Where have all the Caribbean movies gone?

The Caribbean has a thriving film industry – but it's struggling to make itself heard and seen

  • Cuban film poster
  • Haitian director Raoul Peck, based in Berlin. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Jamaican filmmaker Lennie Little- White. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Gloria Lourne
  • Agliberto Melendez, director of the controversial Un Pasaje de Ida. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Screenwriter/ Producer- Norman de Palm of Curaçao. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Curaçao director Felix de Rooy. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Suzy Landau, director of the Images Caraïbes film festival in Martinique and secretary-general of the new Caribbean Film and Video Federation. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Martinique's Euzhan Palcy directed Zakes Mokae (left) Donald Sutherland (right) and Marlon Brando in a Dry White Season. Photograph by MGM
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  • Felix de Rooy's controversial Ava and Gabriel (Curaçao)
  • Martiniquan director Euzhan Palcy. Photograph by Bruce Paddington

The Caribbean is often seen as a string of exotic islands with palm-fringed beaches, populated by happy calypso-singing natives waiting to serve rum punches to the tourists. Many a feature film set in the Caribbean has helped to perpetuate this myth: Doctor No, The Comedians, The Mighty Quinn, Cocktail, Fire Down Below, Island in the Sun, Gold of the Amazons.

Mbye Cham in his book Ex-iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema argues that, while the Caribbean has a long acquaintance with cinema, it is only as a resource for foreign productions which use the region as a backdrop “to manufacture an image of the Caribbean radically at odds with the reality of the people.” The resulting films are then finished in Europe and America and are distributed internationally and in the Caribbean.

Thus while the Caribbean is soaked in imported film material reflecting metropolitan values, its own film-makers, drawing on Caribbean resources and expressing Caribbean experience, find themselves up against tremendous barriers. Short of regional facilities and capital, they still produce fine work; but most of it does not reach a mass audience even in the Caribbean, let alone internationally. The names of leading Caribbean film-makers and their work remain unknown to most Caribbean people.

What can be done to reverse this situation? Can the Caribbean have a film industry, or is that just a dream? Caribbean film-makers want to steer the region away from being a consumer, a mere resource for Euro-American productions, towards becoming a producer. As Cuba’s foremost film director, Tomás Guitiérrez Alea, says: “The cinema has a great influence on the people, and we have a great need to recognise ourselves on the screen, to reflect our own problems and to build our own identity. I think it is very important that people have a sense of ownership of the media and of their own identity . . . ”

The process began in the 1970s. There have been some significant steps along the way: the establishment of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry in 1959, Jamaica’s The Harder They Come in 1972, Euzhan Palcy’s international success with Rue Cases Nègres and A Dry White Season. Several Caribbean countries have already produced outstanding directors and films: not only Cuba, but Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Martinique, Jamaica. But this work is little known.

And reaching a mass audience in the Caribbean is not a simple matter. The region is still fragmented, and contacts between the English, Dutch, French and Spanish countries are still difficult. There is no regional distribution system. Because there is no common language, distribution requires effective dubbing or subtitling facilities. And above all it requires an assault on popular tastes which are now deeply attached to the ceaseless flow of entertainment from American television, film and video.

Dubbing and subtitling American feature films and televisions shows into Spanish is already a thriving industry in Miami, Venezuela and Colombia. Neutral Spanish accents are used to allow American material to be distributed in Latin America and the Spanish speaking Caribbean. Cuba has sophisticated facilities, which are used for producing English or French versions of major Cuban Productions.

But the English-speaking Caribbean has no facilities yet, and its audiences regard subtitled films with suspicion. People will go to see a subtitled Kung-Fu movie, and Indian audiences in Guyana and Trinidad will go to see a subtitled film from India, but a French or Spanish film subtitled into English will not find an audience. Many Caribbean film-makers have produced subtitled versions of their feature films, to encourage European distribution. But clearly the language barrier is a major obstacle.

Film festivals are one way of whipping up regional interest in film. The region arts festival Carifesta, held in Trinidad and Tobago in August 1992, included a film season, and there have been festivals in Jamaica, St. Lucia and Curaçao. The Images Caraïbes Film Festival in Martinique attracts large crowds in Fort-de-France each June, and subtitles as many films and videos as it can afford, using a complex system that projects synchronised titles onto the screen. But significantly the film attracting the largest crowd so far was Raoul Peck’s Haitian Corner, because the Martiniquan audience could easily relate to the French-based creole Peck used.

