Wanted: Caribbean Film Investors with Imagination

Most film-makers still think of the Caribbean as a setting rather than a subject, and the region's own directors and producers remain obscure

  • Shooting Angel in A Cage in Trinidad. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Cuba’s Strawberry and Chocolate explored the lifestyle of contemporary Cuban artists. Photograph by the British Film Institute
  • Horace Ové’s The Orchid House
  • Horace Ové The Orchid House
  • Euzhan Palcy (Martinique). Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Horace Ové (Trinidad and Tobago). Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (Cuba). Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Euzhan Palcy’s Black Shack Alley: young José remonstrates with plantation workers in Martinique. Photograph by the British Film Institute
  • From Dancehall Queen. Photograph by Jampro
  • Courtesy Bruce Paddington
  • Photograph by the British Film Institute

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Jamaican film The Harder They Come. Starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliff, written by Trevor Rhone and directed by Perry Henzell, the movie achieved virtual cult status, and is being re-released in several US cities. It was also a watershed in Caribbean film-making. Financed and directed by Jamaicans, it dealt realistically and honestly with Jamaican street life, and starred Jamaicans and Jamaican music.

Until then, the Caribbean had been merely an exotic backdrop to Hollywood films like Fire Down Below (starring Robert Mitchum, Rita Hayworth and Jack Lemmon), which was filmed in Trinidad in the 1950s. Tobago was used as the location for The Swiss Family Robinson in 1957, around the time that Mickey Rooney came to Trinidad with a view to opening a film studio. Since American bases were established there during the Second World War, the island had spawned 300 cinemas: Rooney felt it had a near-perfect climate and could accommodate Hollywood’s appetite for a diversity of tropical locations, from the South Pacific to the Amazon.

Unfortunately, the then colonial government refused permission — but Rooney’s view is still valid today: the conditions are still just as advantageous.

Producers still use the Caribbean as a set, though location is rarely relevant to the plot. Recent additions to the collection include Cocktail with Tom Cruise, The Paradise Club with Robin Williams, Ridley Scott’s White Squall and even Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt (part of Jamaica was cast as New Guinea). The Firm, again starring Tom Cruise, was partly set and shot in the Cayman Islands, while Speed 2 used St Martin.

Film companies are notoriously big spenders, and from early on the Jamaican government saw lucrative possibilities in hosting foreign crews and shoots. Through Jampro (the Jamaica Promotions Office) it set up a Film Office in Kingston, and offered tax incentives to foreign production companies. All scripts are vetted, and local film technicians have to be employed as much as possible. The foreign currency intake is good, and the interaction between local and visiting film workers is beneficial.

The system works. This year, 20th Century Fox is shooting Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Back Her Groove in Jamaica, starring Angela Bassett. Set in Montego Bay on Jamaica’s north coast, the best-selling romance has already worked wonders for the tourist industry. Shattered Image with Dennis Hopper is the second big-budget feature using Jamaican locations this year: clearly, there’s a successful service on offer. Over in Trinidad, the Merchant-Ivory team is due to shoot a V. S. Naipaul novel.

But all this hasn’t had any lasting impact on the development of an indigenous film industry. Most Jamaican production houses depend on commercials and music videos for regular work: the one or two big-budget American productions that come in are the icing on the cake. As Producer/Director Lennie Little-Whyte explains, “Jampro’s mandate is solely to encourage foreign production into Jamaica, which it does very well. It does not really concern itself with local film-makers and their struggles.”

With an eye on the success of The Harder They Come, other films have come out of Jamaica over the years, including Dickie Jobson’s Countryman, Smile Orange written by Trevor Rhone, and The Lunatic. At the other end of the Caribbean, there has been some interesting work from the Dutch Caribbean, notably Curaçao. Trinidad produced a series of films in the sixties and seventies, but only one — Bim, directed by the American Hugh Robertson who was trying to establish a local industry (it starred Trinidad and Tobago’s present Minister of Foreign Affairs as a badjohn) — achieved some of the raw realism towards which The Harder They Come pointed. They were all made on shoestring budgets: The Right And The Wrong, Operation Makoaima, The Caribbean Fox, and more recently, Men In Grey and The Panman.

None of these projects had more than limited success outside the Caribbean. Whether future projects will have more luck remains to be seen. Last year, Jamaican Beat, with American actress Sheryl Lee Ralph and Jamaican Paul Campbell, a thriller filmed on Jamaica’s north coast, had a summer release in the US. And Island Films released Dancehall Queen: shot on digital video in Kingston, with a Jamaican crew and cast, it was about a single mother struggling to support her children until she won a dancehall competition. Dancehall Queen, Chris Blackwell boasted, was “the biggest film ever in Jamaica. I’m so excited I can’t tell you. Now we can start to roll.” Blackwell, with his long involvement with Jamaica and its music and culture through Island Records, financed the film and its subsequent blow-up to 35mm. “The main idea is to integrate completely the music and the visual into one strong unit and to use the one to help promote the other.”

