Our cinemas and TV screens are flooded with Hollywood and Nollywood movies. So what does the future hold for the Caribbean film industry? Brenda Lee Browne asks some of the brightest lights behind the camera for their insights
A quick online search for ‘Caribbean films’ produces depressingly predictable results: mentions of Pirates of the Caribbean clog up the top of the list. Given the popularity in recent times of Nollywood movies (filmed in Nigeria) on Caribbean cable stations, and the dominance of Hollywood blockbusters at regional cinemas, it’s not a big surprise. But it is a shame. After all, we have stories, we have history, we have a sense of place. Is it simply the case, as the economists would have us believe, that the small market size in the Caribbean is the limiting factor?
There are plenty of individuals honing their craft in the Caribbean. They write, produce, direct and market their movies locally and regionally – and many push for recognition internationally at film festivals in places as diverse as Canada, the UK and Africa. As old people say, this ‘one, one coco full basket’ approach is starting to change the way regional filmgoers and makers see themselves.
To date, arguably the most successful Caribbean film has been The Harder They Come (1972), a hard-hitting crime thriller directed by Perry Henzell and starring reggae musician Jimmy Cliff. Its grainy feel and refusal to anglicise dialogue was both revolutionary and powerful, and this depiction of Jamaica’s dark underbelly continues to inspire dancehall lyrics and even last year’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.
Another consequence was that it seemed everyone wanted simply another tough movie. And though films have emerged here and there since, a coherent cinema industry hasn’t evolved in the region.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Antiguan husband-and-wife team Howard and Mitzi Allen of independent production company HaMa have written, produced and directed five movies on shoestring budgets. Their first, The Sweetest Mango (2001), was a semi-autobiographical love story starring local actors, and was also Antigua’s first feature film. But what inspired the team that had previously been producing award-winning regional programmes to produce their first full-length movie?
“Our goal is to make films for Antiguans and Barbudans, to tell our stories and preserve our cultural heritage,” explains Howard Allen, the writer and director in this partnership. “We have found a way to make film-making sustainable and financially viable for us.”
A self-taught film-maker with an eye for visual storytelling and a passion for Caribbean stories, he has stuck to this formula through all his films, each keeping at its heart the people, the beliefs, the history of our people. Following the success of that first film, HaMa made the political thriller No Seed (2002) and two movies with folklore at their core: Diablesse (2005), featuring a woman with a donkey’s leg, and The Skin (2011), a supernatural movie with their most international cast to date.
HaMa movies have now been screened at various film festivals on four continents and the Allens have facilitated several workshops. Yet Howard and Mitzi also continue to have other day jobs. Why?
“Our experience with The Sweetest Mango taught us that there is a market for Caribbean films,” comments Howard Allen. “Now, 15 years later, technology is even more accessible, and more people are making a lot of films, locally and regionally. However, it will take a while before our industry matures. This is based on what we see happening in the Caribbean music industry, which has been in existence for much longer.”
The Allens are now working on their fifth and most ambitious film to date: Deep Blue, an environmental thriller with an international cast, scheduled for release in 2017.
Shakirah M Bourne is an award-winning Bajan writer known for her fiction, notably the hit novel In Time of Need (2013), as well as her scriptwriting skills. The first of her scripts to be filmed as a feature, Payday (2013), was a box-office hit, and she has written two more movies: Two Smart (2014), a thriller that she wrote and co-directed, and Next Payday (2015), a comedy thriller. She directed A Caribbean Dream (2016), a re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in modern-day Barbados. Though her next project is a stage musical, she has not given up on films. “You never know if that musical will be translated to the screen,” she says. “And I would like to see more historical and period films, focusing on Caribbean heroes.”
“My foray into film-making was unplanned,” she recalls. “I had finished a screenwriting course and completed some scripts but I was unable to find a producer who could bring them to fruition. Then, in 2012, I met Selwyne Browne, who not only produced my first feature screenplay but also insisted that I be part of the production company.
“I got into film solely because of my desire to see local stories on screen,” Bourne adds, going on to observe that, despite the precarious nature of the film industry, the rise in the number of festivals focusing on Caribbean films is proof that our stories need telling on the big screen.
“The demand for Caribbean stories has grown. People want to see themselves on screen,” she says. “And since the introduction of digital film-making, films are easier and cheaper to make.”
‘Make our own’ is a mantra repeated by many Caribbean film-makers. However, Bourne believes that more can be done to raise the quality and profile of our films.
“We need more financial support in terms of investment from the private and governmental sector. Many films have to be produced at a low cost, which can impact on the quality. The more high-quality films produced – ones that can compete with international movies – the higher the profile of Caribbean movies.”
Nerissa Golden, who manages publicity and strategic marketing for clients in the Caribbean film industry including HaMa Films, and provides location and logistical support for filming on Montserrat, agrees. “Governments need to see it as an important component not just of growing the economy but of retaining culture. Canada, US, the UK, Germany – all created avenues to encourage film-making, and Caribbean governments must do the same,” she says. “At the same time, knowledge is increasing, and film-makers need to educate themselves about the options. They also need to be less selfish about sharing, and open up their businesses to investors and other types of partnership if they want to experience growth.”