The Caribbean is yet to produce any major commercial hits to put it on the international map. Many of its directors have been operating outside the region: Raoul Peck in Berlin, Horace Ové in London; the president of the Black Film and Video Network in Toronto is the Trinidadian producer/director Claire Prieto. Films like The Harder They Come and Rue Cases Nègres achieved significant regional success and keen followings in cinemas catering to Caribbean and art audiences in America and Europe. The Martiniquan director Euzhan Palcy successfully raised funds in Hollywood for A Dry White Season, but says: “I am not interested in doing Hollywood stuff. When they give you more money, you get pressures from the studios and you lose control of your material.”

The film industry is still looking for its equivalent of Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae artist whose music crossed all regional and international boundaries with its universal appeal. The Martiniquan writer Aimé Césaire feels the Caribbean must be patient. “I think that Antillean cinema is still in its infancy. It is not Brazilian cinema yet. Let us wait and give it a chance to grow.

But regional cinema has already developed its own lobby group. Last March in Curaçao, a group of Caribbean film and video-makers created a Caribbean Film and Video Federation to launch an attack on the problems. The President is Raoul Peck, the Haitian film director. June Givanni, originally from Guyana and now working at the British Film Institute in London, is the secretary, while the Secretary-General is Suzy Landau, Directrice of the Images Caraïbes Film Festival in Martinique.

The Federation’s members include television producers, film directors, actors and film archivists with a shared involvement in Caribbean film, meeting across all differences of language, culture and ideology. Their aim is to develop the production and distribution of film and video by and about Caribbean people, and all the back-up facilities which that requires.

The Federation aims to infuse new energy into the existing industry. “To be frank, it scares me,” says Raoul Peck, asked about his responsibility and the task ahead. “But we are nine board members and we are all going to work very closely together. I am looking forward to integrating all those people, so that we are really a team, so we can start the work; because there is a long way to go.”

Cuba Tomás Guitiérrez Alea
in 1928, Alea graduated in law and studied film-making in Rome. His
most famous film is Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), the story of a
middle-class intellectual who decides to stay in Cuba after the
Revolution and begins to write his memories in search of a reason to
live. Alea explains: “His contradiction, the source of what is eating
away at him, lies in knowing that he is alienated within cultural
patterns which are not those of his own environment, and that
nevertheless he cannot assert his condition through a position of
struggle.” Other films include This Land of Ours (1959), Histories of
the Revolution
(1960), Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), The Last Supper
(1976) and Cards in the Park (1988).Santiago Alvarez
in 1919. In 1961 he worked with Alea on a documentary on the Bay of
Pigs invasion. In Now (1965) and LBJ (1968) the theme was racial
discrimination in America and its involvement in the Vietnam war. Now
must rank as one of the first music videos, for Alvarez used the music
of Lena Horne and juxtaposed powerful images of the civil rights
protests. Alvarez has made hundreds of newsreels and documentaries,
filming in Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Far East.Other major directors
Huberto Solas (Un Hombre de Exito, Lucia),
Sergio Giral (The Other Francisco, Maria Antonia),
Juan Carlos Tabio,
Orlando Rojas,
Gerardo Chijona,
Daniel Diaz Torret.

Torret’s recent film Alicia, a satire on the problems of the
revolution, received international attention and was withdrawn after
only four days, despite large crowds. However, the authorities had a
change of heart and it was shown as part of the 1991 Latin American
Film Festival in Havana.


Felix de Rooy
Rooy has directed three feature films: Desirée (1984), Almacita di
(1986) and Ava and Gabriel (1990). All three were written by
Norman de Palm, who produced the last two for their company Cosmic
Illusions. De Rooy was in class at New York University with Spike Lee
and Ernest Dickerson, Director of Photography on his three films.
Desirée was shot in East New York, while Almacita and Ava and Gabriel
were filmed in Curaçao. De Rooy sees himself as part of two cultures,
both African and western Catholic.

