Echos From The Plantation : an artistic and academic achievement

A poster advertising a screening of Echos From The Plantation in Canada earlier this year

There is a new film currently in circulation in Guyana, which has already found its way further afield, particularly in the USA, and will no doubt go further. This is Echos From The Plantation  by Kishore Suenarine, a Guyanese now resident in America, who has a history in film in Guyana. 

The work describes itself as a docudrama, but has merits and characteristics to be Indian film and even cinema. Although it is not a full-length feature it does have the quality and pretensions for the big screen. Echos From The Plantation was written, directed and produced by Suenarine as his contribution to the observance of the 180th Anniversary of Indian Arrival in Guyana. 

It has already had a number of screenings in Guyana generating a great deal of interest through its promotion by Dr Rosalind October-Edun of SUNY Empire State College in New York.  October-Edun was a leading dancer in Guyana during the early developing years of the National School of Dance and the National Dance Company, and a student of kathak specialist Philip McClintock.

The film had its world premiere in the USA on April 28, 2018, but even before that it was invited to be shown at the Charlotte Asian Film Festival at the University of North Carolina on March 25.  Its Guyanese launching was in Essequibo in April, 2018, followed by a screening at the Aracari Resort in West Demerara. After that, the docudrama attracted the attention of the University of Guyana (UG) where it benefited from the patronage of Vice-Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith and University Librarian Gwyneth George.

The University Library spearheaded showings coordinated by Deputy University Librarian Debra Lowe which were accompanied by panel discussions. These included exposure to secondary schools at the National Cultural Centre and on the UG campuses. The panel discussions, with questions from the audience, touching on critical assessments of the film, on history and indentureship, were led by October-Edun, Suenarine, Dr Mark Tumbridge and Al Creighton of UG.

Echos From The Plantation recalls a history of what we may refer to as Guyanese Indian cinema.  There was an ambitious production by Baichandeen which made a film out of a novel by playwright and fiction writer Sheik Saddeek titled Song Of The Sugarcanes (1978).  It was ambitious because of the newness of such a project in Guyana’s still fledgling film industry. But it was also made for the cinema and was actually popularly screened. Then again it sought to be a post-colonial testimony of indentureship and its aftermath on the Guyanese sugar estates.

Following that was another attempt at cinema in Guyana, a newer effort of better technical quality titled Guiana 1838. This treated the same subject of the horrors of the Gladstone experiment tried out on his plantations in 1838 and lasting until the last ship in 1917 and the cancellation of the system in 1920. The interest in Indian cinema in Guyana continued with the works of Mahadeo Shivraj and Neaz Subhan, including A Jasmine For A Gardener and Brown Sugar Too Bitter For Me. 

Suenarine’s new work, therefore, does not cover new ground in terms of history and the subject of indentureship and of Indians on the Guyanese sugar estates. One could say it tells a story that has several times been told. But what makes it fresh and worth seeing are its excellent and special enduring qualities, its plot and its artistic spin and narrative. It is quite a creation in film informed by the Indian heritage in contemporary Guyana. 

It is a docudrama of an important part of history. It is historical, yet contemporary, artistic and a substantial post-colonial work of literary merit. This begins with its title, deliberately chosen by Suenarine with the spelling of “echos” – “echoes” without the “e”, which draws attention to itself as it dwells on the echoes, the haunting history, the horrors of it, yet the rich heritage that exists in modern Guyana. It merges the present with the old just as the filmmaker employs a technique of merging and interspersing images, in visual spectacle, contrasts, pun and a great deal of irony.

A modern young Indian Guyanese girl with international exposure returns to Guyana and is told a story by her grandfather which reverberates with the echoes and remnants of history. The grandfather explains why he would never take sugar in his tea; this affects the girl so much that she adopts the practice and tells the story in turn to a young black waitress in a restaurant to explain her emphatic refusal of sugar. Significantly, the black waitress is quietly moved to tears. The entire film is fit within the frame of grandfather and granddaughter declining a spoonful of sugar. 

That the granddaughter is sophisticated and fashionable, and her link at the end with the waitress of a different race place the narrative in today’s world and the present time. Additionally, that the young ladies could relate to an episode from history, and to the point of being moved to tears speaks to the successful link between the time periods, between history and contemporary relevance. 

The story is told about immigration, the plantation conditions, the exploitation as well as the kind of fierce domestic and gender politics among the Indian immigrants themselves. It connects to the documentation found in Gaiutra Bahadur’s book Coolie Woman. The introduction of the black waitress has more force because the tale told is also about African slavery and its impact on sugar in Guyana.

But Suenarine charges the work with the East Indian heritage and its presence in contemporary Guyanese society. There are compelling images of the Hindu religion. The film is placed in a strong Hindu setting and there is a consistent and intriguing religious interplay with the use of the sacred images and symbols which merge into the spectacle and as a background to the narration.  Out of the bitter history there is the development of a people with spiritual resilience. 

Further, this is coupled with mythology. There is Hindu myth and elements of belief subtly interspersed with the screenplay.  Dance has been a staple item in that religion, and Suenarine also manages to use dance extensively in the modernist presentation of this work. The dance goes along with the music and moves from the classical to the folk, because there is as well, the inclusion of the indigenous folk. 

There have been questions about the fading of East Indian folk songs and music in Guyana. Yet Suenarine makes Indian folk songs part of his soundtrack. He did quite a bit of writing – it is not known how much he composed and how much came from the field from among the villagers.  However, the quality of it is genuine folk and reflects the traditions.

Quite recognisable in this is the chutney tradition and the antecedents to the chutney in British Guiana. This form and tradition came to British Guiana with the immigrants in the Bhoj Puri song tradition. This is captured in the film, as these songs sustained a people exiled far from home and surviving less than satisfactory conditions. So the use of strains through which chutney evolved is very appropriate.

Suenarine entered the film industry a long time ago as a young actor in Baichandeen’s Song Of The Sugarcanes. He has come a long way from that with the production of this docudrama. Yet he is still a performer. It is his voice that is heard in this new work as he does the narration of the tale being told.

Overall, Echos From The Plantation is good quality, historically, creatively. It is polished, neatly produced, of fine technical quality and an artistic and academic achievement. Besides, it is post-colonial and says something to an audience as it entertains. For those reasons the University of Guyana has taken an interest and become associated with it. The bitterness of Demerara sugar has been refined into a very palatable film.

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