Both reggae and now dancehall have been established successfully abroad; Blackwell believes it is a “whole Jamaican trip” that people want to experience, which is why good work can attain virtual cult status in overseas markets.

Only the Cubans, with full financing from their government, and to a limited degree the Francophone islands (which, as départements of their motherland, receive substantial support for their arts), have what could be termed “a film industry”.

Cuba has an active, vibrant film school which has long been under the leadership of Gabriel García Márquez. The 1994 production Strawberry and Chocolate by the celebrated director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the first Cuban film with an openly gay main character, won prizes at several festivals and was released in the US under the sponsorship of Robert Redford. Before his death in 1996, Gutiérrez collaborated with Juán Carlos Tabio to make Guantanamera, a satire about bureaucracy, one of Gutiérrez’s favourite subjects. Two of his early films, Death Of A Bureaucrat and The Last Supper, are Caribbean film classics.

The newly-released Bitter Sugar, directed by Cuban-born Leon Ichaso, is set against the volatile backdrop of modern-day Havana, and tells the story of a student who, despite his idealism and belief in his country, dreams of winning a scholarship to study abroad.

But these achievements are rarely, if ever, exhibited in the rest of the Caribbean, and the names of veteran directors are virtually unknown. Félix de Rooy, for example, of Curaçao, whose Ava And Gabriel is undoubtedly one of the best Caribbean-made films. Set in Curaçao in the late forties, the film explores the controversies, hypocrisies and intrigues sparked off by a black artist commissioned to paint a mural of the Virgin Mary.

The best-known Caribbean director is probably the Martiniquan Euzhan Palcy. Her 1983 film Black Shack Alley, based on the novel by Joseph Zobel, was a child’s view of life on the plantation, set in her native Martinique, and projected a view of the islands not often translated onto celluloid. Its phenomenal success at film festivals launched her Hollywood career. Palcy went on to make A Dry White Season, set in South Africa with Marlon Brando and Donald Sutherland, and is currently in pre-production with three films: The Bessie Coleman Saga, about the first female black aviator, starring Angela Bassett, Danny Glover and Gerard Depardieu; Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby (which she will produce) with Wesley Snipes and Thandie Newton; and Toussaint L’Ouverture with Danny Glover, about the great leader of the Haitian Revolution. Tar Baby is to be directed by fellow Martiniquan Willy Rameau, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, which Palcy will direct herself, is to be made on location in Haiti. Haiti’s own leading film-maker, Raoul Peck (Lumumba, Far From The Shore), is at present shooting Corps Plongé in Paris.

Peck is also the Minister of Culture in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, where the Federation of Caribbean Film-makers — the most recent attempt to breathe life into regional film-making — has its headquarters.

In 1992, a meeting was held in Curaçao at which Caribbean film-makers, from both the islands and the diaspora, decided that a federation was the only way for a louder, more potent voice to be heard. It was unanimously agreed that a regional film industry was vital; Caribbean audiences needed a vision of themselves other than the rather negative one projected in most American films. There was tremendous potential in a thriving film industry. Burkino Faso, in Central West Africa, produced several feature films every year and hosted a highly respected Biennial Film Festival: why could the Caribbean not do the same, if not more?

It was hoped that funds could be raised through the European Community (English, French and Dutch territories were involved) to set up archives and a database for production personnel and equipment. But these funds never materialised, and the Federation runs on a limited scale, producing newsletters and still trying to complete the database.

Raising finance is the main problem faced by film-makers worldwide. Only the United States and India can make films confident that they can get a return on their investment from a home audience alone — and then only with mainstream movies equipped with the necessary sex, violence, car chases and box-office stars. Anything produced outside the studio system is considered independent and risky. Film is a high-cost product: even a low-budget picture costs US$6 to 8 million.

Last year, independents did better at the Oscar awards than ever before. But the Australian film Shine (which won the Best Actor Oscar for Geoffrey Rush) took 12 years to get to the first day of principal photography. Even The English Patient ran out of money half way through.

So most film-makers have to depend on foreign markets, which usually means the United States, and that immediately imposes creative constraints on the subject matter. Script and casting will be controlled from outside — the correct “package” has to be put together.

But there are many producers and directors who are determined to go it alone, to do it their way, no matter how long it may take and how small the budgets they have to work with. Low budget does not imply poor quality — a good story, well told and well made, will always sell.

