Trinidad & Tobago is a very small country filled with every race, as varied as the innumerable species of rice. “One quality we all share as humans is we are all different from each other,” to quote Dylan Kerrigan. T&T seems like a microcosm of the world today at its best. I know I am not seeing the daily or the political problems the people must cope with in their lives, but I do have the privilege not to be a tourist but a participant in trinidad + tobago film festival, a seven year old event. Film, one of the seven new industries this oil-rich republic has designated for development, is vibrant and alive here. This country is not only a tropical paradise with its beaches and its forests, its music and its people of indescribable beauty, but its intelligence — made of Amerindian, African, East Indian, Asian, Arabic, Spanish, French, British and American traditions as translated by the new generation — is unique. The new and well-educated generation, as we all know, has a special edge over the old and the mainstream. What do I mean with these flaunting words?
I am astounded by what I have discovered here. The Caribbean multiplicity of island cultures, T&T’s proximity to Latin America and how the film festival’s founder and director Bruce Paddington sees the film industry developing from this pivotal point inspires me and everyone who attends this festival.
To wax a little bit more poetic: the solution to the “immigration problem” can be solved simply by relabeling the state of the world today as one of Diaspora. When I grew up I thought the word Diaspora pertained exclusively to the Jews. We went through numerous diasporas, from the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem to the expulsion from Spain, then from all Europe. I think that if the greatest thinkers of the western world had not perished in the Shoah, we would have found words and formulations to deal with the issues of immigration and integration we are facing today. The words immigration and integration are antipodes. Looking at Trinidad & Tobago, immediately apparent and a constant topic of discussion in the society itself, in music, art and film, is Diaspora. The entire human race is represented here as a product of Diaspora, not immigrants, but citizens of a society of people in Diaspora. And the Diaspora of Trinidadians in the world today mainly to Canada, New York, U.K. and Miami sees more Trinidadians outside than in the country itself. Diaspora is the new synthesis of the world today.
Speaking of Diaspora, the country’s genius-created instrument, PAN, or the steel drum, the only new musical instrument created in the 20th century, is now a subject of study in most university music schools and has more adherents and orchestras abroad than in the country itself. Pan is compulsory in Finnish primary schools. In France it builds self-esteem and discipline in schools in rough neighborhoods. There are more steelbands in Switzerland (although they are smaller) than in T&T (where a small orchestra has 120 members). In African it is different. Johannesburg ensembles combine pans and marimbas. In Tokyo they are extensions of large corporations. Soon all will come to pan’s Mecca for a grand family reunion. During Carnival, 1,000 steel drum musicians converge here from all over the world where a giant parade and competition called Panorama transform T&T into a musical paradise. You cannot imagine the transformative power of a steel band orchestra (called “pan”) unless you experience it first hand.
A grand transmedia project called PAN is now being planned for 2013 by the film and music producer, Jean Michel Giber (his recently completed Calypso Rose is a doc about a 70 year old Calypso singer) and written by Dr. Kim Johnson a noted authority on the pan in collaboration with story consultant Fernanda Rossi who has doctored films that went on to be nominated for Academy Awards®.
And yet another aspect of Diaspora: Canada whose citizens are also spread throughout the world in diaspora and who has the most coproduction treaties in the world is also here lending strong sponsorship support through its RBC Royal Bank which has banks throughout the Caribbean and Flow which offers internet, telephone and tv throughout the region. This year’s focus is on Canada which is celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations and cultural and creative links between the two countries. Aside from the number of Canadian films screening and the number of Canadian filmmakers attending, Christian Sida-Valenzuela, Director of the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival is on the jury.
The film world here is developing on four levels simultaneously and by design. Inclusive of British, French, Dutch and Spanish colonial and slave-trading traditions, Amerindian, African, Indian, Arab and Asian diaspora communities here are working in film education, festival, production and distribution not only at home but throughout the region of the Caribbean nations, already represented in The United Nations in a 15 member Caribbean Community political consortium called Caricom.
The industry has come to ttff to tell of subsidies and coproduction opportunities, possibilities for marketing and distribution in the global marketplace, and to give immersion workshops on filmmaking and film criticism.
Ttff has formed alliances with Tribeca Film Institute, CBA Worldview — Commonwealth Broadcasting Association aims to improve U.K. public understanding and awareness of the developing world via the mainstream broadcast and digital media. WorldView supports producers bringing the richness and diversity of the wider-world to U.K. audiences. CBA Worldview provides seed funding to producers to enable them to spend time in the developing world researching stories, identifying characters and locations and shooting taster tapes. CBA Worldview itself has alliances with Tribeca, Sundance and IDFA. Other ttff alliances are with Cuba’s ICAIC and the Havana Film Festival, Curacao Film Festival which is itself an extension of the Rotterdam Film Festival, U.S.’s National Black Programming Consortium, a part of the Public Broadcasting System and ACP which is the European Union’s cultural subsidy arm (separate from Eurimages).
