of Spain beautifully captures Lamming’s renowned facility as an orator, the sense of occasion, the make-up of the congregation – among them Maurice’s mother and sister, UK poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and broadcaster and publisher Darcus Howe – and the steelband Birdsong playing at the service. All have been recorded for posterity and fascinating inspection.
Test of time
Also fascinating is the wonderful collection of practitioners commentating on their own work, some while they’re creating it. Among them is Barbadian potter John Springer, Guyana’s Philip Moore on his paintings and sculpture, St Lucia’s Dunstan St Omer on his murals, and distinguished watercolourist Jackie Hinkson in action. And because the collection spans such a long period of time, people can be tracked through their careers. Steelpan soloist Duvonne Stewart, for example, can be seen both at age eight in a panyard in Tobago in 1985 and years later arranging and conducting renowned steelband the Renegades. Soca megastar Machel Montano is captured first at 11 and again with an award-winning song for Carnival. As Laird says, “When your collection is a result of documentation by practitioners, rooted in their culture, and sensitive to its nuances and value, then elements previously only supported by texts suddenly become alive, with added significance and meaning.”
At the moment the archive is available only through Alexander Street Press, but, Laird says, “we would really like to have it acquired by a regional institution so that it’s easily available and accessible to students, researchers and interested individuals in the region. We had hoped, for example, that the National Library of Trinidad & Tobago would acquire it or licence it so it would be available to anyone who used their library services. Some young people are seeing some of our work on platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, and we’ve posted video on those platforms for the ease of access, but it’s frustrating that this huge, unique and valuable resource, this memory of our cultural inheritance, remains largely inaccessible. Even the University of the West Indies and the National Library of Trinidad & Tobago, while morally supporting our efforts, cannot prioritise the funds to buy the archive or purchase licences to access. This is the largest digitised video archive of Caribbean culture and society of the past 40 years, but I was told by the Principal of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad that he had more important things to think about.”
In a world where so much is about monetising content, it’s to be hoped that someone, somewhere, recognises the value and importance of this extraordinary resource. As Laird says, “It needs to find an institutional home, preferably in the Caribbean, in a university or library, where it can form the core of a regional repository of moving picture documents of our post-colonial history and society. If we don’t have access to the traditional, to our legacy, as living memory fades, our culture is doomed to be, at best, a mediocre pastiche.”
That, surely, is a fairly important thing to think about?
For more information about the Banyan archive, visit https://alexanderstreet.com/products/caribbean-studies-video-banyan-archive
Film for the future
Even if you can’t access the Banyan Archive, you can enjoy the future of Caribbean movie-making this season. The acclaimed Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival (ttff), which was first held in 2006, celebrates films from and about the Caribbean and its diaspora, as well as from world cinema, through an annual festival and year-round screenings. In addition, the ttff seeks to facilitate the growth of Caribbean cinema by offering a wide-ranging industry programme and networking opportunities. The 2018 festival runs from 18 to 25 September.