Although most of the young nations which now make up the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) (1) did not exist as independent nations until the 1960s, when they liberated themselves from colonial rule, these islands were already making a contribution to world cinema less than a decade after their birth – Jamaica’s 1972 production The Harder They Come being among the more recognized films to come from the region in that era. To date, few other Caribbean films have gained the international recognition and critical acclaim garnered by Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come, leading many to conclude that the nations in this region are not producers of cinema. However, since the 1970s Caribbean nations such as the twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago have been producing a small body of national films that have gone under the radar of the dominant film world.
Not surprisingly, Trinidad and Tobago cinema, perhaps one of the most emergent of all emerging postcolonial cinema is still largely unrecognized as a national cinema with distinct characteristics. In fact, many might consider it a challenge to even attempt to describe and identify a significant body of feature films that are associated with this country. The reasons for this perception are many and include the political positioning of the postcolonial world as receivers rather than producers of cinema in much academic and popular discourse, (2) as well as the fact that many of the nation’s films are produced by filmmakers in the Trinbagonian diaspora. A lack of distribution channels and film archives also contribute to the invisibility of Trinidadian film products. Nevertheless, Trinbagonian cinema has made nascent contributions to world cinema over the last three and half decades. These works embody and reflect Trinbagonian national identity, shaped by its unique history as a former colony in which people from all corners of the globe settled and its political foundations, which emphasized scholarly pursuit as the ultimate means of securing the Trinbagonian dream of self governance and economic development on a national level and translated to social mobility on the level of the family. These pillars of national identity – ethnic plurality in a postcolonial society and education – provide a framework through which to read Trinbagonian cinema as national texts.
In terms of cinematic style, filmmakers in Trinidad and Tobago take a variety of approaches. However, a clear gravitation towards the natural is evident. I refer to “the natural” as opposed to “naturalistic” because the aesthetic treatment of these films can be subtle and “realistic,” in keeping with the look and feel of Italian neorealism for example, or highly stylized, with a brightness and colour palette that seems dream-like or other-worldly. Still, the natural or real world – flora, fauna, on location shooting – is always a key element.
Issues of Identification
In Ex-Isles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema, Mbye Cham, editor of the anthology, outlines three types of Caribbean films. Research shows that these categories are also applicable to Trinidad and Tobago cinema. Based on Cham’s discussion, three types of Trinbagonion films are considered in this study:
1. Films made by Trinidad and Tobago citizens working in Trinidad and Tobago
2. Films made by Trinidad and Tobago citizens in the Trinidad and Tobago Diaspora
3. Films made by non-Trinbagonians in Trinidad and Tobago
Asha Lovelace’s Joebell and America (2004) and Yao Ramesar’s SistaGod (2006) fall into the first category. In the second category are films such as Horace Ové’s Pressure (1975). To this day, Horace Ové still lives and makes films in the UK, and Pressure is distributed by the British Film Institute. While Ismail Merchant’s Mystic Masseur (2001) falls into the third category, bringing an Indian filmmaker into the framework of Trinbagonian film.
Cham stipulates an important condition for this third category. It is essential, he says, that films made by foreigners be made “in solidarity with the conversation” of the other two categories. In other words, does a film made by a foreigner add to a conversation that is from the perspective of the nation rather than an “outsiders” perspective? (3) Foreign filmmakers often use the island as a backdrop, but such films can’t be considered part of Trinidadian cinema. An example would be Robert Parrish’s Fire Down Below (1956) in which two expatriate Americans, Felix (Robert Mitchum) and his partner Tony (Jack Lemmon) sail the Caribbean. At one point they are hired to transport a passport-less woman named Irena (Rita Hayworth) to a neighbouring island in her attempt to avoid deportation from the region.
A love triangle ensues when both fall in love with the sexy Irena and dissolve their friendship because of it. Trinidad serves as a mere backdrop in this film. In fact the story isn’t even set in Trinidad, but with a number of scenes (some functional, some gratuitous) included to show-off the island the result is a film that actually provides a slice of geography and culture that is unique to Trinidad. The carnival scenes featuring the steel pan instrument, for example, are important because music historians know that the steel pan was an instrument invented in Trinidad and Tobago, and later on (largely aided by generic Hollywood representations such as the one in this film) became a symbol of Caribbean tourism. The mise en scene, of course, takes advantage of the beaches and flora extensively. However, some of the characteristic wood houses and corrugated iron fences of the island also make their way into compositions. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the film exoticizes the island. Rita Hayworth even performs a sexy dance that somewhat resembles Trinidadian dancing with sensual hip and waist movements. Still, this film cannot be categorized as part of the national cinema because it’s perspective is in every way that of an outsider looking into the island.