ACP has a fund of €12 million to grant in all areas of culture to reinforce and support access to markets, improve the regulatory environment and reduce unemployment, and it grants €10 million of this to cinema and the audiovisual sector. ACP’s Director, Mohamed Ben Shabbaz gave their award to the feature which best epitomizes cultural diversity to the feature Stone Street. On presenting the prize, he reiterated ACP’s motto, “No future without culture” and presented the prize on behalf of its membership of 79 countries and their 800 million people while encouraging filmmakers to submit projects which are eligible if produced by any member of the Caribbean, African and Latin American nations included in the ACP for grants.
Because Guadaloupe is French, it can access the French CNC production subsidies and coproductions with them can share this. The BBC seriesDeath in Paradise has been such a hit that the BBC is renewing the series to the benefit of Guadaloupe’s coffers.
Another incentive to make movies in this untapped and untrammeled region of the world is the 35% rebate on monies spent on production in Trinidad.
All this bounty would stir me as a filmmaker anywhere in the world to hasten to find coproducers in these countries to make a movie out of the myriad of stories that exist here. Guadaloupe novelist Simone Schwartz-Bart’s great novel written in collaboration with her husband, Andre Schwartz-Bart (Last of the Just), A Woman Called Solitude, one of the most emotionally moving novels I ‘ve ever read, has yet to be made into a movie. Dominican writer Jean Rhys’ Wide Saragossa Sea, the prequel to Bronte’s Jane Eyre, has been made in 1993 and in 2006 and yet remains mostly forgotten. Perhaps it’s time for a remake. Or how about the novels of Antiguan Jamaica Kincaid, Cuban Alejo Carpentier or Martiniquese Edward Glissant?
The winner of the Jury Prize for Best Caribbean Film by a non-Caribbean went to Canadian filmmaker Christy Garland for her documentary The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song, a documentary that had the strongest buzz here. The trailer alone moved the audience at the awards ceremony to a collective and spontaneous sigh of sympathy. What a fiction adaptation could be made from the stories these people have to tell.
Some filmmakers are already embedding themselves here. Trinidadian native Ian Harnarin comes from Canada and lives in New York. We met at TIFF this year in a mentoring program where he was one of four most promising new filmmakers. His short was executive produced by Spike Lee. He is now working on the feature length film of the short. “I’m extremely happy to be taking my film Doubles With Slight Pepper to the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival. The film was shot on location throughout Trinidad with a local cast and a lot of local crew. The film has garnered some amazing awards and screened at other festivals around the world, so TTFF will mark a homecoming for it. It’s coming to be very special for the local audience to finally see it with the cast and filmmakers.” This film is available on iTunes.
Alrick Brown, the director of Kinyarwanda, a hit of last year ‘s Sundance FF, led the immersion workshops in documentaries with Fernanda Rossi, a New York based doc scriptwriter. Alrick also teaches at Rutgers and NYU. Andrew Donsunmu, the director of Restless City which Ronna Wallace has been actively repping since Sundance (she just made a good digital deal for the film) and which will be released stateside by AFFRM (as will Kinyarwanda) was part of a very interesting informal discussion which took place on the bus returning from our day at the beach about movement and the almost genetic styles of dance and choices of sports of the African diaspora…like why so many islanders can’t swim, why they don’t eat fish in Cuba, how Samba, Calypso, and a certain Jamaican dance use the same steps though to different beats. Such animated discussions of intercultural topics are frequent here and always fascinate and animate the participants and residents.
The filmmakers also participated in panels for the industry, sharing their motivation and modi operandi. Christy Garland, director of Bastards Sing the Sweetest Song, filmed in French Guyana spoke of how she enters an unknown culture with a vague idea for a subject and proceeds to draw people out until the story unveils itself to her. Patricia Benoit, director of Stones in the Sun which participated in Wroclaw’s American Film Festival for films in post-production competition spoke of her dislike of people always talking of Haiti’s “resilence” in the face of all its troubles and wanted to show the hidden wounds of Haitians with their own history while living in New York. The films title comes from the proverb, “Stones in the water don’t know the suffering of stones in the sun.” You can read Indiewire’s interview with her from Tribeca Film Festival here. Matias Meyer spoke of The Last Christeros, which showed in Toronto and is being sold by FiGa Films, wanting to show not the battles but the spaces between battles when a segment of the 90% Catholic population of Mexico waged war against the state in the 1920s when the government banned religion. American filmmaker Chris Metzler spoke of his film Everyday Sunshine: the Story of Fishbone as a wonderful tribute to failure. Another Trinidadian in Canada, Richard Fung talked of how when he grew up he loved dhalpuri roti and so set out to discover where this spicy flatbread was born in the film Dal Puri Diaspora. Next month Richard will present his film at NYU. One entire panel discussion was given to The Jamaican Collective’s New Caribbean Cinema collection of shorts all made Guerilla style in one day, Ring di Alarm. Shadow and Act covered this last month.
