The latest attempt to found a film industry

The Caribbean film and cinema industry is more than forty years old.  In the beginning it was considered a proud achievement when a scene or two from a Hollywood movie was shot on location in one of the islands or in Guyana.  It was a mark of arrival if one appeared in a crowd scene and the certain status of hero for any local actor who landed a bit part.  Any claim of connection to or part ownership of Hollywood actors or contact with the international cinema was a source of national pride, before the enterprise to create original local films began to emerge.

Jamaica’s claim to fame was that Errol Flynn had a home in Port Antonio and Harry Belafonte had parentage connections and could be claimed by Jamaica. The Bahamas was envied because Sidney Poitier had similar roots there. The movie Island in the Sun also lent some fame to Jamaica and a crowning achievement was the set and shooting in the island of the James Bond classic Dr No, in which there was a brief glimpse of Byron Lee.  Trinidad’s celebrated Cedric Connor was a genuine actor with substantive roles and a career in Hollywood and London.  Guyana’s Norman Beaton had a lesser career in London.

There are more such claims, but the Caribbean film industry has moved a long way from that stage to the point where it now is. There are still movies with partial or qualified claims.  A foreign company, Line Tree Cinema shot Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea in Jamaica with several Jamaicans in the cast.  Merchant Ivory of British and Indian ownership filmed Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur in Trinidad; the BBC filmed Jeanette Allfrey’s The Orchid House and Ian McDonald’s Humming Bird Tree in the 1990s.  One of the biggest hits in the cinema was To Sir With Love from the novel by Guyanese born ER Braithwaite, but it was an entirely Hollywood-British affair with Sidney Poitier in the lead role and a famous title song by Lulu which topped the charts.  Cool Runnings, likewise is all about a legendary Jamaican bobsled entry in the Winter Olympics of all things, but was not Jamaica made.

Real local full-length films began to show a glimmer somewhere in the 1960s and properly took off in 1972 with the movie that is still the flagship, signal event, The Harder They Come by Perry Henzell and Trevor Rhone.  No other effort has surpassed it as a film for the cinema big screen that actually broke in to the international mainstream.  It also has a famous title song by Jimmy Cliff which climbed the charts in its own right.  Another of similar magnitude that emerged in 2002 is a documentary about Jamaica’s economy and its struggle (mainly Michael Manley’s) with the IMF and poverty alleviation.  It is titled Life and Debt with an obvious pun, and is as much about the inside machinations of international monetary agencies as it is about Jamaica.

Mahadeo Shivraj

Those are still the outstanding giants despite several others for the cinema that have been successful.  Yet the industry across the region is uneven in development and achievement with a lop-sided skew towards Jamaican production. That island will name Lunatic, Rockers, Paradise Hotel, Dancehall Queen and continue counting. Then there are many others of lesser vintage such as Trinidad’s Girl from India, Caribbean Fox and The Right and the Wrong, as well as a real major achievement out of Suriname: a movie about race relations in colonial Suriname called Wan Pipel.   

The Caribbean film has developed to the point where it is now a major university study led by such scholars as Jane Bryce at UWI Cave Hill and Jean Antoine and Bruce Paddington at St Augustine.  Jane Bryce also leads a well-established film festival in Barbados fuelled by this industry. This, however, includes much more than the cinema, because there are many with intellectual, artistic and experimental form and content, and what has grown and thrived is films for television and across the region.  This includes the work of Ken Corsbie in Barbados and Michael Gilkes who made his own version of Wide Sargasso Sea.  Added to those is the industry that has made great strides, of particular note in Trinidad – the commercial video industry tied to advertising and documentary production.

Guyana has also made overtures to full-length movies and has had many efforts at developing a film industry.  The most worthy of the early efforts was If Wishes Were Horses that included comedian Habeeb Khan.  The name of Vivian Lee has been associated with those, as are Corsbie and Gilkes with later works.  A novel by Sheik Sadeek, The Song of the Sugarcanes, was made into a film in the 1980s.  The quality of this work is flawed, but it is a venture deserving of praise as a novel seriously written to challenge the atrocities of estate life in British Guiana and a fairly pioneering film made by beginners in a genuine effort to advance a movie industry.  There were several others in between of dubious achievement, including Rainbow Raani which was a total failure.  Among the most accomplished was one of the latest, Guiana 1838, which is not first class, but a serious venture that researched and fictionalised Indian indentureship and the heroic efforts of one migrant to expose its horrors on Gladstone’s estates.