Mary Jane Gomes is based in Toronto where she teaches at Ryerson College. She has recently finished filming An Angel in the Cage, the first in a proposed trilogy of films about her Portuguese family’s history in Trinidad. This first part was set in the 1920s and tells the story of two brothers, the Xaviers, who fight for control of the family winery and for the love of a woman. Dying of tuberculosis, the heroine (the caged angel of the title) escapes the narrow confines of her life by imagining the Scarlet Ibis of the Caroni Swamp. After her death, her husband takes her daughter to see the birds, to fulfil her mother’s dream.

Only a few days were spent in Trinidad. All the interiors were recreated in Gomes’s home in Toronto with period props left behind by more lavishly budgeted films. She took a year to shoot what normally could be done in two months, because everything had to be done on a variety of small grants from Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Cable Production Fund and other sources. The distributors intend to enter it at the Cannes, Berlin and Venice Film Festivals. If it is successful there, parts two and three will be considerably easier for her to finance.

Christopher Laird of Banyan Productions in Port of Spain, Trinidad, recently produced a 10-minute pilot, written and directed by Tony Hall and funded by a small grant from UNESCO and Pan Trinbago, for a feature film set in the 1950s about steelpan. He is trying to raise the rest of the money for this as well as for a series of short films from different islands. The first of these, Uprising, by Jamaica’s Chris Browne, was again made with the help of a UNESCO grant. Laird believes that unless governments realise the importance of film and television and subsidise the industry in some way, a viable industry cannot evolve. His company survives making local television programmes and videos.

For over 25 years, Trinidad-born Horace Ové worked out of London, directing films in locations as diverse as India, Nigeria, California, New York and Britain. Several productions brought him back to the Caribbean over the years. King Carnival was made for the BBC in the early 1970s, about the premier Trinidad festival. The Nubas, set in the Southern Sudan, was filmed in Trinidad’s Diego Martin valley with locals playing the regal, athletic tribesmen.

In 1991, Ové shot The Orchid House, based on the novel by Phyllis Shand Allfrey, in the island of Dominica where it was set. This was the first costume drama to be made in the Caribbean by British television; set between the wars, it is the story of a crumbling white family told from the nanny’s point of view. The production employed hundreds of people as extras, as well as carpenters, painters, drivers and assistants. The series was extremely successful and sold worldwide, prompting other film companies and commercials to use Dominica as a location. One enterprising local travel company even started to offer Orchid House Tours to all the locations used in the film.

St Lucia was used for the first part of Caryl Phillips’s The Final Passage, directed by Sir Peter Hall and, like The Orchid House, financed by Britain’s Channel 4. Set in the 1950s on a small Caribbean island, it told the story of a young couple’s unsatisfactory life and their dream of going to England, their journey, and their subsequent disillusionment. It provided a wonderful opportunity for actor Michael Cherrie, who won the lead role and who had never left the Caribbean. After filming the second part of the story in London, Hall offered him a place in the Royal Shakespeare Company (sadly, English Equity, the actors’ union, refused to grant him membership).

The success of The Orchid House persuaded Ové to return and set up a base in Trinidad from which to finance and make films locally. He is currently looking for finance for Steel, based on a Derek Walcott script, set in the 1950s, about two boys involved in the turbulent early days of the steelband. Trinidad’s evolving politics and independence provide the background to the story. He is also developing an action movie set in the islands with major stars: both films are universal in theme and appeal.

“Finding finance here is not easy,” Ové admits. “The money men see film as a high-risk venture and prefer to stay safe with real estate or insurance. What they don’t realise is that there are so many sources of return now in addition to cinema tickets. Cable, video, DirecTV, CDs, whatever. It is important that we as Caribbean people realise the value of our culture and recognise our own artistic ability in a global sense. We must start producing and selling our own product and stop just being consumers.”

The Caribbean is still relatively uncharted territory in terms of film. The diversity of its people and landscape opens the door to a vast range of subjects and genres, appealing to audiences far beyond the region. It is an area rich in untold history and stories. Its literature and writers are well-known and acclaimed. There is no shortage of talent behind or in front of the camera. But if anything as illustrious as “a film industry” is to evolve, Caribbean governments will have to inject the necessary capital and provide the incentives to attract investment. A percentage of the money raised from the national lottery in the UK has recently been allocated to the always ailing British film industry. In Jamaica, a tax is levied on cinema ticket sales — though, as Lennie Little-Whyte emphasises, “not a cent goes into the making of local films.” Little-Whyte is one of many film artists agitating for change. “Politicians have to realise that cinema is the largest and fastest growing industry in the United States. There is an ever-expanding market for product.”

Most of the islands are relatively young, their independence coming only in the 1960s, so it is understandable that there are more urgent claims on their limited resources. But a nation’s art and culture embody a people’s essential spirit. It is vital that this is not forgotten along the path to progress.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.