December 13, 2017

Words by Jonathan Ali

Best Caribbean Films 2017: Moko Jumbie

In a year that began with Moonlight, a three-part film about a poor, gay, black man, winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and which is ending with a string of sexual-assault testimonies bringing down some of the film industry’s most powerful figures, it’s definitely no longer business as usual in cinema. It’s therefore no surprise that, when it comes to Caribbean cinema, the films that stood out were those that spurned convention and cliché, and rejected Hollywood polish and genre tidiness. These are films in which authentic voices could be heard telling unique stories, and the ongoing search for a recognizably Caribbean aesthetic was most in evidence.

In a year with so many interruptions of the usual cinema narrative, one factor that stayed very much the same was the way in which Caribbean cinema was received by audiences. The continued march of Netflix and other digital viewing platforms notwithstanding, film festivals remained the main avenue through which projects by the region’s filmmakers were seen. A fitting state of affairs given that the best festivals continue to be the main champions of independent, unapologetic, boundary-pushing cinema.

From Cuba to Colombia, from stories of spirit visitations to tales of bloody revenge, here are the five best Caribbean films of 2017.

Bad Lucky Goat, directed by Samir Oliveros (Colombia)
Best Caribbean Films 2017: Bad Lucky Goat

The island of Providencia may belong to Colombia but, with an English-speaking, African-descended population, it has a Caribbean soul. That soul infuses Samir Oliveros’ crowd-funded debut feature, about a pair of feuding teenage siblings who accidentally kill a goat and find themselves taken on a whimsical road trip across the island. Filled with lush colours, quirky characters, and a jaunty reggae soundtrack, Bad Lucky Goat knowingly nods to the Jamaican movies of the 1970s yet is a comic achievement all its own. A South by Southwest Film Festival premiere that also screened at the London Film Festival, Bad Lucky Goat continues to delight audiences on the festival circuit.      

Cocote, directed by Nelson Carlo de los Santos (Dominican Republic)
Best Caribbean Films 2017: Cocote

It’s been a banner year for Dominican cinema, with no fewer than five films from that country premiering at top-flight festivals in North America and Europe. One of these is Cocote, documentary filmmaker Nelson Carlo de los Santos’ first fiction feature, which won a prize on its premiere at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival before scooping up US distribution at the Toronto International Film Festival. That’s no surprise. The patiently observed tale of a Santo Domingo gardener who returns to his rural village after his  father’s murder as a reluctant avenging angel, Cocote is executed with dizzying formal daring and coolly impressive skill.

Moko Jumbie, directed by Vashti Anderson (Trinidad and Tobago/USA)
Best Caribbean Films 2017: Moko Jumbie

A taboo interracial romance, visits from ancestral spirits, a young woman’s search for her identity amidst coconut trees: Moko Jumbie has all of the elements to win over hearts at contemporary film festivals (like the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it premiered, and New York’s Urban World Film Festival, where it also screened). The quasi-autobiographical first feature of US-born, Trinidad-descended Vashti Anderson, the film is, however, much more than an exercise in arthouse-cinema box ticking. Intimate and ambitious, nostalgic and optimistic, Moko Jumbie blends poignant human drama with an electrifying sense of the otherworldly to create an unforgettable—and unforgettably cinematic—experience.  

Santa y Andrés, directed by Carlos Lechuga (Cuba)
Best Caribbean Films 2017: Santa y Andres
Cuban film has long been praised, and the country’s cinema torch is now being passed to a generation of young, independent auteurs. At the forefront of this new wave is Carlos Lechuga, whose realist dramas about the struggles of ordinary cubanos have been winning many admirers. They’re also winning enemies: his latest, Santa y Andrés, a Toronto International Film Festival premiere, has been banned in Cuba. A period film, it tells a story about the unlikely friendship between a Communist party worker and a gay dissident writer. Featuring justly lauded performances from its two leads, Santa y Andrés is intelligent and keenly felt, a small humanist-political masterpiece.

Tezen, Shirley Bruno, Haiti
Best Caribbean Films 2017: Tezen

It’s banal to say that adversity can be an impetus toward achievement. It nevertheless is true, and nowhere is that more evident than in Haitian cinema. The so-called poorest nation in the western hemisphere has produced, in Raoul Peck, one of its greatest filmmakers, and with Guetty Felin’s Ayiti Mon Amour (which made this list in 2016) it has an entry to the Oscars. It also has Shirley Bruno, whose Tezen packs more inventiveness, wonder and poetry into its 25 minutes than one sees in films many times that length. A retelling of a folk tale involving a young woman and a water spirit, and using non-professional actors in an entrancing forest setting, Tezen has a formal brilliance and a mythic, dreamlike quality that recalls Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Bruno is currently at work on her first feature—watch this space.

Jonathan Ali is Director of Programming for Miami’s Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival, and Head Programmer – Discovery with the East End Film Festival in London.