Ethnic Plurality in a Postcolonial Society
The islands of Trinidad and Tobago sit at the southernmost tip of the Caribbean archipelago, only seven miles from Venezuela. The native population of the islands consisted of two main groups, the Caribs and Arawaks (indigenous to the Caribbean). The Spanish were the first Europeans to occupy the islands in 1498 and would virtually eliminate the native population by the 17th century through a combination of exploitive labour conditions and diseases brought from Europe. The 1783 “Cédula de Populacion” (a bill to encourage more Catholic European settlers to the Caribbean) opened Trinidad up to other Europeans – mostly French, Portuguese and Irish immigrants. Tobago changed hands between the Dutch, British and French before the British took control in 1790. Trinidad, on the other hand, remained under Spanish rule with an increasing French population until 1797 when Britain occupied Trinidad. The British brought legions of African slaves to work on the islands’ sugarcane plantations. With the emancipation of African slaves in 1838 the British turned to indentured labourers from India to work on the cane fields (mostly to Trinidad). In 1889 the islands were joined as one colonial entity. This history is what led Trinidad and Tobago’s first Prime Minister, Dr. Eric Williams, to describe the nation as “Afro-Asian on a European base.” (4) Other immigrants came from China, Syria and Lebanon early in the 20th century. The 21st century also saw a wave of immigration (coinciding with the most recent oil boom) bringing more Venezuelans, Chinese, Lebanese and Nigerians to Trinidad, the more industrial of the two islands and the economic centre of the country. Today, the nation’s population of 1.2 million people is, according to the 2000 census report, of 40% Indian descent (from the Indian continent), 37.5% African descent, 20.5% mixed, 1.2% other and 0.8 unspecified. The majority of the nation’s citizens belong to the Roman Catholic and Hindu faiths, with a large minority belonging to Islam and a host of other Christian denominations. The official language is English but some communities speak Caribbean Hindustani (a Hindi dialect) and to a much lesser extent Spanish, French and Chinese.
So what does all of this mean for national identity? From independence onwards, political rhetoric and government policy has set out to create a cultural imaginary of a rainbow nation in which, as the national anthem says, “Every creed and race finds an equal place.” The nation’s official, government sanctioned, holidays include Christmas, Divali (the Hindu festival of lights), Eid ul Fitr (the Muslim new year), Indian Arrival day, Chinese Arrival Day, Shouter Baptist Day and African Emancipation Day, to name a few. The nation’s first Prime Minister, Dr. Eric Williams, was also one of the Caribbean’s foremost intellectuals and historians. He considered racial discrimination a vestige of colonialism that had no place in the new nation. For the most part, this is a concept that has been embraced by the nation’s people. No other time of year may be as exemplary of this as Carnival, a massive two day street parade and party where every colour and every creed of people can be seen celebrating together.
However, historically, some tensions have existed and still exist between the majority Indian and African populations, especially within the lower working classes. Political party lines can be drawn (albeit not definitively so) along ethnic lines with a majority of Indo-Trinbagonians supporting the United National Congress (UNC) and a majority of Afro-Trinbagonians supporting the People’s National Movement (PNM). Nonetheless, whatever tensions do exist have never resulted in racially motivated violence on a large scale. And in the nation’s huge middle class racial harmony is, more or less, a reality.
Ismail Merchant’s The Mystic Masseur is based on a novel by Trinidadian Nobel prizewinner V.S. Naipaul. The production brought together a screenwriter from St. Kitts, Caryl Phillips, and an Indian director. Mystic Masseur also brings together an Indian and Trinidadian cast. Most of the lead actors are Indian. Aasif Mandivi plays the protagonist, Ganesh. The supporting characters are played by mainstays of Trinbagonian theatre and film: Grace Maharaj (Mrs. Cooper), Dinesh Maharaj (taxi driver) and Michael Cherris (Man in Yellow suite). Clearly a transnational effort, such a bridging of international borders and international collaboration is reflective of Trinbagonian national identity. The transnational is thus as much a part of Trinbagonian cinema as it is a part of the national psyche.
