Bim, Bim, Sink or Swim…

It’s agreed to be a landmark in Caribbean cinema, maybe the best film ever made in Trinidad and Tobago. It's now 30 years since the release of BIM...

  • Raoul Pantin, Bim screenwriter
  • photo collage
  • Ralph Maraj in the title role
  • photo collage

The poster summarised the theme: One man’s struggle to come to terms with the society that has alienated him. Released in 1974, Bim was filmed on location in Trinidad and Tobago only a few years after the country had survived black power demonstrations, an army mutiny, and a guerilla movement by idealistic young radicals reaching for a new society. A sense of alienation, especially among young people, was rooted in the slow progress being made on issues like eliminating racial prejudice and reducing inequalities of wealth, a decade after the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1962.

Bim reflected all this, and highlighted the tensions between the African and Indian communities. Thirty years later, it seems just as relevant as it did in 1974.

Bim was not the first full-length feature film to be produced in Trinidad and Tobago — that was The Right and The Wrong, directed by Harbance Kumar in 1970. But it was certainly one of the most important films to be produced in Trinidad and Tobago, and has become one of the classics of Caribbean cinema.

The African-American film-maker Hugh Robertson directed Bim. He had previously filmed an adaptation of Derek Walcott’s play Dream on Monkey Mountain in Trinidad for NBC, and with local directors and investors had established a Trinidadian production company, Sharc Productions.

Sharc brought in professional film equipment and a custom-built production vehicle for location filming. It created a sound stage at Tucker Valley in Chaguaramas, and produced some commercials and documentaries; but its real mission was to establish a local film industry.

Robertson seemed ideally suited for this task. He had recently directed the thriller Melinda (1972), had edited Shaft (1971), and had been nominated for an Academy Award for his editing work on Midnight Cowboy (1969). He was sensitive to local cultural issues, having filmed in Trinidad before, and was married to a Trinidadian, Suzanne Nunez.

The script for Bim was written by Raoul Pantin, a local playwright and newspaper journalist, who had known co-producer Suzanne since childhood. It was originally to have been based on a book about a notorious serial killer, Boysie Singh, but negotiations with the author had broken down.

Pantin instead proposed using an original story. “My understanding was that the Robertsons wanted to make a gangster movie, something in the vein of The Godfather, which I had seen several times. So I went to Suzanne and Hugh and said I could write a film like that out of my imagination. A Trinidad version . . . I knew Trinidad and some of its most colourful, not to mention notorious, characters. I believed I had the ear for Trinidad dialogue and dialect. I was an up-and-coming writer. I would virtually write the damn screenplay for free.”

Pantin wrote a fictional story about a young Indian boy who, having never left the sugar estates of central Trinidad, has to come to terms with an African-dominated Port of Spain in the days before independence. Political rivalry and violence within the Indian community form part of the backdrop. The script may well have been influenced by the career of Bhadese S. Maraj, who reputedly wore a gun at all times and became a leading opposition politician. Trinidad’s Indian community only represented 35 per cent of the population in 1946, but it was soon to become a powerful political force under Maraj’s leadership, leading to disputes between the African-dominated People’s National Movement and the Indian-dominated Democratic Labour Party. Bim was released as these tensions were being inherited by a new generation, with unrest in the sugar industry and the emergence of a new opposition leader, Basdeo Panday.

The film opens with young Bim (Bheem Singh) witnessing the assassination of his father as a result of gang warfare in the sugar belt. He is sent to school in the city, only to find himself bullied in a school whose students are mainly African. Bim soon realises he has to defend himself. As a young man, he associates with the wrong sort of friends; he is soon in trouble and has to leave town to escape the law.

Up to this stage, there are similarities with Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), arguably the best film ever produced in the English-speaking Caribbean. But from here on, Bim is very different. Unlike Ivan in the Jamaican film, Bim does not keep running from the police. He returns to the sugar estates, becoming a leader of the sugar workers and eventually leader of the opposition party. In a key scene he is invited to dinner with the British governor. Like Ivan, he achieves fame and fortune.

But by the end of the film, he has become pitiful, still a victim of his violent past. In the final scene, he shoots two men who try to attack his girlfriend, and the film ends with Bim screaming in desperation as he recognises the monster that he has become.

