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Highlights of the first Timehri Film Festival

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Still from Poetry is an Island

Guyana’s inaugural Timehri Film Festival ended on Friday, wrapping up three days of screenings showcasing films from around the Caribbean.

This excellent (and free) showcase of short and feature films had some great offerings, pulled together by the festival’s Caribbean-American team – comprising Romola Lucas and Justen Blaize (founders of the Caribbean Film Academy) and Alysia Simone, editor of blog Rewind N Come Again – with sponsorship from SASOD Guyana and Blossoms of Guyana.

My highlight was the beautiful ode to St Lucian poet and Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, ‘Poetry is an Island‘ – a moving, inspiring and visually stunning homage to a man, an island and a people.

At one point in the film, someone (Walcott himself I think) says “The time has come for us to be ourselves”. And the film is definitely ‘we own’. Sure we have the waving palm trees and beautiful beaches of every Caribbean stereotype, but we also have the imposing Pitons (the island’s famous volcanic mountains), the sadly neglected Derek Walcott Theatre, the enterprising Rastafarian decorator turning Walcott’s childhood home into a museum, and the a stunning painting by Dunstan St Omer (see below) that Walcott proudly shows to Irish poet Seamus Heaney and his other literary guests.

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Appropriately the film is the work of a director born in Suriname and of French, Chinese, and Dutch-Creole descent. Ida Does beautifully mixes lingering landscape shots with talking heads, snatches of traditional ceremonies and heartfelt readings. One of the most touching moments of the film is when Walcott reads his own poem for his late mother, and breaks down. “This is wicked”.

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Still from Ti Coq

 

Other feature films at the festival included Sensei Redenshon from Curacao. This taut martial arts drama featured a wonderful understated performance from Raul de Windt as Sandro, the prodigal father and reluctant street fighter. There was also a sneak peek at the upcoming US-Guyana collaboration A Bitter Lime, which I’m reluctant to comment on as we only saw the first 20 minutes or so. But hopefully the final cut is closer to the trailer in terms of pace; with a few more lines for the female lead; and a few less giraffes grazing Georgetown. (Artistic license?) Anyway kudos to the director for coming to Guyana and hopefully it will inspire others to do the same, and bring jobs and new opportunities with them.

There were some excellent Guyanese short films. I particularly enjoyed the loving grandmother in The Seawall, in which Georgetown was vividly brought to life; the colourful and touching Antiman about a young boy feeling his way along the uncertain first steps towards homosexuality; the eye-opening Diaries of an Immigrant about a Guyanese girl struggling to stay afloat in Barbados and earn money for her daughter back home; Painting the Spectrum  was an engaging glimpse behind the scenes of the LGBT film festival organised by Guyanese campaigning organisation SASOD; and also Martinique-based short Ti Coq, another bittersweet portrayal of a grandmother-grandson household (like The Seawall), where the return of the mother is not the longed-for event you might expect.

There were many more films that I missed too – as well as a series of workshops for aspiring or existing film producers and promoters. Of course not everything was perfect. Most people I spoke to seemed unaware the festival was going on, or only found out at the last minute. And I got the impression that Moray House is seen by some as a place where a ‘certain crowd’ goes. But this is only year one, and the team were working from New York.

Next year I hope to see more of the same. Perhaps with some newer, unknown Guyanese films; a variety of venues; and more promotion beforehand. But it’s a fantastic vision and a wonderful platform for Guyanese filmmakers, producers and other creatives. Keep it coming!

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Open-air cinema showcases Guyanese short films

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Last night, there were dramatic scenes at D’urban Park, where Guyana’s official Golden Jubilee celebrations are set to take place in just a few weeks. But this time it wasn’t the rushed preparations, dodgy wooden seating or bendy flag pole in the spotlight. All eyes were fixed on the two projector screens set up by CineGuyana to showcase a series of locally produced and shot short films.

The eight films in the CineGuyana’ set – Luck Beat Handsome, The Bottle, Beached, The Encounter, Three Cards, Backyard, Hope and Tradition – are not new. They were, according to Stabroek News, produced in 2011 under the President’s Film Endowment Project, established by the previous president Bharrat Jagdeo. [NB: I arrived late so can’t confirm all were screened last night, but I know the programme also included the short To The Night.]

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The films have travelled overseas too – to Guyana’s diaspora communities in New York, Washington and the UK. Tradition and Hope have also been shown at the Caribbean Tales Film Festival in Barbados, while Backyard and Three Cards were selected for the AFRIFF International Film Festival in 2011.

But CineGuyana’s ambitious project to take the films to eight of Guyana’s ten regions, and screen them for free, is admirable. At d’Urban park, a crowd of about 40 gathered under the white tent, but there were at least the same again scattered around the tent – watching from their cars, the roadside, or perched on the edge of the fountain surrounding Cuffy’s statue.

The audience seemed to enjoy the show. When the geeky star of Backyard made another pratfall in front of the beautiful popstar living next door, they laughed at his foolishness. When the wayward teenage daughter of To The Night shouted ‘whore!’ at her prostitute mother there were grumblings of disapproval. When The Encounter showed a man writhing around in the bath, apparently while being screwed by a ghost of a dead woman haunting his hotel room, the temperature (and laughter) rose up few notches.

The stories, I was glad to see, were undeniably Guyanese. The cinemas at Giftland Mall and Ramada Georgetown Princess Hotel churn out Hollywood blockbusters and the odd Indian movie. So the difference was refreshing. The Bottle and The Encounter reminded me of the kind of films you find in Nollywood, though instead of witchcraft we had the Guyanese folkloric spirit, the ‘bacoo’, in the form of an evil, wish-granting genie; and the aforementioned lascivious ghost looking for revenge and a passage out of limbo (plus a bit of action).

Backyard was classic nerdy-boy-gets-the-girl territory, but the physical comedy of the main character, whose expressive eyes bulged behind his glasses, brought a freshness to a familiar theme. Some people in the audience laughed scornfully at the desperate antics of the father in Three Cards, gambling away his last GUY$300 to pay for medicine, but as he clutched his weak daughter to his chest you really felt for him – and the Guyanese people who right now are in the same situation, hoping for a miracle to see them through.

To The Night was my favourite, with its sensitive portrayal of a prostitute doing her best for her family and battling against useless fathers, condescending clients and teenage rebellion – torn between socially respectable but back-breaking housework for a critical mistress that paid a pittance, and lucrative sex work that paid the bills but potentially was going to push her daughter into the same life. The arguments between mother and daughter felt authentic, the dilemma real, the tone not too heavy, the frustration palpable, and the ending believable.

What more delights does the Guyanese cinema ouvre hold? What productions have sprung up since 2011? I’d like to find out.

I got a small glimpse of the dynamism and DIY efforts out there among the youth yesterday, before the CineGuyana screening, when a teenage girl introduced me to the Berbice comedy trio CoolBoyz she had just been watching on YouTube through fits of laughter.

Any more recommendations? And if anyone knows where I can see the CineGuyana films I missed (particularly ‘Tradition’), please let me know.

Also, I saw a post on Facebook about a Guyanese make-up artist competing to win a place at a professional make-up school in Hollywood. I thought his dedication and artistry was pretty inspiring, so worth checking out (and voting). If only to see how on earth he created this crazy Medusa lizard-woman. Freaky.

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