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How the Caribbean Film Industry is Surviving the Invasion of Hollywood

How the Caribbean Film Industry is Surviving the Invasion of Hollywood

READ MORE: How the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival Could Save the Caribbean Film Industry

There were no real losers at the awards ceremony of this year’s Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, which wrapped its latest edition last month — and that outcome reflected the state of this region’s ambitious film community.

Here, in a small, pretense-free environment, kinship and community were the defining characteristics. The sense of shock expressed by many of the evening’s victors — a youthful, enthusiastic group of filmmakers hailing mostly from the region, and from Trinidad and Tobago in particular — felt sincere. At several points, prizewinners stressed that their rivals, in whose company they had spent much of the preceding week, were equally deserving of recognition.

Now 10 editions old, trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff) — to adopt its own preferred, effectively unassuming lower-case formatting — has strived to centralize, develop and promote Caribbean cinema on an international stage. In each of its past five editions, the festival has programmed an average of 22 films from the Caribbean. This year, it featured 23 films from the region, in a program of less than 60 new features.

Beyond this, however, one of the challenging involved in sustaining Caribbean cinema is the difficulty of concretely recording the numbers of films made here. “Each country’s filmmaking industry or scene is separate from the rest,” said ttff programmer and editorial director Jonathan Ali.

He added that the definition of “Caribbean” isn’t such an easy task. “For our purposes, the Caribbean is comprised of the entire insular region — the English, Spanish, French and Dutch-speaking Caribbean — as well as Belize in Central America and Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana in South America,” he said. In other words, the festival casts a wide net to define its industry.

When it comes to feature-length films made in Trinidad and Tobago, however, filmmaking is both on the rise and in need of additional support — with an average of only six productions made each year for the last half-decade. There have been eight made so far this year — three documentaries, five narrative films. These figures are in themselves a sign of increasing interest in Caribbean cinema. But it would be an understatement to say that further expansion is necessary.

Financial Incentives

When the question facing a regional cinema isn’t so much how to sustain itself as it is how to build itself in the first place, a festival like ttff — under the guidance of festival founder Bruce Paddington and his programming team, led by Annabelle Alcazar — must wear many hats. Over the past decade, its aims have not only been curatorial, acting as a meeting point between filmmakers and audiences, but also educational, building links with a public for whom moviegoing has traditionally been limited to culturally dominant imports from Hollywood.

Indeed, these days, with distribution and exhibition circuits becoming increasingly monopolized throughout the world, no serious-minded film festival in the global south can afford to be a mere showcase for cinema. It must also engage and cultivate a local cinephilia through workshops, panels, and community screenings. The competition? The bottomless budget of multiplex programs (ttff screens the majority of its films across two of the 10 screens in MovieTowne, Port of Spain’s go-to multiplex).

Though ttff’s own budget might not be able to compete with older, more experienced and perhaps — to first-time filmmakers — more alluring and coveted film festivals, it has strived to implement juried competitions and audience awards, all of which come with cash prizes.

“The main idea was to reward excellence in filmmaking by directors living and working in the Caribbean, in fiction and documentary, for feature-length as well as short and medium-length work,” Ali said. “And apart from recognizing the best overall films, we also decided to recognize the best of the Trinidad and Tobago films — the festival, after all, takes place here.” Not counting its people’s choice awards, ttff offers eight prize categories, which this year comprised 13 different individual awards.

This requires good working relationships with sponsors. For ttff, sponsorship deals with the likes of telecommunications firm Flow, oil and gas company BPTT and the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company, are key to its operation. “We found that our sponsors were willing to pay for these prizes,” Ali said. “In the past few years we’ve felt the need to include other prizes, such as for the best emerging Trinidad and Tobago filmmaker, and a youth jury award which, again, sponsors have been eager to support.”

In 2014, Amnesty International suggested the idea of awarding a prize for the film that, as Ali put it, “best highlights a human rights issue in the Caribbean…The hope, of course, is that these prizes serve as an incentive for filmmakers who often struggle to find distribution — in the region as well as outside it.”

