The release last week of the new film The Ole Higue by Ssignal Productions refocused the camera on Guyana’s attempts to build a film industry and on recent attention paid to the recognition and development of cultural industries. Both are developing enterprises, although they may claim a long history. There are many similarities where these are concerned across the Caribbean, although the state of development and achievement are quite uneven among Caricom countries. “Are we there yet?” was the question asked in the Carifesta Symposium in Guyana in 2008 titled ‘Defining and Refining Our Cultural Industries’. A follow-up seminar in the Inter-Guianas Cultural Festival (IGCF) in Georgetown in 2012 suggested that we were not.
There was even a further line of enquiry at the Sym-posia of Carifesta XI in Suriname in 2013. But these were heavily focused on youth in popular music and the discussion on cultural industries in a large general context was very small, not well publicised and not well attended. That itself might have been a reflection of where we were.
Where film is concerned, there have been events and growing attention. Carifesta XII in Haiti focused on film and Guyana was well represented by both persons and exhibits, while the IGCF held variously in Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana paid noted attention. Yet all of this has been about the short film category, like those produced by Ssignal. However, there is a continuing hope and sporadic initiatives towards building an industry in feature films and the local/regional cinema.
Again, the history there is long, but the achievements sporadic. Jamaica is way ahead of the field in Caricom, yet truly big triumphs to match The Harder They Come cannot be not counted by the dozen. Some of these triumphs include those made in different categories like Life and Debt. Trinidad and Tobago have had a few, although these include those of trifling depth and achievement the likes of Man from Africa, Girl from India.
Suriname’s one outstanding ensign, Wan Pipel, is more than 35 years old.
Guyana’s If Wishes Were Horses is even older than that. But recently, the series by Mahadeo Shivraj and Neaz Subhan show a determined effort.
However, while vain attempts to break into cinema and feature movies might continue, some ground is being covered by efforts in the short film category. The Guyanese collection is now improved with noted activity out of CineGuyana shepherded by Enrico Woolford, which received a boost when a president’s initiative piloted by Paloma Mohamed produced some 12 short pieces. Exhibitions and film festivals now call upon a corpus including works by Kojo McPherson and Margaret Lawrence among many others.
In the middle of all of this, works in this short category by Ssignal Productions have not commanded significant attention. These are made by its Director Bonny Alves, who began his career in music, but has been concentrating on film making. Prominent in this production team is foremost local vocalist Charmaine Blackman, who is artiste/manager/producer in the Ssignal outfit. While its films have been slowly attracting growing attention, the newest of them, The Ole Higue will propel Ssignal Productions further into the limelight and cement its credibility as a serious filmmaker. It has already been approved by critics.
The Ole Higue can be regarded as Ssignal’s stand-out film and if the wider audience actually gets to know about it, perchance to see it, it will be a hit. It combines popular appeal with technical competence, convincing performance and a subject of some worth and depth. It goes into folklore traditions, popular belief and reflects a side of
Guyanese culture effectively used to fashion a film script with an interesting plot.
Directed by Alves with a sound track anchored on a compelling supremely performed theme song by Simone Dowding, the plot is informed by folk beliefs but exhibits the influence of the horror movie into which realm it strays. It narrates the fortunes of a seven-year-old girl who unwittingly inherits the curse of the ‘ole higue’ from an old woman (played by Dowding) in her community. She grows up to be a practicing ‘ole higue,’ unwilling, but unable to resist the routine. The plot is uncomplicated and might even be predictable, since it follows a typical story of the exploits of an ‘ole higue,’ but the screenplay does include effective subtleties and character interests that definitely compel audience attention, and even suspense.
The dramatic conflicts develop quite well and reach an intriguing point before its resolution is brought about by deus ex machina. Manipulated in order to bring about the end of the movie, this is simply a listing of the rituals, guards and devices that are customarily employed to trap the supernatural creature. Up to that point there was considerable intrigue, rising action, complications of plot and suspense.
The film’s subject is one that requires research, despite it being a popular one about which every other person will profess knowledge and readily give advice. But spiritual folk beliefs have deep roots and are part of a belief system, a cosmology and ethos that need to be understood if the creative work (such as this film) based on them is to be strong.
The Ole Higue might just be a little short on this, even though it is a short film and at times needs to take liberties with the rules and blur information a bit. None of these will damn the film and will be missed by all except the most knowledgeable scrutiniser. It is ironic because one purpose of the film is to instruct. It otherwise manages this instruction very well, except in the deus ex machina. For example, an ‘ole higue’ must pass on the curse to the next generation in a particular way and the film demonstrates this unobtrusively in the way the story begins. It is a gripping sequence well managed and performed by Dowding and the children Justine Hamer and Emmanuel Hamer.
Another example involves facts about these supernatural beings that are little known. The typical ‘ole higue’ is a reclusive, mysterious old lady. But this film increases its appeal by deploying an attractive young woman living in the city as the villain, thus showing that the curse is not restricted to reclusive old ladies. Additionally, the film advises, without fuss, that not only a young woman, but also a man can be an ‘ole higue’.
For acting performance, the film belongs to Abigail James in this role. She acts for the screen with an understanding of all the subtleties and nuances of body language and expression. James makes the role credible and enhances the overall effectiveness of the film. She consistently avoids clichés and any temptation to play an obvious type. All of the supporting cast contributed to very effective acting all round, in particular Mariatha Causway along with Nathaya London, Mario Glasgow, Sheron Cadogan-Taylor and Allison Simmons.
The whole work was very neatly done as far as a film of this type goes without the advantage of high technology and million dollar budgets. It demonstrates very well what can be achieved.
Ssignal has made ten other short films, also scripted and directed by Alves with Blackman as producer. The quality is mixed. Where Is Everybody does not achieve much as a creative workince it is obviously designed as a patriotic piece which gives information about Guyana’s sporting heroes. There is a thin plot of sorts devised to hold it together but it is not enough to rescue it from being just a proud information piece.
The Unbelieving Mom, especially, and The Convert work much better although they are also obviously created to convey social messages about domestic abuse. They tackle family issues with warnings about neglect, abuse, dangerously harmful short-sighted subjectivism and domestic violence. But the stories work well and are carried by some fine acting from Causway, Abigail Brower, Cadogan-Taylor, Gerrard Gilkes and Stacy Stanford.
Films like these and the others done by CineGuyana deserve a larger audience and wider distribution. They belong to a cultural industry that would do much better commercially if there was a larger population and greater promotion of the works.