The story is takes place in 1945. An early scene in the film opens on the colonial architecture of the Queen’s Royal College, one of the nation’s most prestigious secondary schools and Dr. Eric William’s alma mater. Within these halls, a short but crucial scene unfolds. Ganesh, a teacher, meets with the school’s headmaster who is clearly of African descent. The black man sits in the seat of power and after an exchange in which Ganesh is accused of being an ineffectual teacher the black headmaster calls Ganesh a country “coolie” (a derogatory word for Indian). This scene illustrates the racial tension that exists between Blacks and Indians in Trinidad and Tobago.
Set in rural Trinidad, the film captures life in a pre-Independence Indian community. In Ganesh’s wedding scene, where he marries Leela, a girl from the village, the community sings and performs “nazzo se” – Hindu songs. The traditional wedding ceremony starts with close-ups of Leela and Ganesh’s traditional makeup and clothing. Later we get wider shots of the community, also in traditional wear, dancing and singing. The scene captures a typical feature of Trinbagonian identity: the Hindu community’s preservation of traditional practices.
The negotiation of identity in relation to the first world is inevitably a part of most postcolonial societies. Inescapably, the tendency exists to hail all things foreign as better. As a former British colony, England was the ultimate destination for many who sought the pinnacle of “modernity” and “civilization” in the years after Independence. Recently, the USA, at the helm of the massive wave of cultural imperialism through film and television that has swept over many nations, has taken Britain’s place. In Mystic Masseur, Ganesh, an avid reader and aspiring writer, dreams of one day seeing a real British library filled with books from ceiling to floor. Ironically, Ganesh gains wealth and popularity among Trinidadian Hindu and other Trinidadians who come from all over the island to seek his counsel as a mystic rather than as an academic. He eventually takes up politics but finds himself unhappily disconnected from his people and his books. After a visit to England he learns that his place is in the country with his wife, his books and his people.
The relationship between foreign world powers and national identity is found in other Trinbagonian films as well. Joebell and America takes a direct look at this theme. Directed by Asha Lovelace and based on a short story by her father, Earl Lovelace, Joebell and America is the story of a man who’s convinced that he is a “Yankee” and that he belongs in the US, where everything is better. He gambles his way into enough money to afford a plane ticket and buys a fake passport, concocting a plan to illegally enter the US through Puerto Rico. Joebell is intent on getting the right boots and the right clothes for his trip. He can talk Yankee, walk Yankee and knows Yankee music. Lovelace films the locales in Joebell’s quiet village home with soft lens and that bring out the vibrant greenery and colourful flowers and homes creating a dream-like vision of Joebell’s island paradise. As such, Lovelace emphasizes the irony of Joebell wanting to leave his island dream in pursuit of America.
In SistaGod, the first in a trilogy of fantasy dramas by Yao Ramesar, the protaganist, Mari (Evelyn Caesar Munroe) has a father who is a white US soldier who served as a sniper in the Gulf War. Mari’s father rejects her at birth because her skin is too dark, leading him to believe that she wasn’t his child. Mari’s life is indelibly marked by her father’s refusal to accept her as his own. Through the character of Mari, Ramesar takes the opportunity to examine that part of Trinidad and Tobago culture that longs to be accepted by the first world. SistaGod also reflects the cultural plurality in Trinidad and Tobago. Mari’s father is white, her mother appears to be mostly black, but her grandmother is Indian (very typical in Trinidadian society). The film also highlights the Orisha (African based religion) tradition and Christianity when Mari is considered possessed and her family tries to rid her of her demons.
