“Beyond the geographic and cultural identity that defines the Caribbean, is the more complex question of a Caribbean cinema aesthetic which has captured the imagination of some writers and critics. The search for the essence of Caribbean cinema has included theories of Créolité, diversity and Negritude from Martinique and Guadeloupe; Negrismo from Cuba; Indigenisme from Haiti; and Pan-Africanism from the English-speaking Caribbean and across the region as a whole. Such cultural movements have inspired some of the classics of Caribbean cinema that deal with the region’s experience of slavery or post-slavery communities.”
These words are from the pen of June Givanni, a black film writer and programmer, who put together for an Indian festival some years ago a thought-provoking and seriously entertaining package of documentaries and fiction films from countries loosely clubbed together under the name of ‘Caribbean’. London-based Givanni’s parents are from Guyana represented in the package in the shape of a 75-minute documentary dating back to 1978, called The Terror and the Time. The ‘Terror’ in the title of the film, directed by Rupert Roopnarine, refers to British colonialism and Cold War imperialism, while the ‘Time’ is 1953, the year the first election was held in Guyana under a provisional democratic Constitution, complete with all the lacunae that come with such exercises.
The lives and destinies of those thousands of men and women who the British took from Bihar and the eastern part of what we call Uttar Pradesh today, to work on the sugar plantations of Trinidad, British Guyana and other parts of the world, add up to a long history of immense sadness and great courage. Ever since my teens growing up in Bihar when I first learnt of the fate of these countrymen of mine, I have repeatedly visited them in my dreams. Maybe I will never get to visit Fiji, Mauritius, Suriname and other such places to which many a Bhojpuri-speaking man, woman or child was forcibly transported to slave and enrich the British and, to a lesser degree, the Dutch, but it does not matter. Seeing films and reading books about their past and their present fills me with sensations that I can hardly describe.
Roopnarine’s film (35mm, b&w – colour, 75min, 1978) relates the story of the Guyanese people’s fight for independence and self-determination with readings from the poetry of Michael Carter, newspaper headlines about the Indian-origin Chhedi Jagan and his associates, newsreel footage of other struggles in the same period, and scenes of economic and cultural repression in Guyana of the 1970s. The utter destitution in which the working class in particular was compelled to live and work is effectively shown by Roopnarine in agit-prop style.
A political activist of no mean order, the filmmaker’s resolve for change comes across in every frame of this exceedingly important documentary which holds lessons for many countries beyond the Caribbean even today. The philosophy and aesthetics of ‘Third Cinema’ which produced several Latin American classics underlying the need for radical change, informs The Terror and the Time from beginning to end.
Trinidad-born Horace Ové’s Playing Away uses a cricket match in the English countryside to punch holes gently and well into racial and other stereotypes. Although made more than thirty years ago, Playing Away (35mm, Colour, 100min, 1986) looks surprisingly modern, perhaps because so little seems to have changed in the way blacks and whites in Britain, or anywhere else for that matter, still view each other. A film laden with humour, a little anger and some suspicion, and jabs at varied idiosyncrasies of either community, Playing Away looks conventional on the surface but can be complex and, therefore, that much more engaging if one is prepared /equipped to read between the layers and the lines.
Horace Ové is of part Indian origin – his grandmother was Hindu and grandfather Muslim, both made to work as indentured labourers by the British. Added to this were other genetic contributions, including Black and Spanish. As he likes to point out, he could be correctly described as a walking ‘salad of racial genes’. “My mixed lineage has given me the confidence to fight against any sort of racism.” One of the foremost Black independent filmmakers in Britain, Ové’s first films go back to the 1960s when race relations was far more problem-ridden than they are today. Paying a respectful salute to the director, the British Film Institute declared some years ago: “Horace Ové is undoubtedly a pioneer in Black British history and his work provides a perspective on the Black experience in Britain.”
In terms of style or aesthetics, there couldn’t be two more dissimilar artists than Ové and Roopnarine. By his own admission, Ové learnt what serious, good movies are by repeatedly watching Fellini, Antonioni, Ray and other masters. We were having a drink together in Kerala some years ago when he wondered aloud why no one has anything to say about Ray at Indian film festivals these days. “Ray did not make popular movies, but he made some great movies which have given people like me hours and hours of most pleasurable viewing.”
Ové has had other connections with India. It was not till the late 1980s that he came to India for the first time to make what turned out to be two widely appreciated works. His documentation of the Bhopal gas tragedy with its national and international implications was the first of these. The other related to the fantastic lives of the tiffin-carriers of Bombay who arrange to feed lakhs of office-goers each day, helped by mental calculations that, according to Ové, would put the most developed computers to shame. Ové also directed a series for BBC on the struggles and sacrifice of the great revolutionary Udham Singh.
Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (35mm, colour, 103min, 1972), the first fictional feature to be made by a Jamaican, is a dark, gritty film based on the life and deeds of a real-life ghetto outlaw. It is the story of a naive, music-obsessed country boy’s discovery of brutality and betrayal in the big city where he had hoped to make it as a singing star. Significantly, The Harder They Come first brought reggae to international attention. The social meanings and political implications of this cult film can be guessed from a publicity description of it: “When (the country boy) kills a police officer, events escalate that make him Jamaica’s most wanted man, and the momentary hero to all oppressed Jamaicans.” Shot at a feverish pace with the camera often behaving like a drunken man weaving in and out of claustrophobic spaces and acted with flamboyant confidence, especially by the lead player who went on to become a star, this film has deservedly carved out an enduring place in the memory of Caribbean and other viewers.
Aimé Césaire: A Voice For History (35mm, colour, 164mins, 1994) is about the legendary poet, politician and architect of the Negritude movement who, together with the Senegalese President and Nobel laureate Leopold Senghor and the French-Guyanese philosopher Leon Damans, gave new insights into the Black experience of repression and resurgence. Directed by Euzhan Palcy, the well-known filmmaker from the French colony of Martinique which was the birthplace of Aimé Césaire as well, the film is rich in archival footage juxtaposed with contemporary commentary. This documentary provides a provocative and profound perspective on Black world culture.
Right from the 1920s to contemporary times, Aimé Césaire’s literary output combined with his political activities had a telling impact on many movements, notably the Pan-African movement and the Harlem Renaissance in the United States. This portrait of a great man and one of the foremost intellectuals of his time caught in the throes of numerous world events is Euzhan Palcy’s compelling contribution to an understanding of twentieth century men and matters that the present slam-bang world apparently has little time for.
The picture that often exists in people’s minds about the Caribbean being a haven of rum, calypso, carnival and cricket to the exclusion of pressing realities like widespread poverty, violence and spiritual devastation caused by fresh inroads by neo-colonialist forces, is likely to be dispelled if they were to sit through films like those discussed here. It is about time that their narcotized gaze shifted from carnivalesque stereotypes to more credible and relevant identities relating to the Caribbean experience. To turn their faces away from historical and contemporary realities and, instead, allow themselves to be dominated by wish-fulfilling myths is an exercise in futility best avoided.
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“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unbearable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home; its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” – Edward Said
Michelle Mohabeer is a Guyana-born, Toronto-based filmmaker at least two of whose early works have been screened in India. In addition to making films, Mohabeer has been actively involved in anti-racist education work. Her priorities and her concerns find artistic expression in her work which, in one sense, may be said to be about lost souls on islands that are frequently and falsely described as being paradise on earth. Serving aboriginal/people of colour through art is an article of faith for her.
“Coconut/Cane & Cutlass” (1994, 30minutes, b/w and colour, 16mm) is Mohabeer’s best-known work to date. An experimental narrative, C/C &C is an ambitious work that inspiringly articulates the Indo-Caribbean diasporic identity. Shot partially on location in Guyana and partly in studio in Toronto, C/C&C is a lyrical exploration about displacement, exile and indentureship which replacing slavery, was in vogue in Guyana and in other parts of the Caribbean during the period 1834 to 1917. This hybrid work fusing the elements of dance, poetry, theatrically staged dramatic scenes and front screen projected images shot on varied Guyana locations, is from the point of view of an exile, an Indo- Caribbean lesbian who has been living in Canada for more than three decades.
Mohabeer: “On some levels the film is partly autobiographical and partly historical… On a personal note, I am of mixed Indo-Caribbean ancestry born in Guyana … I have no idea of what part of India my ancestors were originally from.”
According to Mohabeer, the connections forged between Indians from the Caribbean islands and India can be an important means for them to understand each other regarding their similarities and their differences. It is her hope that when Indian viewers watch her film they might be able to understand “the deep sadness and loss that is imprinted on the psyche of those of us who are displaced and exiled as a result of race, culture, sexuality and nationhood.”
Kwoi’s challenging cinematography and the reputed Lee Pui Ming’s mesmerizing soundtrack (with Ravi Naimpally on the table) have combined with ease to enhance Mohabeer’s rich, poetic style. Choreographer Florette Fernando’s energetic dance number showing a woman at work in the canefield is a visual delight besides being symbolic of collective history; and is an important piece of ethnographic documentation.
Understandably, the history of struggle, sacrifice and solidarity of the ‘Coolie Woman’, as those of indentured stock were called in Guyana, where she was treated worse than in other parts of the Caribbean, is at the very core of the film. By means of interview, commentary and live footage, the point is effectively established that it was she who held home and family together. These strong, hard-working and hard-willed people worked as domestics and gardeners; worked in ricefields and canefields and coconut plantations, sometimes with water up to their waists; briefly, they worked wherever work was available. And, returning to their homes at night, they would tend to their vegetable gardens. The trade union movement brought some of them together, but it was ultimately the spirit of the visionary which saw them through their worst days, Mohabeer more than succeeds in bringing home to the viewer the exiled woman’s back-to-the-wall fight not to surrender any of her identities to the constant barrage of colonial hostility and attempts to humiliate her.
It is no miracle that the ‘Coolie Woman’s’ descendants now sit at many a high table of national and international importance. It is her fierce insistence on freedom from injustice that explains for the transformation.
Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.