“It was a dream come true!” The words may sound clichéd, but there’s nothing ordinary about the pure joy radiating from the young woman speaking them.
Shakirah Bourne, the It Girl of Barbados’s burgeoning film world, is referring to her recent role as writer and director of the soon-to-be released A Caribbean Dream. Gracefully curled in a corner of the sofa, Bourne holds forth on the upcoming movie.
“A Caribbean Dream is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s been Caribbeanised and brought into the twenty-first century,” she explains. The idea came from British actress Melissa Simmonds, no stranger to theatre circles in Barbados. “She’d had it for decades, inspired when she visited Fustic House,” Bourne says. “Melissa thought it would be the ideal setting. When she approached me, she came with the concept, the location, some of the cast and crew, as well as the funding. I simply had to write the script, flesh out the idea.”
Bourne’s regard for Simmonds — co-producer of Dream, and whom Shakirah describes as having “a love for all things Barbadian” — is clear. “She is the kind of woman who gets things done. I was happy to join her on the project.”
She acknowledges that the task of writing the script, which took six months, was an easy one. “Shakespeare did most of the work!” she declares with a laugh. “While I’ve always loved Shakespeare’s plots and characters, as a teen I disliked reading his work. I hated the language. Working on A Caribbean Dream, I now have a greater appreciation of Shakespeare and the language.”
It’s an appreciation she hopes to pass on to local and international audiences. “What you will see when you watch A Caribbean Dream is Shakespeare’s words spoken in Bajan dialect and with a Bajan accent, and the visuals will definitely help with the understanding of the play.”
Thanks, no doubt, to the many delicious Caribbean twists on the original. In this modern-day telling of the tale, Shakespeare’s Mechanicals are salt-of-the-earth Bajan fisherfolk. The character Bottom becomes a woman who, rather than being transformed into a donkey, is now changed into a black belly sheep, the epitome of Bajan fauna. Other changes? Puck is a butler; the fairies wear Kadooment costumes, from Barbados Crop Over; and the music is Bajan too: spouge and calypso (“Except for about ten seconds of classical music,” Bourne says). Instead of acting the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, the fishermen Mechanicals will produce The Untold of Story of King Ja Ja and Young Becka — from a popular legend and Bajan folk song which tells of the attraction of a visiting African monarch to a Barbadian belle.
Flipping the script also entailed introducing some of the Caribbean’s supernatural legends, so Papa Bois, Douens, and Wata Mama all have a piece of the Dream action.
Having completed this stint as director of an international film, Bourne reflects on the fact that her foray into the medium was actually the result of a mistake. She ended up in the wrong class — screenwriting — after enrolling for a fiction writing course at Barbados Community College, and simply decided to stay. “I realised that what I do with my stories, the way I write, is actually better suited to the film medium.”
Bourne laughs as she recalls the making of her first movie, Payday, released in 2013, and the two others (Next Payday and Two Smart) that she’s penned, co-directed, and co-produced as part of the Barbadian film production company Bajans In Motion (BIM). The experiences made “troubleshooter” her middle name.
“Working on that first film, I knew absolutely nothing,” she says. “I was told to bring a boom and I came back with a piece of stick. I learned out of necessity. That’s how I became a producer.
“Normally, I play multiple roles in the making of a movie,” Bourne continues. “Writer, director, producer, runner, prop-maker . . . Usually we don’t sleep and there’s little to no money, so we learn how to improvise. Working on those movies, there were always lots of challenges — so now challenges mean nothing to me. Those experiences taught me how to get around any obstacle. I’ve been well prepared by the guerrilla-type productions we usually do here in Barbados.”
And it worked: Payday might be considered Barbados’s first blockbuster movie. It ran to sold-out audiences for thirteen weeks, an unheard-of feat for any movie in Barbados. “That comedy captured the essence of Bajanness,” one member of the arts community noted. “The audience members were excited to see themselves on the big screen. The movie captured their collective imagination.”
And it was those “guerrilla-type” films — as well as Bourne’s prizewinning collection of short fiction, In Time of Need, self-published in 2014 — that brought her and Melissa Simmonds together. “Melissa read the book and saw the movie Payday. That led her to contact me” — with, literally, a dream project.
But even the Dream came with tests. “The Foreday Morning shoot was really fun,” Bourne says, “but it wasn’t easy. Not at all what we’d planned. Imagine trying to shoot among thousands of drunk revellers. But we managed to get some good footage.”