Pressure, directed and written by Horace Ové with co-writer Samuel Selvon, one of Trinidad’s most notable novelists, is one of the earliest films to emerge from within the framework of Trinidad and Tobago cinema. Set in London, it reflects upon national identity in relation to colonial history through its story about black Trinbagonians living in Britain. The film’s protagonist, Anthony, is the only member of his family born in the UK. The film’s title sequence, set to reggae music, shows sepia toned drawings of a family leaving the Caribbean for life in a cold, foreign place. The opening image is a close-up of bacon and eggs (sunny-side up) sizzling in a frying pan. Metaphorically, the eggs and bacon become a symbol of non-Trinidadianness in the subsequent scenes that unfold. A black woman makes eggs while humming “Amazing Grace,” while a British radio announcer introduces a Jamaican songstress on the radio. The woman hollers for Anthony with a strong Trinidadian accent. He replies with an equally strong British accent and enters the room switching the radio station to British pop before settling himself at the breakfast table. Concurrently, in another location we see a shopkeeper lay out avocados while a man in his late twenties asks,“Pa, these zaboca ripe?” Zaboca is a Trinidadian word for avocado. The man makes a remark about the abundance of zabocas in Trinidad and the relative scarcity of the fruit in London. In London, he says, zabocas are “like gold.” The man, who we soon learn is Anthony’s older brother Colin, joins Anthony and their mother in the kitchen. His mother sets a plate down in front of Colin that looks nothing like Anthony’s plate. He slices up the zaboca and dowses his meal of saltfish with tomatoes and other vegetables with pepper sauce from a small bottle. He invites Anthony to try some. Anthony replies with a scolding tone telling Colin that he should eat the “proper food at the proper time.” Colin reacts aggressively asking Anthony what he knows about “proper food. ” When Anthony’s on his way out of the house heading to yet another job interview, we get a close-up of Colin’s plate of saltfish and vegetables. These opening scenes set up the battle between Britishness and Trinidadianness which the film’s characters face. The saltfish and bacon and eggs are clearly symbolic of Trinidadian and British identity respectively.
Education: A Measure of Worth
The republic of Trinidad and Tobago gained full independence from Britain on August 31, 1962. The People’s National Movement (PNM) led by Dr. Eric Williams was the first government to lead the independent nation. Williams, known as the father of the nation, played a pivotal role in defining the national identity and asserting the values that, in his view, its citizens should aspire to share. In a 1960 address to the nation, which was then transitioning into self-governance, Williams outlined the national objectives for an independent T&T: a strong government, internal autonomy, the development of a national economy and the education of the people. (5) The PNM believed that education was the foundation of a prosperous nation. The extent to which Williams upheld the power of formal education is illustrated in many of his public speeches. In a message to T&T’s young people on August 30 1962, the eve of the nation’s first independence day, Williams closed with these words:
“To your tender and loving hands the future of the Nation is entrusted. In you innocent hearts the pride of the Nation is enshrined. On your scholastic development the salvation of the Nation is dependent.” (6)
Williams held that education was key to forging one loyal national community from the many ethnic and religious groups that settled in Trinidad and Tobago. His government aimed to promote racial equality – not only in legislation but also through presenting equal opportunities in public institutions, especially in schools. (7) Today, the literacy rate in Trinidad is about 98%.
This political history contributes to the “bright boy” archetype found in Trinidadian literature, music and cinema. The “bright boy” or “bright girl” is an educated person who excels in his or her scholarly endeavours. Trinidad and Tobago’s education system is based on a British model where secondary school leaving examinations (O-levels and A-levels) are necessary for graduation and entry into a university. In Trinibagoian cinema the “bright boy” or “bright girl” has an elevated position, one of worth. This is because education is a measure of prestige and worth in the Trinidadian society, talked about throughout calypsos and literature. For example, calypsonian David Rudder’s “Madness” sets the scene of a fantastic party that’s so enjoyable it escalates to the point of insanity (a common theme in Trinidadian Carnival music). In the song, a character named Brown spots a woman in the midst of the party’s bacchanalia and hangs his head in shame because “she have about 10 GCE and went to Holy Name” (she went to a prestigious secondary school and took a challenging number of subject examinations). The woman’s educational standing should set her above the insanity of the party.
In Ové’s Pressure, Anthony’s naïve parents and friends have high hopes for him because he did very well in the British schools he attended and got good grades in his school leaving examinations. But the film challenges the myth of education as a liberating asset since institutional racism in London prevents Anthony from acquiring a job even though his educational qualifications are up to par. Similarly, in Mystic Masseur, Ganesh is respected and lauded in his small village home because he is an educated teacher who is writing a book. His ability to publish his book is a tremendous feat that elevates him to a position of utmost admiration in the village. In Joebell and America, the mother of Joebell’s sweetheart wants her to focus on school and “getting her passes” (passing her school leaving examinations) instead of wasting her time with Joebell who is a gambler with unrealistic dreams.
