Extremely Good Fighters

Muscle and Mary in Georgetown, Guyana

Christy Garland is a multiple award-winning filmmaker whose films have been broadcast on CBC, Channel 4 UK, IFC, Canal+, SKY Italia, and networks all over Europe.  The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song is her second feature film, and premieres at Hot Docs 2012 in Toronto, and Sheffield Doc/Fest UK in June 2012.

Editor’s Note: Next week we will conclude the series on the Guyana Forestry Commission and the National Forest Plan.

I’m embarrassed to say that less than five years ago I would not have been able to tell you where Guyana was.  Part of that I can blame on the fact that there are very few films or television programs that feature Guyana.  Now, four days away from the world premiere of my documentary The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song, at Hot Docs in Toronto, North America’s biggest documentary festival, not only have I traveled to Guyana four times over the past 3 years, to Georgetown and its astonishingly beautiful interior, I can also say that making a film in Guyana has been one of the most profound experiences of my life.  There are two important reasons for that: Mary Smith, and her son Muscle (Paul) Smith.  The film tells the story of how these incredible people fight the demons of the past in order to live life on their own terms, and ultimately win the battle in their refusal to allow alcoholism and violence to dominate their lives.

When I first starting filming in Georgetown, I was warned by many people about the violence and the danger of being a woman walking around on my own with an expensive camera.  And sure enough the newspaper does feature, on a regular basis, shocking and horrifying stories of the most incredible violence – usually against women.

Muscle (Paul) Smith and Mary Smith

But rather than feeling afraid, my experience in Guyana introduced me to the warmest and most kindhearted people I have met in a long time, so profoundly inspiring that I have spent the last five years (and a staggering amount of credit card debt) doing little else but focusing on 130 hours of footage of Guyana, most of it of Mary, Muscle and their family.  I have traveled the world gathering the resources that have finally enabled me to finish the film.  I had help from Denmark, Sweden, and especially Holland – these are all countries that have fallen in love with Mary and Muscle’s story.  After Hot Docs, the film will show in the UK’s biggest festival, the Sheffield Doc/Fest, and the invitations to other festivals all around the world will soon follow.

While I visit these festivals to show the film, the biggest reward I will have is the opportunity to introduce the world to Mary Smith, who passed away June 12, 2010. If you’ve never heard of her, I hope you will soon.  People have fallen in love with her because she was a brilliant and witty poet, a survivor and the mother of some extraordinary sons and daughters, Muscle, Pauline (Elaine) and Paula among them, who are incredibly strong individuals.

In the film, they all recount experiences with the domestic violence that seems to be a mainstay in the newspaper.  Domestic violence exists everywhere in the world, Canada included, but I will admit I was shocked about the extremity of the stories I came across while I was there in 2010, of women being burned, hacked, beaten to death. How could the city that I have experienced, full of warm-hearted, intelligent people with great generosity of spirit, be capable of harboring that kind of violence?  Where does it come from?

Mary and Paula discuss this problem in one of the scenes of the film, and both had very insightful ideas about it being rooted in Guyana’s colonial past, and the way violence is passed on through generations.  Paula says “father hits son, son becomes father and hits son, son becomes father and hits son again, and the whole time they are both hitting their wives, daughters and sisters”.  Mary adds “someone hits you – you hit them back, and from there it increases.”

While it’s certainly not in the scope of this column, or my place to answer that question, I can say that if it’s up to people like Muscle that violence will one day be a thing of the past. In the film he talks about the fact of social inheritance, and how difficult it is to fight the power of the past to repeat itself through continuing generations. But Muscle is intent on trying, and his determination becomes dramatically clear as we follow his efforts to protect Mary from her dangerous drinking habit, which she comes by honestly.

Like a lot of lonely seniors, she needs her ‘high wine’ to shut out memories of the incredible violence she has experienced from her ex-husband, which she tells us about in one of the most moving scenes in the film.  The film documents Muscle (and his sisters’) efforts to control her drinking, and Mary’s continued attempts to escape the yard in search of a shot, and also some friendly company along the way.  Muscle, meanwhile, works very hard to improve the family financial situation, and the film ends with his opening the Stargate restaurant and bar, which I’ve been to many times.  The final moments of Mary’s story are not so happy, but somehow we will feel that she too, like Muscle, has found a certain kind of personal freedom.  She reassures us that she’s not afraid to die “Even if you live to be 1009, you still gotta, still gotta, still gotta die!”  She leaves us inspired and moved to tears by her wisdom, humour and the strength and intelligence she seems to have passed down to her children – the right kind of social inheritance.

There is a scene early in the film, where Muscle is feeding some of the birds that he competes and he calls them “extremely good fighters.”   That was my second choice for a title for the film, because it perfectly describes the kind of people that Muscle and his mother Mary are.  In the end I chose The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song because I felt it touched on a characteristic of the men I met in Georgetown that is sensitive, sweet natured and shows the potential and the depth of their capacity for love.  They adore and protect those little ‘bastards’, the seed finches which they say are ‘passionate fighters.’ Instead of gambling on the birds’ ability to draw blood and rip each other apart, the men listen very carefully to hear poetic music in the bird’s song.  Those are the men of Georgetown that the world should hear about.

Good documentaries teach us, inspire us, and take us places we’ve never dreamed of going. They allow us to get to know people who seem very different from us, but who eventually help us to learn about ourselves.  It’s not easy to make a good documentary film that can offer all of those things while telling a compelling story at the same time.   The Smiths – Muscle, Mary, Paula, Pauline (and the rest of that beautiful family) all showed incredible courage and bravery in allowing me and my camera into their lives to share their story with the world.  They’ve inspired us to look at the violence and alcoholism in our families and fight to put a stop to it, without forgetting that love is the most powerful weapon against the demons of the past.

For more about the Toronto screening, visit: http://www.hotdocs.ca/film/title/bastard_sings_the_sweetest_song

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