Topical Targets

One of the standout films this year was “My Father’s Land.” Receiving its world premiere at the festival — and taking home the aforementioned Amnesty International award — Miquel Galofré and Tyler Johnston’s documentary follows Papa Jah, a 61-year-old Haitian gardener who, since 1983, has lived in “The Mud” — a marginalized ghetto community in the Bahamas. Having not seen his father — now 103 — since he first emigrated in 1974, Papa Jah embarks upon a much-deferred, long-overdue homebound pilgrimage.

Initially drawn to the project on the strength of the protagonist, Galofré and Johnston are compelled by their material to contextualize the social and political predicament that Papa Jah and many fellow Haitians presently face. Fleeing the humanitarian crisis that followed the 2010 earthquake, Haitians have encountered and endured terrible, top-down racism in the region. In widening their scope, Galofré and Johnston meet ordinary folk. Their more tolerant attitudes regarding Haitian migrants are at odds with the official policies of austerity-led neighboring nations, which seek to vilify migrants in order to quell any unrest among their own working class.

Questions of citizenship and nationhood are at the fore of medium-length doc “Citizens of Nowhere.” Regis Coussot and Alexandre Tremblay’s Dominican-Haitian co-production focuses on the Dominican Republic’s decision, in September 2013, to rule 250,000 citizens of Haitian descent stateless, which effectively denied them a national identity. This 52-minute film is a pointed survey of the predictable shift to nationalism on the Dominican Republic’s part. Like “My Father’s Land,” it paints a governmental policy that is essentially antagonistic to notions of a unified, transnational working class. As one interviewee puts it, people’s worst enemies are always their own governments.

New Resources

This year, ttff successfully inaugurated two new (regionally unprecedented) initiatives: the Caribbean Film Mart (CFM), a marketplace that will henceforth take place during each edition of the festival, and the Caribbean Film Database (CFD), an ongoing online directory of local filmmakers. These are key achievements. Found at some remove from such long-standing commercial infrastructures, Caribbean cinema must look inward at the same time as it does outward. It must build its own communities of artistic voices and creative collaborators while aping more established overseas funding models. For its own part, ttff seems sensibly sized enough to pull off that tricky balance of catering to local needs while electing to enter a heavily Eurocentric festival circuit. 

Partially financed by the European Union’s European Development Fund and implemented by the ACP [African, Caribbean and Pacific] Group of States, both the CFM and the CFD seek to provide higher visibility and therefore open international funding opportunities for filmmakers from the region. To see some of these artists humbled with cash prizes for their incomplete projects was to witness just how much it means, confidence- and career-wise, for a filmmaker who’s located beyond the margins of the mainstream to gain some positive, quantifiable recognition for her work.

Credit where it’s due: As the festival director, Paddington is blessed with marketing, hospitality and outreach teams who are experienced, resourceful and tireless. As regards outreach in particular, ttff deserves even more local funding in order to build upon its educational work — which includes free screenings for schools as well as the islands’ less affluent communities during its two-week run.

One way of securing future generations of cinephiles might be to actively imbue younger audiences’ participation in ttff with a sense of prestige and pride. In this regard, the festival’s outreach plans also incorporate a youth jury, which is composed of five local youths, aged 16-21. As the festival’s own webpage tells it, “The initiative was conceived as a way of stimulating interest in and a critical appreciation of independent film among the country’s youth” — though the sincerity of this simple but telling gesture is perhaps best indicated by the fact that the prize is the not insignificant amount of $5,000 TT (around $800 US).
If such initiatives don’t continue to grow, the festival’s in-built vanguard ethic could risk becoming an island in and of itself, visited by international delegates while remaining comparatively little-known to local audiences. These things, as the staff of many a major film festival will tell you, demand year-round endeavors.

