Visual Culture: Trinidad & Tobago Director Sean Hodgkinson on “Trafficked”

Words by Romola Lucas

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Trafficked, by Trinidad & Tobago’s Sean Hodgkinson, is the only Caribbean film selected for this year’s New Voices in Black Cinema Festival, kicking off tomorrow at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The film, which makes its East Coast debut with a screening on April 23rd at 2p.m., takes a look the darker side of life in the Caribbean, and the ravaging effect of the drug trade.

Since its world premiere in September 2015 at the 10th edition of Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival, where it garnered the “Best Local Film” award, the Tobago-shot Trafficked has been touring the festival circuit to great response. It made its U.S. debut earlier this year at the 2016 Pan African Festival in Los Angeles and has just screened in Europe for the first time, at the Festival International du Film PanAfricain de Cannes. Trafficked is the third film from Hodgkinson and his company, Quirky Productions. The Trinidadian writer, director and producer’s previous works include A Story About Wendy and A Story About Wendy 2, both among a small handful of feature films from T&T to have screened internationally.

We spoke with Sean about the challenges of making a feature film in the Caribbean, the loss of his close friend and producer on the film, and the next steps in his creative adventure.

LargeUp: Tell us what this film is about, and why you chose to tell this story.

Sean Hodgkinson: Trafficked is about three friends who go on vacation and are seduced by a charming stranger into doing the unthinkable. I had just returned to Trinidad after the premiere of Wendy 2, at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, and for my next project, I really wanted to do something different [and] darker. As life would have it, I was approached by Garth St. Clair, the host of Eye on Dependency, a popular radio program in Trinidad. He wanted to expand the reach of the program, which focuses on raising awareness about substance abuse.

When we met, Garth’s initial pitch sounded like a government PSA – not the type film I wanted to make. I really wanted to craft a story where people could identify with the characters. He mentioned he had several archived transcripts of interviews of Caribbean nationals who were arrested for drug trafficking, and my interest was piqued. I sat down a few weeks later and listened to a few of the transcripts. I found [one] story to be particularly harrowing, and thought it could be a good starting point. We met a few more times, then I shared the idea with the team, wrote a script, and here I am today.

LU: Making a feature in the Caribbean is no easy task. What was your biggest challenge making the film?

SH: The original idea for the project was to create a pilot for a TV series. However, as filming progressed, we realized magic was happening, and the end product would be too good to just toss on TV. So we set out to make a feature film. Financing was our biggest challenge. Funding we thought was in place was not. Government ministries slashed funding according to whim, causing what was supposed to be a 30-day shoot to drag on for eight months.

When the principal photography began in Tobago, where we had to spend two weeks, money quickly ran out and we lost a couple of days to bad weather. So we had to raise more money to go back to finish those scenes. Then funding dried up again. We were at the point where we thought the film would never be finished. We would have this great movie with no ending. In the end, due to the cast and crew’s perseverance and my and Garth’s continued lobbying efforts, the Tobago House of Assembly came through and supported the completion of the production.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjiAXgh6nss

LU: What were some of the more enjoyable aspects of making the film?

SH: Well, we tackled really dark subject matter in the film. The cast had to go to some dark places. It wasn’t fun, but it was part of the process. When we shot in Tobago, the cast and crew lived in a villa. We ate, breathed and slept film for two weeks. The experience made us a “family.”

LU: How has your experience making the film impacted you and your feelings about filmmaking?

SH: Personally, I learned and grew a lot as a filmmaker. The success of the film has come at a price though, so it is bittersweet. I do think my confidence has grown. There was a point after making Trafficked, when I thought I was done with this whole business, but that was just me being dramatic. I think I was born to do this, and I will chalk up Trafficked, to experience. I do enjoy watching the film with an audience though. Going through that journey with them is exhilarating.

LU: For a film made on a low budget and without a name actor attached, it has been doing really well on the festival circuit, winning “Best Local Feature,” at the 2015 Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival and premiering in the US at the Pan African Film Festival. What do you think accounts for this?

SH: We made the film for a Trinbagonian audience, and they have embraced it. We are inundated with content from abroad and see so little of ourselves on screen, so the idea was to tell a story we could identify with, seeing ourselves and hearing our accent [s] on the screen. I also think the structure of the film has something to do with it. In the beginning, the film is light and jovial, with the characters engaging in “Trini banter,” luring the audience in but, as the film progresses, it rapidly spirals downwards, bringing the audience along for the ride. Hats off to the amazing cast. They worked really hard, and the film’s success is definitely due to their blood, sweat and tears. Lastly, I think the story is universal. We’ve screened the film in Los Angeles, Cannes, Havana [and] Santo Domingo, and the audiences have all connected with the characters.

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LU: What are you hoping the audience is taking away from the film?

SH: I hope we can educate people about the dangers of drug trafficking, especially now. With Trinidad going through a recession, and people losing jobs, this may seem as an easy way to make money, but it comes with a price. Also, the film’s success proves films from Trinidad and Tobago can play on the global stage. We have this way of thinking everything local is inferior, and foreign is better. My putting Trafficked on a global stage says something, and I hope investors in Trinidad and Tobago would see the benefit in supporting our fledgling industry.

LU: One of your closest friends and a producer for the film, Marcia Henville, passed away while you were making Trafficked. How important was she in the production, and what impact did her passing have?

SH: Marcia passed away in February 2015. She was murdered by her husband. Nothing prepares you for that phone call. Nothing. She never saw the final edit. This was a devastating blow to everyone involved in the film. It’s hard to talk about. I break down and sob when I think about it. But I am so proud this film is part of her legacy, and that I got time to spend with her. She helped create the family bond on set and as I say this I laugh, because there were some hilarious moments amid all the drama, and those moments I cherish.

LU: Do you think there is a Caribbean film aesthetic being created as more films are being made? If so, can you describe what you’re seeing as that aesthetic?

SH: I think every director would have his or her own aesthetic based on several factors. I grew up in Trinidad, our family has a vacation home in Barbados, and I was educated in France, England, Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico. My life experiences have crafted my aesthetic. I am all about rocking the board shorts and slippers — we do live on an island — but another director would have had different experiences and would have developed a different aesthetic. I just so happen to be a filmmaker from the Caribbean.

LU: What is next for you?

SH: I am actually working on a short film at the moment, it’s called “The Weekend,” which we are shooting over a weekend in May. Hopefully it will turn out to be a lot of fun. It’s a comedy, with a fantastic ensemble cast and our original Quirky crew. I am excited to return to lighter fare and to work.

Purchase Tickets to see Trafficked at BAM. 

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