As of right now, a cohesive Caribbean filmmaking identity and industry does not exist. But the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival is trying to change that.
TTFF, now in its 9th year, is an annual celebration of films from and about the Caribbean and its diaspora. While other global festivals have been around for decades, small local film festivals like it have been sprouting up all over the world in recent years: festivals full of filmmakers and fanatics who are tired of being ignored by larger European or North American festivals. TTFF is on the road to becoming that space for the Caribbean — an all inclusive resort, as it were, for filmmakers of the varying islands to come together to collaborate, showcase their talent and, starting next year, perhaps even sell their films.
Though the Caribbean is still stereotyped as sun, sand and sex, a place where tourists go to be served Piña Colada’s on the beach. But it’s also a hotbed for this budding new film scene. So how does a young festival like TTFF bring together a conglomerate of cultures and skill sets in hopes of creating a cohesive Caribbean film identity and industry?
Step 1: Embrace the Diversity of Multiple Islands
“When you talk about Caribbean films, you have to be aware of the history of its diversity,” said festival founder Bruce Paddington. “When people ask me about the Caribbean aesthetic, I have to, in many ways start talking about history and colonialism, and neo-colonialism and issues of slavery and pirates and languages. You have the French, Spanish, English and the Dutch. The Caribbean still is not completely independent place. So a lot of the films reflect issues of race and ethnicity.”
Patricia Monpierre, a filmmaker from Guadalupe, a territory of France, said that despite these differences, the cinematic themes form the varying islands tend to have similarities.
“Despite the language barriers, we have a common past in European colonization. So we recognize ourselves in the movies [of other islands],” she said. “Most of the time we have the same urban legends, and we have lot of of migration between the islands, so the population mixes a lot.”
However, those commonalities don’t necessarily mean that audiences of individual islands wouldn’t love to see a film specific to their culture. Filmmaker German Gruber knows that experience first hand. Gruber was born in Bonaire, grew up in Curaçao and spent time in The Netherlands after high school. Since returning to Curaçao, his goal has been to prove that there is an audience for films that utilize the local language of Popiamentu, the most widely spoken language on the island. His first short, “El Ieyenda di Buchi Fil,” won Best Short at the 2010 TTFF. Winning the prize inspired him to make his first feature, “Sensei Redemption,” which is entirely in the Popiamentu language and took home a Special Mention prize at this year’s fest.
“It was an experiment,” Gruber said of his first feature. “One of the reasons we made this was to show the people that there is an audience for it. There is a hunger for these films.”
Step 2: Even Out the Technical Playing Field
Though the islands tend to have similar themes within their films, not every island has the same technical skill. The heavyweights seem to be the Spanish-speaking countries, with Cuba’s film industry leading the pack with an industry that has been thriving since Fidel Castro developed a film center in 1959. Indeed, Cuba took home five of the 16 prizes open to non-T+T island nations at the festival’s awards ceremony. Jamaica’s once-thriving film industry has fizzled out as the result of financial decline, leaving highly trained film workers that could be useful on other islands. The Dominican Republic has high quality post-production facilities. The key is merging all of these skills together — and heightening the standards.
“We have a tendency to excuse poor work by hiding behind the ‘third world’ label,” said Trinidadian film writer and critic BC Pires. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, producers still work like line producers, organizing logistics, rather than running projects on a grander scales.
“It’s just a hardcore DIY model,” said TTFF creative director Emilie Upczak. “People don’t necessarily have enough partnerships.”
Other challenges include funding, dealing with varying degrees of local economies, convincing skeptical audiences to embrace local filmmakers as opposed to tried-and-true Hollywood blockbusters and getting filmmakers known on other islands — as well as on a global scale.
“There’s difficulty in sharing their films with nationals of other Caribbean countries,” said Romola Lucas of the Caribbean Film Academy, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and support of Caribbean filmmaking. “It is tough, for example, to see a Trinidadian film in Jamaica — the infrastructure is not there yet.”
Step 3: Creating a Marketplace and Bringing in the Experts
TTFF applied for funding from the EU’s African Caribbean Pacific Fund for Arts and Culture to develop additional programs. Next year, during the festival’s 10th anniversary, TTFF will launch the Caribbean Film Mart and Regional Film Database with the goal of introducing filmmakers from varying islands to agents and setting up a database where Caribbean films can be screened by potential collaborators. The idea is modeled off of Cinando, the Cannes Film Festival’s extensive data bank of film professionals.
“We’re really trying to jump-start the narrative film industry in the Caribbean and to highlight the handful of filmmakers who are doing really excellent work,” said Upczak.
This year, before the marketplace gets off the ground, TTFF was still churning away at introducing up-and-coming filmmakers to global industry professionals. Facilitators included script consultants, producers and financial experts dipping into potentially taboo topics.
“It was one of the first times I’ve seen Caribbean people talking about money with each other,” said Upczak. “Trinidadians don’t talk about money!”
Eventually, TTFF wants to set up satellite locations on other islands and during other Caribbeans festivals so that those who meet in Trinidad can continue their collaboration from separate islands.
These are all lofty goals, obviously, and the Caribbean has a long way to go to catch up to even smaller industries like South Africa and Vietnam that have seen an increase in production in recent years. The greatest challenge of all, Paddington said, is that many people don’t know that the Caribbean has a film industry. But don’t count these islands out just yet.
“I do feel like the international industry is really obsessed with what the new thing is,” said Upczak.
Can Caribbean cinema be that next new thing? As TTFF expands, they’ll try to make it so, one sunny island at a time.