Small Places on the Big Screen

Among Port of Spain’s more financially embattled quarters, the hillside ward of Laventille is the subject of “City On the Hill,” a likable mid-length documentary by Patricia Mohammed and Michael Mooleedhar. Commissioned as part of a wider initiative designed to document the cultural heritage of East Port of Spain, “City On the Hill” works within the typical parameters of such multimedia projects, and comes as a helpful corrective to the much-maligned reputation of Laventille.

Lucky enough to be guided, one morning, through the film’s locations by Mooleedhar himself, I was taken by the calming, laid-back beauty of this apparently infamous part of town — and the filmmakers do well to capture the vitality of the place and the people who live there.

“The media has portrayed Laventille to be a place that if you enter, you will be robbed or killed,” Moolheedhar said. “That is how I felt on the first day of filming and I can remember my mother being very concerned, saying I was risking my life. My feelings quickly changed after experiencing the friendliness the community showed us. I realized this was a place full of hardworking people as any other place, trying to survive and raise their community from a violent lens that had been placed upon them.”

Shifting focus away from received ideas about a place can be a delicate matter — especially when crime figures there remain relatively high. “Laventille does suffer from gang violence,” Moolheedhar admits. “But how could we as filmmakers help solve this problem? We felt the story of murder and violence of this space had been told. We wanted to change the perspective of how people see this place and reinforce to the people that they were valuable and have been great contributors to our society.”

Another notable documentary was “Vanishing Sail,” by Antigua-based Alexis Andrews. Managing for the most part to avoid generalism in favor of a concrete brief, “Vanishing Sail” traces the history of boatbuilding on the Grenadine island of Carriacou alongside the erection of a new boat by Alwyn Enoe, a native septuagenarian who recognizes that his cultural heritage is about to be lost forever. 

Using Alwyn’s progress in building his boat as a structuring principle, Andrews also makes the most of a readymade metaphor: the ever-changing tide. Though it’s his first film, this is in some ways familiar terrain for the director. Born in Greece, he sailed to Antigua in 1986, and, as is revealed here, never left. An advert photographer of yachts, among other things, Andrews interweaves several of his long-term passions here for an insightful and poignant documentary that is part social history and part Herzogian portrait of resilience and determination in a far-flung locale.

“Vanishing Sail” not only outlines the history of Alwyn’s disappearing trade. The film also demonstrates how Caribbean culture has developed in dialectical relation to the rest of the world. “Trading by sail was once the lifeblood of all the islands,” Andrews said. “Fishing and smuggling alcohol and cigarettes on smaller island sloops continued a little longer until now, when only outside interest keeps the trade alive.”

As it looks to link up with more commercially dominant film industries, Caribbean cinema might take a lesson from this. While pursuing funding and distribution opportunities, through those finance and development platforms whose numbers are increasing at film festivals all across the global north (such as Rotterdam Film Festival’s notable Hubert Bals Fund, for instance), Caribbean filmmakers must also find ways to resist being homogenized by an industry that seeks, in the name of marketability and its own commercial survival, to systematize other cinemas around the world — particularly those in the global south.

Next Steps

“My Father’s Land,” “City On the Hill” and “Vanishing Sail” were all deserved winners at ttff. For all the celebratory vibes during awards night however, notions of community and kinship remain double-edged swords. One potential downside to something as necessarily small as a “Caribbean film industry” is a kind of incestuous positivity, which can often prevent genuinely provocative artworks from being made. From this visitor’s perspective, the region’s filmmakers are not engaging seriously enough with the sociopolitical currents that underpin local life here. The general outlook, however well-meaning, is uncritical. Documentarians are prone to making introductory overviews, whose celebratory outlooks rush through the region’s rich and complex history.

How these filmmakers are to develop into more critical thinkers has always been a complex proposition. As Caribbean filmmakers continue to brush shoulders on an international stage, their confidence will need to grow. Only through active, first-hand experience of working within a more sophisticated filmmaking infrastructure — free from the fetters of sponsored commissions — will Caribbean cinema truly begin to flourish. Such developments are certainly within ttff’s reach.

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