The role of Bim was played by Ralph Maraj, who was to become a government minister in the 1990s, but was at the time a schoolteacher in San Fernando and a prolific playwright and actor, both stage and screen. He had played leading roles in the country’s first two feature films, The Right and the Wrong and The Caribbean Fox, both directed by Harbance Kumar in 1970.

Maraj describes Bim as a “victim of society, talented and ambitious, someone wanting to carve a place for himself, for what he represented, but he ended up being a victim of the colonial society that we inherited and to some extent which still persists”. Other major roles were played by the late Wilbert Holder, as Wabbam, a shady businessman with police connections, and Hamilton Parris, as a ship’s captain who is involved in smuggling illegal immigrants to Trinidad.

The music was written by André Tanker, who worked with a group of Indian musicians for authenticity. The score successfully fused African and Indian elements; the theme song was sung by master drummer Andrew Beddoe. The soundtrack was later released as an LP by Sharc’s own label. Bim won a gold medal at the United States Virgin Islands Film Festival in St Thomas in 1975, and was shown at the CARIFESTA Film Festival in Jamaica and the Los Angeles Film Festival (both in 1976).

The Trinidad Express critic Elizabeth Solomon-Armour noted in a 1992 review that “Bim became somewhat of an artistic success, winning awards in various film festivals, and it became a West Indian cult movie in the genre of the Jamaican movie of the same era, The Harder They Come. But in Trinidad and Tobago, the country of its origin and the setting for the story, the movie never really took hold. Even before it premiered in Port of Spain, it caused an upset. The film was banned by the censors on the strength of the fact that one of its characters uttered ‘oh s–t’ and ‘mudder a–’ once or twice in the two hours it look to unravel the tale.”

Police Commissioner Tony May, the last white police commissioner in Trinidad, headed the Censors Board at the time. He viewed the film and tried to have it banned because of its use of obscene language, its supposed potential for inciting racial hatred, and an attempted rape scene in which Bim realises his intended victim is a long-lost girlfriend.

The producers objected to the decision and appealed; the full censors’ board then passed the film subject to certain cuts. The producers again objected, arguing that this would affect the artistic integrity of the film. The Minister of Education, Carlton Gomes, appointed a special committee of five persons to review the film, which was eventually passed uncut, but restricted to audiences over 18.

Ralph Maraj laughed when asked to comment on the censorship issue. “That was a lot of foolishness and is reflective of how far we have reached today. I don’t think it would happen now.”

Bim may not have been as commercially successful as The Right and the Wrong and The Caribbean Fox, but it had a coherent plot, a tight structure, credible acting performances, and was technically competent. It focused on a socially relevant story and did not offer an exotic image of Trinidad and Tobago for international approval.

The producers made another film, Avril, based on an original story by Hans Boos and a script by Raoul Pantin, about a voodoo spell inflicted on a young couple and the complications that ensue. The filming was completed, but the Robertsons suffered financial problems with processing and editing. The local currency was devalued to almost half its previous value, and work was halted. In 1987, almost ten years later, the film was finally completed and shown in San Francisco under a new title, Obeah, shortly before the director’s death. It has never been seen in Trinidad and Tobago.

Bim, too, disappeared. Apart from a 1992 video screening at Bretton Hall in Port of Spain, it has not been seen in a Caribbean cinema for almost 30 years.

A number of feature films have been made in Trinidad and Tobago since then, by such directors as Kamalo Deen and Anthony Maharaj, but none of them have so accurately reflected critical social issues. As with all classic works of art, Bim’s message remains as valid today as it was in 1974. Ethnic polarisation, especially African/Indian rivalry, is still a concern. In a scene near the end of the film, at a pre-independence event, a politician approaches Bim and suggests that if they join together they could win all the votes. Bim refuses: “Nigger and Coolie doh get together in politics, man”.

Bim needs to be seen again, and we still await the Caribbean premiere of Obeah. Raoul Pantin believes the region had a great opportunity to develop Caribbean film-making: instead “mired, like good colonials, in other people’s fantasies, we not only failed to encourage what could have been a vibrant local film industry, with international export potential — we as usual shot ourselves in the proverbial foot.”



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