The seawall goes to France

In recent weeks I have heard vehemently from several persons, here and abroad, about the need for Guyana, in the midst of all the bad news, to be shouting about the positive stories that are around.

A friend in Barbados with Guyanese roots, on a recent visit here, was intrigued to learn about our vibrant Amerindian culture with its several tribes and languages.  “Guyana should be pronouncing on these things outside,” he remarked.  In a conversation with someone in Toronto, my reference to the rodeo at Lethem drew the comment: “A rodeo? In Guyana? Come on!”  A Guyanese, many years in New York, saw our documentary Mabaruma Sojourn on YouTube and told me, “I never knew Guyana had places like that.”

And then just this past week here, a prominent Guyanese was regaling me with the same point and lamenting the fact that while we have the talent and expertise here to be doing promotional pieces  for the country, they are not happening.

I take the point, but there are some realities at play.  One is funding. In a poor country, with many pressing daily needs, the generation of promotional material by the establishment is going to be low on the priority ladder.  Most of the positive videos one sees about Guyana are the result of either an individual not-for-profit undertaking done by Guyanese, here or outside, simply for the love of it, or they are the result of media engines abroad (Travel Channel, BBC, etc) creating content for their own programmes.

Another impediment is the shortage of people with the requisite creative film-making skill, due to the migration process. Many of these people have left, and the capable ones that remain are understandably drawn to dramatic and arts films, such as the current Ministry of Culture project, rather than to the purely promotional work where there is no financial return.

The problem is encapsulated in the story of Mason Richards, a young Guyanese film-maker who made news recently when a short film of his, called The Seawall was accepted as part of the world-famous Cannes Film Festival in France.

Mason, who was born in Campbellville, had migrated to New York where he grew to manhood imbued with the desire to make films.  He worked as a journalist at CBS, then moved to Los Angeles with a stint at Paramount Pictures, and with the Paramount credentials he was accepted as a student in the prestigious California Institute of the Arts School (CALARTS) owned by the Disney family. Required to produce an original film, as part of his school programme, Mason came home to Guyana, with a film idea in his head, and, as he put it, “to investigate the roots of what I was.”

Back in Campbellville, in the house where he was born, and where his grandmother still lives, Mason fleshed out his idea.  “The film is essentially a story of migrant Guyanese and is a tribute to those who stayed, like my grandmother, dealing with all the problems with dignity. I wanted to counteract the Jim Jones image – you hear so much about that outside, still – and I wanted to show some of the beauty of the place and the strength of the people. ‘The Seawall,’ the title, is a symbol of the separation of these people who had to go beyond the seawall to America and other places.”

Returning to the USA, Mason completed the script and then set about making the film happen. Due to financial constraints, he had decided to do a short film (9 minutes) for his first effort raising the US$20,000 he needed from “two generous friends, from family members, and from an organization of Americans who had worked in Guyana.”  Less than a year after his first visit, Mason was back here with a cameraman and a sound engineer ready to make his movie.  “I wanted to get a natural spontaneous feeling,” said Mason, so he recruited his characters right around Campbellville, including 8-year-old Malachai, a retired school-teacher Marjorie Arthur, and a coconut vendor Gunesh Persaud.  None of them had acted before. “I didn’t give them a script,” said Mason. “I just told them what was going on in the scenes, and what I wanted them to convey, but I let them say it in their own words. They were wonderful.”

An intriguing part of Mason’s story is the role of “the Americans” who had helped fund the film; they belong to an organisation called  “Friends and Returned Peace Corp Volunteers to Guyana” or FROG. The members are Americans who once worked here on contract or as volunteers and are now trying to spread positive messages about Guyana.

Scott Stadum of FROG told me, “We saw this project as a way to share Guyana with a wider audience: a goal that is a core aspect of FROG’s mission.  Working on this project was exciting and challenging but something we felt committed to because of its potential and reach.  It was a real honour to be attached to The Seawall and to be a part of Mason’s success.  My biggest hope is that this is the beginning of a long and successful career for a very talented man.”

The Seawall will be touring and screened at film festivals throughout the world and will be widely released early in 2012.

There are a host of lessons in Mason’s story. One is the power of self-motivation that can take an individual to success on a path littered with “time-to-quit” signs.  Another is the cultural muscle I’m always preaching about that lives in people like Mason (away) and his grandmother (here) and brings them through difficult circumstances.  A third is that even in a highly developed country like the USA, funding for soft projects with no return is difficult to find.

In what is generally an upbeat story, a particularly inspiring aspect is the part played by the group of Americans referred to earlier who helped fund Mason’s film.  They’re obviously going about it in a modest manner, but here we have Americans who once worked here, in various capacities, and are now involved, completely voluntarily, in generating positive information about Guyana. With nothing to gain from it, these folks are putting in their own time and money to spread positive stories about our country, while living in their own.

You have to raise a shout for people like that.

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