Almacita is set in an
isolated agricultural community of former slaves at the turn of the
century; Ava and Gabriel is set in 1948 Curaçao, and uses English,
French, Papiamento and Dutch. “It is a love story about a painter who
comes to the island and wants to paint a Black Madonna in the
Cathedral, and all the conflicts that arise out of this interpretation
of spirituality.” The film was a big hit in Curaçao and won the Golden
Calf, the highest film award in Holland, but was fiercely attacked by
the Dutch press.

Dominican Republic

Agliberto Melendez
has only made one feature film, Un Pasaje de Ida, but it caused quite a
stir. It is based on the true story of forty young Miami-bound
stowaways on the freighter Regina Express. “Somebody blew the whistle
on them and the authorities wouldn’t let the freighter sail. They hid
in a ballast tank and started suffocating, and most of them died. Only
eight survived. That was in 1981. I wrote a script based on that. We
interviewed several of the survivors and researched the trial records.
The whole film is Dominican, the money, the actors, the technicians.
The only thing we got from overseas was equipment, the camera and the

The film won twelve awards at film festivals in
Europe, the United States and Latin America, and has been sold to
Channel 4 in England and Spanish television. Melendez is trying to
raise money for his second film, dealing with the encounter of the two
worlds in 1492.


Christian Lara

has made six feature films. Coco La Fleur Candidat (1978) is one of the
few Antillean feature films to use creole as its first language. Lara
believes that “creole constitutes one of the criteria of authenticity
for all Antillean films. The Antillean spectator can only see
her/himself in her/his language.” Lara’s films have been criticised for
being imitative and unoriginal and for reinforcing the exotica of
Euro-American productions about the Caribbean, but he has also been
praised for his entrepreneurial skills–raising resources to make films
and for helping to put on screen leading Antillean actors such as
Robert Liensol, Greg Germain and Franz Zoba.


Gloria Loure
Gloria Loure is a Guyanese film-maker based in Holland; her recent film The Wall was made with Jamaican actor Marc Mathews.


Rassoul Labuchin
Anita (1982), a blend of the real and fantastic in the style of Alejo
Carpentier, Jacques Stephen Alexis and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a
landmark film.

Raoul Peck
Peck is based in Berlin.
His first feature film, Haitian Corner, was shot in New York in 1988 on
a minimum budget with lots of voluntary support and funding from
German, French and American sources. Using creole, it deals with a
poet, once imprisoned in Haiti and now living in exile in New York, who
one day recognizes his torturer working as a kitchen hand in a
restaurant. The film won first prize at Images Caraïbes in Martinique,
the best actor prize at Cine San Juan in Puerto Rico, and special
mention at the Locarno film festival in Switzerland. Peck’s
sixty-minute documentary Lumumba (1991), has won three prizes in film
festivals in Freiberg, Paris and Amiens.

Peck’s new film The Man
on the Quay
is a full-length feature set in Haiti in 1960 during the
rise of the Duvalier dictatorship. Filming was transferred to the
Dominican Republic after the Haitian military coup of September 1991.


Perry Henzell
was responsible for the landmark film The Harder They Come, released in
1972 and using all-Jamaican resources– story, theme, social issues,
music, funding, cast and direction. Michael Thelwell, who went on to
write a novel based on the film, says: “It was a historic cultural
event. The crowds were unprecedented in size and fervour, lines of
people completely encircling the theatre.” Starring Jimmy Cliff, the
film recounted the exploits of Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin, the first and
most dramatic of the great ghetto gunman who was shot dead by police in
1948. The film achieved cult status and was acclaimed wherever it was
shown, especially by Caribbean audiences in England, America and


The success of The Harder They Come
inspired other reggae-influenced Jamaican productions such as Rockers
(1978, directed by the Greek Theodoros Bafaloukos), Children of Babylon
(1980, Lennie Little-White) and Countryman (1983, Dickey Jobson).
Countryman was produced by Island Records, whose owner Chris Blackwell
went on to produce Lunatic in 1991 with a Jamaican cast and actors,
although with an English director.

Jamaica has established a
film office to attract major film companies to use Jamaica as a
location. An average of two feature productions a year earns useful
foreign exchange and provides employment for local technicians and
artisans and some actors in supporting roles.


Euzhan Palcy
1983 Palcy directed Rue Cases Négres (Black Shack Alley), adapted from
the novel by Martiniquan writer Joseph Zobel. The writer and politician
Aimé Césaire helped to create the conditions for the film’s success in
Martinique, and supported its production.