Other challenges? “Having to shoot around karaoke singing. A nearby bar had a session every night, it seemed. We’d have to time it, waiting for the silence between songs, so we could start shooting. Then one of the lights blew. This was a special piece of equipment which had been brought in for the shoot — not something we could replace with a quick trip to the local hardware store. And then there was the rain. There was lots of time spent sitting around waiting for the rain to stop.”
Much of A Caribbean Dream’s action takes place outdoors, on the grounds of majestic Fustic House, in the parish of St Lucy. This eighteenth-century mansion was redesigned in the late 1960s by theatre great Oliver Messel, and possesses all the architectural drama you might expect of a Messel creation. The location, with its pool (“We turned that into Titania’s bedroom”), Amerindian cave, swamp land, and small woodland (“So we had a forest!”), proved ideal. The film’s set and costumes were designed by Leandro Soto. The Cuban multi-disciplinary artist is known internationally for his avant-garde work, and is a household name in the theatre and film worlds of the Caribbean and South America.
“We left Fustic House only to shoot the beach” — Six Men’s Bay, St Peter — “the wedding” — St Andrew’s Parish Church — “and the Foreday Morning scenes,” Bourne says. “Working at Fustic House was amazing. The staff took care of our every need. They even did my laundry.” The expression on her face suggests it’s an experience she’d love to repeat.
“This was my first time as sole director. I had only one job — to direct. The first time I’m on an international film set, and I am the director!” Bourne sounds as if she still can’t believe her good fortune. “And of course we operated according to international standards, so after twelve hours of work, the set was closed. No twenty-four-hour workdays here. Having more time, being able to relax and focus on one thing, was a joy.”
Then there was the million-dollar budget — “more than I’ve ever had to work with before,” Bourne says. “We were able to do things — special effects, for example — that I’d always wanted to do. Having said that, I have to put things into perspective: US$10 million is low-budget in Hollywood, so this was not a huge budget. My hope is that this movie will be successful so people will see what we can do once we have some investment. I hope when people see this film and its quality, they will invest more. In Barbados, we don’t lack ability, what we lack is money and opportunity.”
Bourne speaks highly of the film’s two investors, Keith Morris and Christian Roberts — particularly the latter, an actor who played alongside Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love, and who would have appeared in A Caribbean Dream, but for illness. “They certainly demonstrated their commitment to the project,” Bourne says, wishing aloud that the industry had more investors like them.
She describes the production as “a perfect collaboration of Bajan and British talent.” The cast includes well-known thespians and respected film production crew from both sides of the pond. “Melissa came with the British crew and cast, I came with some of the Barbadians. Except for our director of photography, Robin Whenary. I insisted on Robin,” Bourne says. “I had come across his work a few years ago while taking an online filmmaking course. The template for that course was a brilliant movie called Skyborn. Robin was the director of photography. When I realised he was one of the DPs under consideration for our movie, I jumped at the opportunity to work with him. I felt it was —” She shrugs. “Obviously meant to be.”
She credits Whenary with helping her translate the script into the vision audiences will experience. “I’m not a techie, so it was up to him to translate what I told him into the tech-speak that my crew would understand.”
And when will audiences, Bardadian and otherwise, get to see A Caribbean Dream? “It will definitely be this year. We’re hoping for it to premiere at a big film festival.” Madame director refuses to say more on that.
She’s optimistic about prospects for local filmmaking. “There definitely is a viable industry here. Too many people have been making a living from this, for far too long, not to call it an industry. But we could, and need to, produce more movies, more feature-length films. Right now a lot of short movies, videos, documentaries, and comedy shorts are being produced. But without distribution, people don’t get to see the work unless they go looking for it.”
Bourne thinks the establishment of a Film Commission within the recently formed Cultural Industries Development Authority (CIDA) should see the industry moving forward. The Film Commission’s mission is to promote Barbados as a prime destination for filming and to facilitate foreign companies wishing to shoot there. The move should lead to, among other benefits, increased employment opportunities for local members of the film-making fraternity.
And casting her thoughts regionally, Bourne points to the need for more cooperation between Caribbean states. “There’s a need for greater communication, officially. Artists tend to find ways of working together, but on the macro-political level there’s a lot of work to be done.”
When quizzed about how Barbadians will react to A Caribbean Dream, her response is swift. “I don’t know! I have no expectations. The audience here never responds the way I expect. In Payday, people laughed, but not necessarily where I intended them to laugh, and in Two Smart, they laughed” — though it wasn’t a comedy.
“I just hope that at the end of the day their response will be advantageous to us.”
As dreams go, that one seems modest.