The newest of these films with ambitions of establishing a Guyanese movie industry is also among the most praiseworthy.  It is Till I Find A Place, a screen version of a stage play by Ronald Hollingsworth (Hollingsworth titled it Till Ah Find a Place) one of the most popular and often repeated local Guyanese popular plays.  It was made into a movie by a production team of Mahadeo Shivraj and Neill Anthony Bacchus, the technical editor, in collaboration with the 

Dramatic Arts Academy headed by Neaz Subhan.  It was directed by Shivraj, who also wrote the screenplay and is an interesting attempt to restructure a playscript for the screen.  One recalls a previous work in which Paloma Mohamed made a (mainly television) film out of her popular play Jezebel. 

The transformation is no pushover as one is dealing with two different media with different demands, and what succeeds on stage will not necessarily work on screen.  Mahadeo Shivraj’s attempt on this occasion works well enough as he has managed to create a worthwhile film that will stand on its own before audiences who have never seen the play.  But it is still a bit hampered by some of the hazards facing a director who was faithful to the play; the work is not entirely free of some of the stage play characteristics and is not independent of Hollingsworth’s drama.  Yet it is good in its own right and will definitely advance the cause of a Guyanese film industry that has been trying, with various fits and starts, to establish itself for more than forty years.

To achieve this requires an audience, talent, imagination, creativity, technical capacity and funding.  Till I Find A Place aptly demonstrates that the talent is there but that the essential ingredient of money is in short supply.  It is a low budget film that achieves very much despite that constraint, but betrays a few examples of what happens in cases like these.  There is not so much sophistication and high-tech camera work and a visual, spectacular sense of place is limited.  Scenes are shot in limited, confined and circumscribed locations, mostly indoors and almost entirely in two rooms of a house.  Advantage is not taken in outdoor scenes to give more of a sense of place and the Georgetown setting.  Yet there are sequences of creative camera work and angles.   

Hollingworth’s play is popular theatre taking advantage of a potentially comic situation designed to thrill the audience.  Donna suffers misfortune when her house is accidentally destroyed and her friend Sonia takes her in to stay in her home “till she can find a place” to live.  Sonia’s husband Dave despises Donna and is most upset with her presence in his house.  But when Sonia has to go overseas for an extended stay, he is overcome by Donna’s seductive allure and they have a passionate affair, leading to complications and conflict when Sonia returns.  Shivraj’s screenplay is faithful to Hollingsworth’s text to the point where some of the dangers of turning a play into a film are not always overcome.  The film uses words more than pictures, speech more than screen action to tell the story; but while this is noticeable, it does not kill the film.

The acting is good all round with Shivraj in the lead, playing a very believable Dave.  As a highly competent actor, he commands moods, situations and changes and coordinates very well with the others.  The talented and versatile Sonia Yarde is very convincing in the role of the femme fatale with a streak of the maverick, who spells temptation but inevitable destruction for Dave.  Yarde makes the most of a vivacious and seductively attractive, if devious character that actresses would dream of, combining with Shivraj to create a memorable couple and an unforgettable love affair for which the film will be noted.  The erotic love scenes are well handled.  This is a characteristic of the film because they work well with Shivraj and Alisha Persaud who plays Sonia as well. 

One gets accustomed to Persaud as the film progresses and her quiet competence and effectiveness grow on the viewer.  Rajan Tiwari is another actor who is comfortable meeting the different demands of screen performance.  The other members of the cast are Andre Wiltshire, Shaundell Marshall and Neaz Subhan.  There was no weak acting.

While there are many truly hilarious moments, the film’s main focus is not laughter as in the case of the play.  It is a melodrama with reflections on human relationships and some aspects of the housing situation in Georgetown.  The weakest part of both play and film is the closing dialogue at the end, which tends to trivialise the plot and situations that developed and the audience was beginning to take seriously.  However, jarring as it is, it is not the last thing one remembers at the end of the film, which holds its own regardless.

It will impress as a work of some merit.  It will advance the cause of the continuing endeavour to develop a movie industry in Guyana, although worthy efforts along this road have so far been sporadic.  Till I Find A Place demonstrates the presence of talent, and while funding still seems to be scarce, one may hope that perseverance is not.

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