Keeping the Crossroads Open: Caribbean film making new waves and presence at the Island House Film Festival

By Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett

The University of The Bahamas

Caribbean film and filmmaking is leaping and bounding into a new level of smart! The third annual Island House Film Festival (TIHFF) was held this past weekend from February 1st- 3rd, 2019 with a focus on documentary works from the region and beyond. The films that I write on all had their directors present speaking about the development of their films, giving festival attendees the chance to know more about their practices and the industries that makes their work possible. I want to focus on three Caribbean films, two from the Anglophone region and one from the independent French Caribbean, Haiti.  Both Haiti and English-speaking Caribbean countries are growing in their filmic representation or voice.

Kafou, 2017 a film about the Haitian reality truly captures the dark and light of everyday life. Having focused my attention this year on the Caribbean selection of films, I am writing about this film given its intense sociological and emotional impact. The film directed by Bruno Mourral is dark yet comic in its everydayness and the fact that life is often comic even in its tragedy.  The film is reminiscent of a greek tragedy, filled with people and noise, light and clamour, action and confusion that all spring into a story of corruption and mistake.

Promotional image from Kafou.

Kafou provides an interesting window into life and thereby opens discussion about things we often try to overlook. A deeply nuanced reading of Haiti and the tragedy of life there, we see the crossroads and the complexity of the relationships we choose, the decisions we make, and the sacrifices we must make at each intersecting path  in our lives.  The director and writer talk about the film, but nothing quite prepares the viewer for the impactful and harsh deadly reality and the interconnectivity of spaces and lives, the juxtaposing of religion and corruption and the humour used to convey how we survive in our own dysfunction.

At the beginning of the film, the tough decisions needed to be made to survive seem almost savage.  As the Chief, Captain Friz Bama played by Manfred Marcelin orders his two guys Doc, played by Jasmuel Andri, and Zoe, played by Rolapthon Mercure, are goaded into shooting each other.  Kafou is a picturesque film that takes the viewer through the dark and seemingly endless roads of nighttime Port-au-Prince; the Chief demands three things, not to roll down the windows of his car, not to open the boot and never to stop on the road, no matter what.  Each one of these three cardinal commandments are quickly broken by the two who seem almost hapless in their bumbling foolery yet their dire need to survive.

Promotional image from Moving Parts.

I had thought to try to bring the three regional films, Unfinished Sentences (2017), by Mariel Brown, Moving Parts (2017) by Emilie Upczak’s showing the serious underbelly to Caribbean lives notwithstanding the Paradise myth we inhabit.  However, they do not work together in that vein.  Brown’s work is so experimental and so beautiful, bringing the feminist gaze to a deeply human relationship between parent and child, family dynamics and the reality against which it is all set, the colonial–post-colonial world of moving between Jamaica, Trinidad, and England.  The camera can move in ways with experimental film that are almost not permissible in mainstream Hollywood life where seams and cuts are almost always hidden from view and the gloss of artificiality; everything seems lovely.

In Unfinished Sentences, Brown shows the beauty yet untidiness of life.  Her camera shows loads of detail that our gaze often misses when trained by a consumerist expectation of film.  Brown narrates most effectively the story of her father, Wayne Brown and his relationship with her in particular but also the pieces that come together to form their family relationships. It is a pessimistic relationship between what is there and what is absent but not really absent. The overlayings and underlayings of stories and images are deeply nuanced and poignant.  Apart from the deep bond between filmmaker and her father what is present is the colonial hangover that never actually leaves the family dynamic.  However, the family grapples with and then moves beyond the dysfunction imposed by life and loss, the relationships inaccessible between father and son, based on a generation of unflinching stoicism and colonial upbringing.

Promotional image from Unfinished Sentences.

And to close, we begin with water and we end with water. Upczak’s camera shows the arrival of a boat coming down the islands, into the mouth of Port of Spain, and ends with what we assume is a boat leaving Port of Spain after the dream never quiet materialises.  Human trafficking is not a topic that most people wish to discuss, lumping it in with smuggling and arguing that all are equal in their criminality.  However, Moving Parts peels back the covers off a taboo subject and reveals its complex relationships with all our lives.  It is the not seeing that we do not wish to see that comes up in our nightmares that we try to avoid through nocturnal amblings. Yet another very successful capturing o ht daily reality of Caribbean life.  Paradise myth is brought into sharp relief in these three films.

Whose life is paradise in the tropics?  In Kafou, the crossroads are held by the mythical mythological dog, Papa Legba or St .Peter at the gates, but who crosses over?  The crossroads is an interesting place where life changes, often imperceptible until the shift has occurred.  The merging and blending of Catholicism and Vodun and hard life and luck are so intertwined in this film that they occur naturally.    His uncle’s death at the crossroads in the ghetto is not only the breaking of the casket that the soundtrack plays earlier but shows the overlaying of sound over image, dark with light; the play between the spiritual and the earthly illuminates the ugliness of life and poverty.

The cinematography is amazing in the three films, each is distinct in its gaze and its focus.  Kafou is far more of a male, Greek chorus, reminding us of the Orlando Patterson novel, Children of Sisyphus (1968)  where the crowd eventually kills the protagonist, through crow power. Kafou captures this mess of neighbourhood and ghetto.  The lines blur and it all happens in the crossroads.  Meanwhile, in Moving Parts, all the bits come together and illustrate the serious precarious nature of life. The cameras capture shots of the everyday, the mundane and the rough and grimy and at the same time highlight the beauty underneath.

The films, bring together a fabulous conversation of Anglophone Caribbean cinema and the space for female directing and the woman’s gaze. They also show the little seen everyday life of the everyday people beset by poverty and misfortune yet trusting in their community and their faith, the tangible and the intangible to get them through. There are brutal aspects to Kafou and Moving Parts, jaggedly portrayed through camera cuts, scene contrasts and a language nuanced by simplicity and complexity.  The pulse of Downtown Port of Spain from day to night changes, yet the drama and almost airy desertion of Port-au-Prince is only eclipsed by the final scene when the film culminates and unravels in the ghetto at the crossroads as Jesus breaks the coffin. A song plays while Zoe and Doc are in the car trying to negotiate their flawed now disentangling and doomed relationship and futures and comes full circle as the uncle’s head is crushed by a block. Thieves are simply not accepted in Port-au-Prince; life is too hard to be stealing from people in the ghetto.

A stunning and distinct array of skills, shots and presentations that articulate the splendor of different and unique views and talents coming together in a weekend of intense filmic pleasure at the third annual Island House Film Festival.  The films are tense and sometimes painful, but incredibly rewarding.  We see humanity at its best and worst. These works speak to us on multiple levels and show the exceptional talent and skill available in the Caribbean narrative, while demonstrating their individuality and uniqueness of vision and nuanced understanding of the human condition.