The thematic focus on education in these films as a means of attaining progress reflects the ideals promoted by Dr. Eric Williams, which have become an integral part of the Trinbagonian national identity.
Cinematic Innovation through Natural Cinema
Most Trinbagonian filmmakers gravitate towards a natural style of filming. In the case of Horace Ové, “natural” means reminiscent of Italian neo-realism. Ové went to Italy as an extra on the set of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1963). There he studied European filmmakers like Luis Bunuel and Federico Fellini. He admits that his style was heavily influenced by neo-realism. “Capturing reality” in his films became his focus. He aimed to locate his stories within the real world. With Pressure, Ové claims that many scenes in churches and on the streets during protest marches were filmed without people being aware that some amongst them were reciting scripted parts. One of the most remarkable scenes is shot on a sidewalk with people passing by, stepping into the frame and staring into the camera. In a Bunuel-esque dream sequence
Colour is also an important part of this national cinema. With Joebell and America, Lovelace accentuates the play with colour to give the flora and fauna an ethereal vibrancy. We never forget how lush and beautiful the island is. Mystic Masseur’s mise en scene relies heavily on the landscape of Trinidad, with the lush green flora, bamboo, palm trees and sugarcane fields filling the frame.
Yao Ramesar’s 1996 article, “Caribbeing: Cultural Imperatives and the Technology of Motion Picture Production,” argues that motion picture technology, having been developed and sustained within Western culture, presents a challenge to Caribbean filmmakers who must “infuse” the foreign technology with their essence. Ramesar supports his argument with an account of the ineffectiveness of early cinematic technology in capturing the skin tones of people of colour, and even in functioning in the tropical outdoor locations of the Caribbean. For a start, he calls for filmmakers to free themselves from technological limitations by recognizing that they can use natural lighting. He ends with a hopeful call for the development of technology built for Caribbean characters and settings. This article provides valuable insight into the mind and aesthetic philosophy of this Trinidadian filmmaker. Ramesar’s SistaGod implements this philosophy. Very little artificial lighting (if any) is used. One of the film’s most striking scenes in which Mari is being freed of the demon that possesses her shows a remarkable light escaping from the possessed girl’s mouth. Remarkably, the effect was created without CGI or any other high tech solution. Ramesar simple placed a metallic coin on actor Evelyn Ceasar Monroe’s tongue and waited for the harsh Trinidadian sunlight to strike the coin in just the right way.
Addressing Problems of Distribution: Hope for the future
The Trinidad and Tobago film industry saw a recent boom in activity due to the formation of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company (TTFCO), which helped fund films such as SistaGod and Joebell and America. TTFCO is a national agency established in 2006 to facilitate the development of the film industry. TTFC provides logistical support and core services to foreign productions in addition to providing production incentives for local producers.
There is also hope for improvement in the area of distribution as May 2010 saw the launch of Caribbean Tales Worldwide Distribution (CTWD), an international film distribution company for Caribbean film content – the first company of this nature in the English-speaking Caribbean. Trinidadian filmmaker Frances Solomon, part of the diaspora in Trinbagonian cinema – working initially in the UK and now in Canada – launched the company. However, at the moment CTWD focuses on institutional distribution as opposed to individual sales, which still makes it difficult for your average Trinidadian audience member to access films.
Made-for-television films such as Joebell and America may prove that broadcast is a viable alternative to traditional distribution channels and a way to reach local audiences more effectively.
- CARICOM Member States: Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago. Associate Members: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos.
- Susan L. McFarlane-Alvarez,”Imaging and the National Imagining: Theorizing Visual Sovereignty in Trinidad and Tobago Moving Image Media through Analysis of Television Advertising.” Georgia State University, 2006. p. 5
- Mbye B. Cham (Ed), Ex-Iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema. Trenton, N.J: Africa World Press, 1992. p. 43
- D. E. Williams, Forged From the Love of Liberty, (ed) D.P.K. Sutton. 1981, Trinidad: Longman Caribbean. p. 225
- Ibid, 316
- Ibid, vii
- Ibid, 203
- Yao Ramesar, “Caribbeing: Cultural Imperatives and the Technology of Motion Picture Production.” Caribbean Quarterly, vol.42 no.4, 1