Bourne feels Caribbean films have a bigger role to play in society, too. “They should also be part of the primary and secondary school curriculum as a teaching aid,” she adds. “Not only will this appeal to students who learn visually, but it will increase the distribution and demand for films. Once the people demand it, the investors will naturally come on board.”
Shakirah Bourne, for one, is optimistic about the future. “Right now, we have film-makers who continue to produce films despite these challenges, and we have more young people expressing a desire to get involved in various aspects of film-making,” she says.
“Here in Barbados, students of the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination [at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill] are producing good works,” she enthuses. “Prior students such as Satya Collymore [Diaries of an Immigrant], Vonley Smith [Chain Effect] and Damien Pinder [Red-handed, Going Beyond] continue to put out good short films. We have Stockton Miller, who is experimenting with special effects for film, and Versia Harris, an artist who created a really cool experimental film, They Say You Can Dream a Thing More Than Once, that won the award for Best New Media Film at the 2014 trinidad+tobago film festival. It would be exciting to see what these folks could create if given the opportunity.”
Must try harder
Golden adds that film-makers, young and established, need to focus on improving their product: “Learn the rules of the business of film-making before choosing to break them. Film lovers are experts in what they love, so packaging the film has to be on par with Hollywood. Invest in good actors. Work and rework your script to tell a good Caribbean story that can connect with a global audience.
“The Caribbean film industry has a lot of potential,” she says, “but we have to work more collaboratively. Using new technology in film-making and also distribution is a major part of the growth potential.”
In the past decade the regional industry has witnessed the rise of film festivals. The trinidad+tobago film festival (www.ttfilmfestival.com) was launched in 2006, growing out of the Kairi Film Festival held in 2002. Over the years it has established itself as the premier regional event, showcasing films made locally and by the diaspora, as well as international films, and in 2014 it was voted one of the Top 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World by MovieMaker, the influential US industry magazine. At this year’s festival, running from 15 September to 2 October, as well as full length features look out for short films and documentaries including Vanishing Sail, the first by Antigua-based photographer Alexis Andrews, which won the People’s Choice Award for Best Feature Documentary at ttff/15.
In 2015 the first Caribbean Film Mart was held during ttff, at which film-makers could pitch their films. Also new is the Caribbean Film Database, supported by the ACP Cultures+ Programme, funded by the European Union (European Development Fund) and implemented by the ACP Group of States; it’s the largest single source of information on films made in and about the Caribbean.
Elsewhere, the 15th edition of the Caribbean Tales International Film Festival (www.caribbeantales.ca/CTFF) was held in Toronto this year. Founded by award-winning writer, producer and director Frances-Anne Solomon in 2001, part of its programme is the year-long Caribbean Film Incubator for producers from the Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora. Would-be producers make a Big Pitch at the Market Induction Course held during the CTFF; winning projects then join a nine-month Production Support Program and receive pilot funding from Flow, one of the region’s leading television companies.
In tandem with such initiatives, interest is being shown in Caribbean films from overseas. As Golden says, “There is a need to expose more people to our films – filmgoers as well as the people who are driving the industry. We do not have the same access to multi-cinema deals, so festivals give film-makers a captive audience who are interested and very supportive of promoting Caribbean stories.”
We know we have captivating stories to tell. Now we just need to find ways to tell them.
5 Caribbean films to watch
If you’re going to catch up on only a handful of movies from the past five decades, these are the ones to hunt down
The Harder They Come
1972, Jamaica, director: Perry Henzell
This thriller set in the tenements of Kingston tells the story of Ivan, a young reggae singer played by successful musician Jimmy Cliff, who moves from the countryside to the city to pursue a career in music but becomes embroiled in crime. This was the first film to capture the sounds of urban Jamaica in both language and music.
1976, Jamaica, director: Trevor D Rhone
This satirical film stars Carl Bradshaw as a waiter and conman, and follows his misadventures in the Jamaican tourism trade. Critically acclaimed for its comedic material and biting commentary, Smile Orange found international success.
Sugar Cane Alley (La Rue Cases-Nègres)
1983, Martinique, director: Euzhan Palcy
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Joseph Zobel, this film tells the story of José, a young boy whose grandmother strives to ensure he receives an education so that he can move away from the sugarcane field, where poor, mostly black cane-cutters were mistreated by the mainly white educated class. It won numerous international awards, including at the French Césars and the Venice Film Festival.
The Sweetest Mango
2001, Antigua, director: Howard Allen
This romantic comedy, the first full-length feature film produced in the OECS, follows the adventures of an Antiguan woman returning home after many years in Canada. With lush scenes and an Antiguan cast, many of whom had never before acted in a movie, its shoestring budget and tight filming schedule garnered the respect of film-makers in North America, Canada and the UK. It has been screened at many regional and international film festivals.
2006, Trinidad, director: Robert Yao Ramesar
This fantasy drama is the story of Mari, daughter of an American soldier and an Afro-Trinidadian nurse, conceived in a cemetery and raised by her Hindu grandmother. Mari believes that she is the ‘new Messiah’, and her tale is told through music and imagery using carnival and folklore as a backdrop.