In addition to this productive work of sharing business ideas and sharing the visions of over 120 feature-length and short films, there is the added bonus of being in one of the most amazing spots on earth. Island people, isolated from mainland civilizations and united among themselves by the water which also separates them, have opened their arms and invited us to join them these past few days in celebrating life. They have shared the natural beauty and the music and other arts of their island paradise And imagine the food– a mix, (like the people themselves) of Caribbean, Indian, Asian, Arabian and African cuisine, all so fresh and with a homemade touch which rivals your own home cooking. Bake and Shark, a deep fried pita stuffed with delicious fresh and tender shark, or Roti, a variation of a curry dish found in India, Doubles, another street food well loved by the people. The economy, supported by its oil industry which contributes 60% to the GNP, though 40% is BP, a cause for some political dissension, does not need to rely on tourism for its sustenance. And though this is the wealthiest of all the Caricom countries because of its oil and natural gas, it still has the ubiquitous poverty seen worldwide including in our own United States of America. It is by no means perfect, but…
In Moscow this past June, the event Doors held similar discussions among 25 American distributors and Russian filmmakers about exporting their films and creating viable co- productions. After those three days in Moscow, we were rewarded with the most spectacular trip any of us had ever experienced, driving to St. Petersburg and Petershof, attending the Mariansky Ballet to see Sleeping Beauty and the star ballet dancer of Russia from the best seats in the house, taking a long cruise through St. Petersburg’s canals during the White Nights, when the sun never sets. That trip which we were privileged to participate in (thanks to L.A.’s Russian Film Commissioner Eleonora Granata and her boss Catherine Mtsitouridze who hired us to organize) did not surpass the bonus tour ttff gave us industry-ites to Las Maracas beach where we rode the waves in warm water until a tropical rain storm and hurricane type wind, lightning and thunder drove us out of the water to huddle under a shelter until if passed, and the evening Leslie Fields-Cruz of the National Programming Consortium of PBS and I spent with Trinidadian film and music producer, Jean Michel Gibert of Caribbean Music Group, music scholar extraordinaire Tim Johnson and Nestor Sullivan, music legend, steel drum virtuoso and manager of the prize-winning 120 piece steel band orchestra Pamberi at a steel drum orchestra rehearsal for Carnaval. I can say with authority, this experience was on an equal par with the best Russia has to offer.
Validation of the genius of this country can be found in the story of one man, Anthony Williams, who invented the tuned steelpan, and in a discussion I had with another Trinidad filmmaker, Janine Fung, who won the People’s Choice for Best Documentary La Gaita. Janine, as you can guess from her name, is of Chinese descent, though thoroughly international and Trinidadian to boot. Her grandmother’s extended family lived in Trinidad. Recently the Chinese embassy called her to see if she might research and make a documentary about a Trinidad woman who brought western ballet to China. When they named her she realized it as her grandmother’s first cousin who had left Trinidad to study ballet in London and when she toured to China, she captivated the audience and remained to establish western ballet in China. No one in Trinidad is aware of this and Janine now must make the documentary. I love stories like this. Nestor Sullivan whose father played in the same steel drum orchestra which is 70 years old, told me that his grandmother told him he was the spitting image of her father who came to Trinidad somewhere between 1840 to 60 after slavery had been abolished (1833). His father was a Yoruban prince who was never enslaved except when kidnapped and carried to the New World. Looking at Nestor, you know this to be true. His grandmother was born in 1888. When we did the math, I calculated this was around the same time that my own grandmother was born after her mother had come to USA as a bride in 1881.
Filmmaker, Faisal Lutchmedial (Mr. Crab, a delightful short film of a shy 10 year old boy who idolizes and fears his imposing father and hides and escapes into a dream world, where the frightening Mr Crab with his deadly sharp claws awaits him until he hears the real fear in his father’s voice when he cannot find him) resides in Montreal, and tells of his family’s home in a section of Trinidad which has, to this day, remained almost exactly as it was when his father was a boy in 1945. In fact, he took a photograph of himself standing in the same spot where his father stood as a child and the surroundings are identical. He was looking forward to going there to “lime” for a few days after the festival.
