Visual Culture: Director Maria Govan on “Play the Devil”

Words by Romola Lucas
Photo by Abigail Hadeed

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On the heels of the world premiere of Bahamian director Maria Govan’s newest feature film, “Play the Devil,” at the 2016 LA Film Festival, we talked with her about making the picture and about being a Caribbean filmmaker. This is Maria’s second feature film. Her first, Rain, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, and went on to be widely screened and distributed.

Play the Devil tells the story of Gregory, a gifted student from a working-class family in Trinidad, favored to win a scholarship to medical school, who secretly wants to be a photographer, and who plays a Paramin Blue Devil, at Carnival. James, an older, wealthy businessman, seduces Gregory with his money and support of Gregory’s artistic inclinations. When James cannot accept Gregory’s boundaries, the relationship spirals into a fateful dance during the “Jab” (devil) play, on Carnival’s Monday night.

LargeUp: Why did you want to tell this story?

Maria Govan: One of the catalysts serving as an inspiration for this story was that of a teenaged boy in Trinidad, who committed suicide after his lover threatened to out him to his family. This was one of those stories that really broke my heart. I did not know this young man, I had just heard the story and I looked up his picture on Facebook, and I felt really devastated because I am a queer Caribbean person, who, in my early years, struggled with my queerness and with just being different, and had my own sort of self-destructive path, as result — so I was deeply impacted by this story.

At the time, I was working on a documentary of a Bahamian playwright, Winston Saunders, who had written a play named You Can Lead A Horse To Water. The play is inspired by a boy who murders his mother and he’s on trial. In one particular scene, he talks about how they tried to get a horse to drink and it wouldn’t, and they killed it. Then when I saw the blue devils of Paramin, this play came to mind along with the story of the kid suffering around his sexual orientation and somehow these stories collided in my mind, and I told Abigail [Hadeed, Maria’s partner and the film’s producer] I want to tell the story of a boy who plays a blue devil because the entire ritual was so stunning and cinematic. The idea and metaphor of it struck me personally.

I wrote the script in two weeks and it was hands down, the best first draft I’ve ever written. It was not something I had to search for or belabor. It really was a gift to me. And this is not my story. I’m not a black boy from Paramin, but I just listened to what was coming, and wrote it all down.

LU: What do you want the audience to take from this story?

MG: Although the story of the boy is real, the film is completely fictional. I wanted to look at what denial does in our lives – denial of our authentic selves and what we regard as our shadow side. I hope the film will move people emotionally – I want them to feel things and I tried to create a world and situations and characters who are multi-faceted and complex enough the audience finds it difficult to cast judgment, that touches them (the audience) in such a way, they can understand a situation and a world and relationships that might feel foreign to them but can create an empathetic space in them.

LU: Why were the Paramin Blue Devils so fascinating to you?

MG: Their ritual. The idea that if the devil is given his dance and his due, then he can be paid and asked to leave the village for the year. So, they actually create a space for the shadow, a sacred space.

I feel in the West, we are so obsessed with having a perfect life free of suffering and what we deem “bad,” we don’t recognize that part of life is actually the Shadow. It is inevitable we will suffer and the more we repress those things within ourselves, the more we feed them, so it’s a disservice to ourselves not to create a sacred space and find compassion even for the things within ourselves that we struggle with.

LU: Did you need permission to shoot the Blue Devils?

MG: Yes, we got an actual blue devil band Abigail had known for several years. She had been photographing them for decades – she is really the first Trinidadian photographer to really document the Blue Devils, the way she has. So her relationships with the villagers are very deep and because of the trust there was, we had a lot of access to things and places we probably would not have otherwise had. It was really Abigail’s intimate relationships that allowed us the access we had.

LU: What impact do you hope the film will have on your career?

MG: I’ve really been reflecting on that. I’m really inspired by the Caribbean because I grew up there, and it’s my home and it raised me up, but it can be a difficult space to work in – funding and casting being the biggest and most obvious reasons. So, now I want to bridge worlds a little. I don’t want to be limited to being a Caribbean filmmaker, although I want to celebrate that, but I would love to be considered as a director for projects which come up in different parts of the world.

LU: How do you feel about the film you have made?

MG: I think [it] will stand out as it is a world people have not seen. It has texture, and music and sound and images that are really unique to the film and the place, and I think it will get some recognition by virtue of that. I’m happy for Trinidad, and the government of Trinidad who I hope will get recognition, because Carla Foderingham, who was the film commissioner at the time, put together this grant that was really significant, for the project. I tip my hat to her because she was not only working hard to develop Trinidad as a destination for film, with the amazing rebate they offer, but she was also developing the local filmmakers. I hope it gives to the country and the industry as much as it has given to me and to our team.

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LU: How was making this film different from the making of “Rain”?

MG: I’m self-taught. I didn’t go to the film school. I worked in LA in film production for 4 years when I was 19 and I moved home and started making films. I made a lot of documentaries, which I did just about everything on, before I jumped into a feature fiction.  I was crazy enough to do that with Rain. I didn’t begin with a short. I just jumped into this big production. I was naive enough to do it but it turned out to be this incredibly challenging but amazing thing, because it taught me so much and thankfully I don’t owe any money to a fancy school. Though it was a baptism by fire, RAIN went on to TIFF (Toronto) and Showtime and I am grateful to say that many people love that film.

Play the Devil was a lot different. I had a very supportive team. They gave me a lot of confidence.  I feel like I made the film I saw in my head, that I imagined on the page and though we had immense limitations, I feel proud of what we were able to create within the context of our budget and level of experience we were working with.

LU: You mentioned earlier, you are queer. Is it important to you to make films with queer characters and/or themes?

MG: It is very important to me to make films with queer characters. What is really important to acknowledge in the Caribbean and in my work in general is what I think is one of the most devastating things that exists in the Caribbean, is the level of denial and hypocrisy. People know what everyone is doing, but so long as it is kept under wraps, and it is not talked about, we go along with the lie. It’s a very sick culture for that reason. There are so many levels of denial of the truth. For me, the film is deeper than the denial about homosexuality, and is more about the pervasive hypocrisy and culture of dishonesty that exists in many Caribbean societies, and that I think needs to be tackled.  I think one way of doing it, is by exposing it in film, as much as we can, to start breaking that down.

LU: How do you feel about screening the film for Caribbean audiences?

MG: I welcome showing the film to Caribbean audiences. I’m excited for the dialogue. I think this film will be a catalyst for a lot of different conversations. I think it’s a film people will walk out of the theater with feeling very differently about and will have a lot to say.

LU: What are your thoughts on the current state of filmmaking in the Caribbean?

MG: I think there’s an amazing wave building in the region and, collectively, the English-speaking Caribbean countries are working to support indigenous voices. It’s more difficult in some countries, but for example, there is the Trinidad + Tobago Film Festival, and the work Emily Upczak has done with the Film Mart was a tremendous gift to the Region. During the Film Mart last year, it was the first time, as a Caribbean person, that I felt so connected to the region at large. I felt like a Caribbean national, with brothers and sisters around me that have a lot of similarities. Our region is so rich and each country has its own unique identity and our stories, although similar, are really distinctive and different. The Bahamas and Trinidad are very different places, but because the world’s view of us is so superficial. people don’t really know the difference. With films people are going to start understanding that there is all this great texture, and history and layers to the Caribbean.

Romola Lucas is the founder of the Caribbean Film Academy.

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