Filmmakers in the Caribbean

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Filmmakers in the Caribbean

The first film screenings in the Caribbean were held in 1895, a little more than a year after the emergence of film, and soon led to the development of cinemas throughout the region. Going to the cinema would prove to be a popular local pastime, as films increasingly captured the imagination of the Caribbean people. Almost all films were made outside the region, but some pioneering film directors lived in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and a few lived in the English-speaking Caribbean. It was only from the 1950s onward that the Caribbean began to produce films on a consistent basisfirst documentaries made mainly by government film units and later independently produced feature films.


Only a few blacks can be found among the major filmmakers in Cuba, the region's foremost film-producing country. Sara Gómez is important, as she was not only the first black Cuban to direct a feature film but also the first woman. She trained as a musician before joining the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos as an assistant director to Cuban filmmakers Tomás Guitiérrez Alea and Jorge Fraga. Between 1964 and 1974 she directed ten short documentaries before making her first and only feature film, De Cierta Manera (1974). This innovative film combined documentary and dramatic sequences, real people and professional actors, to describe the role of African-influenced religions and male chauvinism in postrevolutionary Cuba. Gómez died of asthma while the film was being edited, and it was completed under the supervision of Alea and Julio García Espinosa.

Sergio Giral grew up in New York before returning to Cuba after the revolution. He made the short fictional film La juala (1964), the experimental documentary La muerte de J. J. Jones (1966) about a North American soldier fighting in Vietnam, and Qué bueno canta usted (1973) on the singer Beny Moré. He directed the feature films El otro Francisco (1974), Rancheador (1976), Manuela (1979), Plácido (1986), and Maria Antonia (1990), which focused on the history and culture of the Afro-Cuban population and the impact of sugar and slavery on the development of Cuban society. Most of these films were adaptations of famous Cuban novels or plays and reflected Giral's interest in exploring the multiple readings of major events in Afro-Cuban history.

Rigoberto López is one of Cuba's foremost documentary directors and has made films in Spain, Africa, and throughout the Caribbean. In Cuba, he worked first as an assistant director to Sergio Giral and Sara Gómez before producing such documentaries as El mensajero de los dioses (1989), which focused on santería, and Yo soy, del son a la salsa (1996), which illustrated the growth of salsa music. In 2003 he directed his first feature film, Roble de olor, exploring the issue of race in a story about the relationship between a German merchant and a freed slave in nineteenth-century Cuba.

Gloria Rolando's documentaries also celebrate the African presence in Cuba. She works almost entirely in video and has produced a number of short films on such topics as the presence of the West Indian community in Cuba in My Footsteps in Baragua (1995), santería in Oggun: An Eternal Presence (1991), and Carnival with El alacrán (2000). She heads an independent filmmaking group, Imágines del Caribe.


Haitian cinema has been dominated by the work of Raoul Peck, who, like many other Caribbean filmmakers, operates from outside of the region, where he has access to funding and distribution. Peck grew up in Haiti and the Congo, and his work reflects a commitment to these countries. He directed his first full-length feature, Haitian Corner, in 1987, while he was a film student in Berlin. Peck's work has mainly focused on political issues, as can be seen in his feature L'Homme sur les quais (1993), about the Duvalier regime as seen through the eyes of a young girl, and two films on the first prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba: the full-length documentary Lumumba: La Mort du prophète in 1991, and the award-winning feature Lumumba in 2000.

Elsie Haas has established herself as a leading documentary filmmaker and has directed a number of films that explore Haiti and its culture, especially Des saints et des anges (1984), La Ronde des tap-tap (1986), and La Ronde des vodu (1987).

The Dutch Antilles

Producer/scriptwriter Norman de Palm from Aruba and director/designer Felix de Rooy from Curaçao have produced some of the most important Caribbean films. Their first feature, Desiree (1983), was their graduation project from New York University film school, and they went on to found Cosmic Illusions, a film and theater production company based in Amsterdam. Their other two films were shot in Curaçao. Almacita di desolato (1986) is a mythical story of Afro-Caribbean folklore and the fight between good and evil, and Ava and Gabriel (1990) is a critical depiction of such issues as race, class, religion, and sexuality in the Dutch colony of Curaçao in 1948.

Martinique and Guadeloupe

The French Antilles has produced a number of filmmakers of African descent, with Martiniquans Gabriel Glissant and Jean-Paul Césaire making short films and documentaries in the 1970s, and Guadeloupean Sarah Maldoror, with her feature film Sambizanga (1972), best known for her

work in Angola. The most prolific filmmaker is Guadeloupe's Christian Lara, whose first feature was Chap'la (1977). Other early films include Mamito (1980), Vivre libre ou mourir (1980), Adieu foulard (1981), and Bitter Sugar (1997), an innovative treatment of slavery in the Caribbean. However, it is the Martiniquan filmmaker Euzhan Palcy who has made the greatest impact as a director. She received international recognition as the first black woman to direct a Hollywood studio film, A Dry White Season (1989), set in apartheid South Africa in 1976, but it was her first film Rue Cases Nègres (1983), adapted from Joseph Zobel's novel of postslavery plantation life, that established her as one of the foremost Caribbean directors. Siméon (1992), Palcy's other feature film set in Martinique, focuses on the growth of French Caribbean music and features the local group Kassav.