Palcy went on to make
A Dry White Season about apartheld in South Africa, starring Donald
Sutherland, Marlon Brando and Susan Sarandon. Her third film, Simeon:
Zouk Spirit,
returns to the Caribbean to deal with the impact of French
Caribbean music on the world.

“It is a very sexist, racist and
tough world,” Palcy admits. “For us black film-makers there is no
alternative but to try to do our work as well and as perfectly as
possible. No compromises, no I’m from the Caribbean, so people will
understand and forgive. No, no, no! We must be as demanding and
exacting as possible with ourselves.”

Puerto Rico

Jacobo Marales
Lo que le paso a Santiago, produced by Pedro Muniz, was nominated for
an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film. It is a touching story of
Santiago, a 65-year-old widower, who lives alone with his memories
until he meets and falls in love with Angelina.

Marcos Zorinaga
also has an international reputation. His films include La Gran Fiesta
(1986) and Tango Bar (1988). Puerto Rico has enacted legislation to
encourage private investment in the film industry: La Gran Fiesta
received decisive support from the Puerto Rican government.

Trinidad and Tobago

Harbance Kumar
produced a series of low-budget features in the early 1970s: The Right
and the Wrong, Caribbean Fox, Operation Makonaima
(much of which was
filmed in Guyana). They included some fine photography by Bob Hawkins
and achieved enough commercial success to encourage Kumar to direct The
Man from Africa
with Michael Walker and its sequel The Girl from India.
Bacchanal Time
and Turn of the Tide, produced by Horace Wilson, were
also low-budget projects.

Horace Ové
Brought up in
the Port of Spain suburb of Belmont, Ové has returned to the Caribbean
after 30 years abroad, mostly in London. He has directed more than
20-features and documentaries, mainly for television. They include
pioneering work on reggae and Carnival the first feature on
contemporary black life in Britain (Pressure) and the 1991 TV
mini-series The Orchid House.

Hugh Robertson
artistic success was Bim (1975) directed by the African American Hugh
Robertson, who had directed Melinda with Calvin Lockhart and had won a
Grammy for editing Midnight Cowboy. Starring Ralph Maraj (now his
country’s Minister of External Affairs) and with a screenplay by Raoul
Pantin, Bim was a sensitive and incisive look at a turbulent phase in
Trinidad and Tobago’s pre-independence history. Robertson’s last film
Obeah (originally Avril) has been seen in the United States but not in


Roman Chalbaud
La Oveja Negra
(1988) tells of a gang of thieves who live in an
abandoned movie theatre in Caracas. Beautifully photographed, the film
combines a twilight urban police plot with a symbolic underworld of
mythical figures. Chalbaud is one of the few Venezuelan directors whose
films are both a commercial and artistic success.

Michael New
a Trinidadian, has been living and working in Venezuela as a film
director since the early 1970s. He is based at the University of the
Andes’ Film Production Centre at Merida, and made his first hour-long
fiction film, Rosa de los Vientos, in 1972 for US$5,000. Other films
include 35mm (1978). Cubagua (1987) was a low-budget feature about five
hundred years of colonialism, paralleling the story of an engineer with
that of a conquistador. New has sold the film to television stations in
England, Spain, The Netherlands, Poland and Ireland, but so far it has
not been shown commercially in Venezuela or in the Caribbean. New sees
a plain choice between art films and commercial films; the latter need
a big star and English, while the former require integrity, Caribbean
values and a small budget.

Many Cuban
film-makers are now working in video because of national economic
constraints; there is a flourishing National Video Movement with a
membership of 77 groups.

Trinidad and Tobago has several active
video production houses, including Banyan, whose work includes Crossing
an encounter between a Trinidad calypsonian and a Ghanaian
musician, and Caribbean Eye (1991), thirteen thirty-minute
documentaries on Caribbean culture for UNESCO. And The Dish Ran Away
with The Spoon
(1992), a fifty-minute documentary for the BBC on the
effect of satellite television on Caribbean culture, won two awards at
the 1992 film festival in Martinique, sharing first prize for films
about the environment and development with The Sea Wall: Tales of the
Guyana Coast
(Gloria Lowe and Ray Kril).