Check It Deeply: The Caribbean From Our Lens

October 26, 2016

Words by Sharine Taylor

Belly (1998) was director Hype Williams’ first and only feature film, and who could forget how iconic of a film that was? The cinematic cues, colour palettes and the looks all made Belly sell awff. One of the most memorable features was the part of the storyline set in Jamaica. It was interesting to see how a director from outside of the Caribbean interpreted a particular lifestyle within the country. Four years later, in 2002, Cess Silvera released another cult classic shot between the States and Jamaica, Shottas. Like Belly, it explored themes of gangs and crime, and was received well both on the island and in the diaspora. But we think it may open up some insight into something else. Yes, Shottas resonated with people because of its rawness but it also showed how impactful a film about the Caribbean can be when created by someone who is from the Caribbean.

Directors and writers from outside of the Caribbean certainly can have a great impact in their depictions of the region. However, you’ll definitely notice the difference in production. A love for dancehall led Nick Cannon to his create his own directorial debut, King of the Dancehall, which premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival. There were some key decisions Cannon made to ensure that the production gave the audience a genuine look into the world of dancehall. It was filmed in Jamaica and employed Jamaican talent, including first-time actress Kimberly Patterson as the leading lady, choreographer/movement coach Jae Blaze, Shottas co-star Ky-Mani Marley, and, in the role of the narrator, dancehall king Beenie Man. With the exception of Tory Lanez’s “Luv” and Drake’s Popcaan-assisted “Controlla,” the soundtrack too is strictly Jamaican. Still, it had us wondering what would this production have looked like if it was informed from a more Caribbean lens?

Nick Cannon in King of the Dancehall (2016)

Haiti-born director Guetty Felin’s Ayiti Mon Amour screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival as well, and, also in September, served as the opening night film for the Third Horizon Film Festival in Miami. Instead of adding to the collection of foreign productions that cloud international understanding of life in Haiti, the director uses the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake as a backdrop for the story of fictional characters healing from hardships in their own life, amidst the broader recovery of the country. Ayiti Mon Amour is active in its reclamation; dialogue is mainly in Kreyol, and the crew and cast were all Haitian. Dotted with moments that celebrate local communities and the people of Haiti, the film flips the usual depiction of the country and its citizens as helpless, and instead highlights their power and resilience.

The documentary RasTa: A Soul’s Journey offers another example. Though directed by an American, Stuart Samuels, the 2011 production was written and executive produced by Jamaican-born Patricia Scarlett, and follows Donisha Prendergast, granddaughter of Bob and Rita Marley, as she travels the world to gain a greater understanding of the Rastafari movement. “Rastafari needs to be understood on a more global scale outside of Jamaica,” shares Prendergast. “People often think about a man wearing dreadlocks, playing music and smoking ganja, and that is the definition of Rastafari, however, I traveled all around the world and saw so many other things.”

The idea for the documentary came to Scarlett after encountering Rastafarians from all walks of life on work trips abroad. After meeting with Pendergast years later, and producing an earlier project called Rastafarian Then and Now: A Message to Jamaica on a smaller budget, she was able to execute the doc and disrupt traditional tropes of Rastafarians that she saw in mainstream modes of media. “There aren’t many Caribbean people that are depicted in mainstream media. The odd time that they are presented, it’s usually the stereotypical ganja-smoking, token, Rasta man or just a black person doing a Caribbean accent. It’s [someone playing a] Jamaican saying, ‘Ya mon,’ but not much else.”

DVD cover for Cess Silvera’s Shottas (2002/2006)

Let’s think back to all the mainstream films or television shows we know with Jamaican characters: Cool Runnings with the struggle patois and, more recently, shows that have unconvincing Jamaican characters with minor roles, like Power and The Get Down. So we have the representation. Everything set good, but not really. It’s not an accurate representation, and that’s where it can pose as problematic.

The alternative is providing platforms for Caribbean people and those of the diaspora to showcase their talent. For 11 years, the CaribbeanTales Film Festival has made providing this platform its mission and goal. During her 13 years at the BBC, festival founder Frances-Anne Solomon saw that content was made by and for British people, and began to wonder why there was nothing like this that existed for Caribbean people. She decided to change the landscape by founding the film festival, an incubator program for filmmakers from the Caribbean and Diaspora, and a distribution company, CaribbeanTales Worldwide Distribution, the first of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean. With the knowledge that individual film industries in each Caribbean country would be hard to sustain, the need for the CaribbeanTales film festival appeared as a necessity.

“CaribbeanTales [was founded] in order to create that content, and create space for that content, and to brand Caribbean films as a brand themselves which is about post-colonialism, which is about multiculturalism,” shares Timmia Hearn, the festival’s Marketing and Outreach director. “It’s about that mesh… inter-generational stories; stories of displaced people; claiming our own identities. I would say that, over the last eleven years, the concept of Caribbean cinema has emerged and we’re now not the only ones who have that concept. We’re not the only distribution company anymore.”

There’s power in reclaiming your voice, and at the current moment, Caribbean filmmakers are claiming control of how the people of the region are seen and heard. Showcases such as the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (which also celebrated 11 years last month), the newly-launched Third Horizon Film Festival and CaribbeanTales are not only a means for artful liberation, but a political tool of decolonization. “Even if you’re doing art for art’s sake…it always has a message, it always has a political implication. Right down to who directed the film, who wrote the film, who [it is] marketed towards, all of these things are critical,” Hearn shares. “CaribbeanTales is a space where we focus on decolonization; we focus on decolonizing narratives, decolonizing screens.”

A scene from Ayiti Mon Amour (2016)

We know ourselves better than anyone else, so why shouldn’t we have the power to be the purveyors of perception? Scarlett raises a good point by questioning objectivity with regards to film: “It does matter who tells the story. I don’t believe in objectivity. I think we bring all of ourselves, our histories, our experiences, to anything that we undertake. It’s very hard to separate that. People are always talking about objectivity. I was shaped a certain way by my home environment, the people I went to school with, family members, and how do you separate that from yourself? I don’t have the answer but I know that it’s critical for us to be the ones telling the stories.”

This is a valid point to raise. There are things within our cultures that we are way more equipped to speak to than others. Doing research when stepping into cultural spaces outside of one’s own is a must, just as ensuring you are surrounded with a crew and cast that can help inform the production is better than relying on stereotypical portrayals. When thinking about the roles of non-Caribbean directors, or just directors who are entering the cultural spaces of others, Prendergrast says, “I think they have a very heavy responsibility because the person who is deciding to [create a film] is telling a story that does not belong to them. Even if you’re writing it or composing the character, if it isn’t based directly off of your life experience, then it’s not your story. We have to be very conscious of that; be very true in honouring all of the elements that have created the reason why we decided to tell the story.”

Because the geographic distance is so far between the islands and the rest of the world, it becomes much easier for people to believe stereotypical depictions and constructions of Caribbean people, especially when they go unchallenged. As more festivals and distribution companies are formed to share the narratives of people from the Caribbean, their existence becomes instrumental to not only centralizing Caribbean directors and their stories, but as a means to re-frame how we are understood.

Sharine Taylor is a writer based in Toronto.