Guy Deslauriers, also from Martinique, has directed films that explore French Antillean history and culture, such as L'Exil du roi Behanzin (1995), about the king of Dahomey, who in 1894 was exiled to Martinique after defending his country against the French; Le passage du milieu (1999), a impressionistic look at the inhumanities of the slave trade; and Biguine (2003), the story of two black musicians in nineteenth-century Martinique.

The English-Speaking Caribbean

The question of who is an Afro-Caribbean filmmaker becomes rather delicate when considering filmmaking in the English-speaking Caribbean. It would be foolhardy not to consider Perry Henzell's pioneering The Harder They Come (1972), Jamaica's quintessential Caribbean feature film, because it was made by a white Jamaican. In addition, several of the other Jamaican-made films were made by white outsiders, all working with local crews and striving to give their movies a Caribbean flavor. Similarly, an Indian-born filmmaker, Harbance Kumar, made Trinidad's first two feature films, The Right and the Wrong, and The Caribbean Fox, both in 1970. And to add even more diversity, American-born Hugh Robertson, who was married to a Trinidadian, made Bim in 1974, highlighting the tensions between the African and Indian communities as it portrayed one man's struggle to come to terms with the society that has alienated him.

Jamaica has produced by far the most Caribbean films, thanks in part to its aggressive marketing and to the international appeal and popularity of reggae, the music that seems to drive every one of its films. The flagship The Harder They Come started the trend. With singing star Jimmy Cliff in the lead, the film portrayed the life of a budding singer turned criminal as a result of unscrupulous exploitation in the record industry and the drug trade.

Trevor Rhone, who is co-credited for the screenplay of The Harder They Come, provided a follow-up of sorts to that film with Smile Orange in 1975, based on his original play by the same name. This film did not have the same impact as the first one, but it went a long way toward establishing a body of work that could readily be called Jamaican/Caribbean cinema. The next milestone for an Afro-Jamaican was Children of Babylon (1980) by Lennie Little-White. Trained, like Perry Henzell, outside of Jamaica, Little-White is committed to developing an indigenous film industry. His film, ironically, suffered from being too polished, since by then international audiences had come to expect a particular brand of Third World filmmaking.

Trinidad, after the two Harbance Kumar films and Bim a film that Trinidadians readily claimed as their own although it had been made by an African Americandid produce some low-budget films by Indo-Trinidad directors Kamalo Deen and Tony Maharaj, and Gerard Joseph

co-produced Men of Gray II: Flight of the Ibis in 1996. This graduate school project grew into a full-length martial arts action movie but made little impact in the Caribbean. However, the talented Horace Ové made a significant contribution to the work of diaspora-based filmmakers. Having migrated to England, Ové was keenly interested in the plight of West Indian immigrants there. The problems they faced were highlighted both in his early documentaries and in his feature films Pressure (1975) and Playing Away (1986). Both these films made use of talented immigrants seeking to make a new home away from the Caribbean. Unfortunately, they were not great successes in the Caribbean.

Filmmaking by Caribbean directors has been problematic at best. Some have made valiant efforts, but after the initial curiosity of seeing a movie made by a local filmmaker, the public shows little interest in keeping the work alive beyond occasional appearances at film festivals. An example of this is Guttaperc (1998), directed and produced by Andrew Millington, the first feature-length movie by a Barbados national. It was politely received, but distribution problems led to its disappearing from the local scene and to apparent oblivion.

Filmmaking by Afro-Caribbeans remains largely a labor of love, for the logistical problems are almost over-whelming. Apart from Cuba, which has established a film institute and film school, most of the Caribbean countries are too preoccupied with more pressing economic matters to commit money to the relatively high-cost undertaking of filmmaking. Foundation help is sparse and usually doled out for documentaries. Private industry looks at the poor returns on previous efforts and prefers to err on the side of caution, thus remaining in the shadow of Hollywood productions. Talented filmmakers are now increasingly working in the area of video production, and the work of Banyan Productions and Robert Yao Ramesar in Trinidad augurs well for the future. Unfortunately, the same spirited nationalism that has doomed attempts at a pan-Caribbean political federation also emerges in matters of art and culture. Films made in Cuba and Martinique are hardly shown in Trinidad; films from the Dutch Antilles are more likely to be shown in Holland than in the Caribbean. Cubafollowed by Jamaicahas staged an annual film festival to showcase new productions. One can only hope that such efforts will eventually spread throughout the entire Caribbean and inspire local filmmakers to produce a body of work that will take its rightful place on the international stage.

See also Film in Latin America and the Caribbean; Palcy, Euzhan; Peck, Raoul


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keith q. warner (2005)

bruce paddington (2005)