When the two part France TV feature Toussaint Ouveture won two prizes, one for Audience Award for Best Narrative and the other to Jimmy Jean-Louis for Best Actor in a Caribbean film, Jimmy,whose stunning presence is as sweet as his beautiful face, and who is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Creole, spoke sponteously of Haiti’s continued plight and of the fact that this historical epic deserves to be seen as widely as possible to remind the world that Haiti was the first nation to liberate itself and its slaves from its colonial masters 200 years before most other Caribbean nations declared or were granted their independence.
One other discovery I made was of Dana Verde of 3CK Media (meaning 3rd culture kids, a term coined in the 50s by cultural anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem). Dana Verde is a Cuban-Jamaican filmmaker who enjoys telling stories from the Latin American and Caribbean Diaspora. After receiving her MA in Filmmaking from the London Film School in 2008, the Brooklyn filmmaker returned to New York to work as an independent filmmaker – writing and directing spec commercials, music videos and short films. Currently she divides her time between New York and Los Angeles and is venturing into directing feature films that encapsulate a crosscultural perspective. Check out her short Lock and Key on Facebook.
In summation of this whirlwind 4 day trip, it was well worth the 8 hour flight. So immersed was I that I find I must return, and much as I hate to reveal this new untrammeled festival and country, I must tell about it. I was the only press there, but I’m sure it will catch the eye of then rest of the world soon as it is a growth area for film invention and innovation on all fronts, from education (Bruce Paddington who teaches film at the University of The West Indies along with Christopher Meir, a native of Buffalo, New York).to production to marketing and distribution under the aegis of T&T Film Company. Although in the 50s Robert Mitchum filmed The Fire Down Below and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison in T&T and you can be sure he had a blast there, still I feel like I have discovered it anew!
The awards themselves reflect the complexity of a society which, when its own special voice is raised in unison by its citizens, has the grandly unique and harmonic sound of the music of its own steel band. The gala awards ceremony of the ttff/12 took place at the National Academy for the Performing Arts, Port of Spain. Here is a full list of the winners which can also be found here.
Jury Awards: Best Films
Best Narrative Feature: Distancia, directed by Sergio Ramirez from Guatemala
Best Documentary Feature: The Story of Lover’s Rock, directed by Menelik Shabazz
Best Short: Peace: Memories of Anton de Kom, directed by Ida Does
Best Caribbean Film by an International Filmmaker: The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song, directed by Christy Garland
Special mentions in the best film category:
Best Narrative Feature: Choco, directed by Jhonny Hendrix Hinestroza
Best Documentary Feature: Broken Stones, directed by Guetty Felin
Best Short: Awa Brak, directed by Juan Francisco Pardo
Jury Awards: Best Local Films
Best Local Feature: Inward Hunger, directed by Mariel Brown
Best Local Short: Where the Sun Sets, directed by Ryan Latchmansingh
Jury Awards: Acting
Best Actor in a Caribbean Film: Jimmy Jean-Louis, Toussaint L’Ouverture, directed by Philippe Niang
Best Actor in a Local Film: Christopher Chin Choy, Where the Sun Sets, directed by Ryan Latchmansingh
Best Actress in a Local Film: Terri Lyons, No Soca, No Life, directed by Kevin Adams
People’s Choice Awards
People’s Choice Award: Narrative Feature: Toussaint L’Ouverture, directed by Philippe Niang
People’s Choice Award: Documentary Feature: La Gaita, directed by Janine Fung
People’s Choice Award: Best Short: Buck: The Man Spirit, directed by Steven Taylor
Film in Development Award: Cutlass, Deresha Beresford & Teneille Newallo
WorldView/Tribeca Film Film Institute Pitch Awards: Ryan Khan, Joaquin Ruano, Natalie Wei
RBC Focus: Filmmakers’ Immersion Pitch Award: Michelle Serieux
Film that Best Epitomises Cultural Diversity: Stone Street, directed by Elspeth Kydd
Film Criticism Award: Barbara Jenkins, “Three’s a Crowd”, review of Una Noche, directed by Lucy Mulloy
Film Criticism Special Mentions: Dainia Wright, Renelle White
Best Student, University of the West Indies Film Programme: Dinesh Maharaj
AfroPop/National Black Programming Consortium Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award: Mandisa Pantin
50-Second Film Competition: M Jay Gonzalez