by Aurora Herrera, ttff blogger
Sweet Bottom is the story of Roy Ashby who left Barbados as a child and immigrated to Brooklyn and then grew up in New York City. After pleading guilty to a few minor crimes, the war veteran and accomplished chef, played by Sean Casely, is unceremoniously deported to Barbados as an adult. Knowing nothing about his family on the island, he feels that he has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. This sense of displacement fuels his desperation to get back to the Big Apple and it seems that he will do anything to accomplish that.
This narrative is the first feature-length film of the director, Gladstone Yearwood and the trinidad + tobago film festival is its world premiere.
“The film is about loss in Barbadian society,” Yearwood said. “I was looking at the displacement of the people of Emmerton to build a sewerage plant and also about the loss of Sweet Bottom. Sweet Bottom was a historical place and the name has also changed.”
Yearwood is known for his writings on black film aesthetics. He received a PhD and M.A. from Ohio University, Athens, and a B.F.A from New York University Institute of Film-Television. He is a Professor of Film and Creative Arts and Director of the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination, The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus and was instrumental in establishing the UWI Film Programme.
Yearwood does a fair job of commenting on the prejudiced US system, marrying a fiction story with actual statistics and portraying the mindsets of lawmakers.
One of these lawmakers is Inspector Rock, played by Daniel M Best. The Inspector is essentially the bane of Asby’s existence as he tries to seek out new opportunities in work and love.
Inspector Rock accurately describes the general view of returning deportees, saying that the Unites States sees the Caribbean islands as their “refuse pile” where they can send their criminals and “dregs” of society when they don’t want to deal with such offenders.
While the lack of finances affected the production value of the film, Yearwood’s intimate knowledge of the story as well as his passion for telling it, engages the audience, encouraging them to look past the issues with continuity, audio and staging.
One audience member commented, “I must congratulate you. We all realize the difficulty deportees have in the Caribbean. When a child got pregnant, the parents sent them away and changed their name. The child is then deported back into the Caribbean with no roots because of the name change and this is the problem psychologically with a number of or children today. The Ministry of Education and this festival can try to help children in our schools today who have this problem.”
Early on, the film sets up the psychological strain that Asby is under. I felt that Yearwood did a fine job of establishing the character’s desperate state; the fact that he is displaced both internally and externally.
I was behind him when he managed to land a job at a restaurant, I felt proud when he did volunteer work and also found a good girlfriend. I saw that he was really trying to do the right thing. When Inspector Rock starts snooping around and effectively ruins these new prospects for Ashby, I felt very frustrated as well.
“Trauma is important but I think we need to look beneath the surface at what trauma does as opposed to graphically portraying and exploiting the violence,” Yearwood commented. “Displacement is interesting because in Barbados there was never a revolution…and there is a perception that it had a very smooth history but there is a lot of trauma and I wanted to explore the impact of that turmoil on those persons whose history has been broken by displacement.”
One very interesting facet of the film is the amount of help that it received from the Cuban film community. According to Yearwood, all of the heads of department were Cuban and they gave generously of their knowledge to the Barbadian students and filmmakers who worked with them on the film.
Also very encouraging is that the young people who worked on the film were part of an anti-poverty programme called the “Motion Picture Arts” impact programme where they trained in the art of filmmaking for six months before working on the project. The audience was told that several of these young people went on to work in commercials and other productions.
In terms of casting, Yearwood shared that most of the actors were not professional actors.
“I think the lead actor has never done film, he was a person who had lived in the US and came back,” he said. “Earl Maynard [the gang boss] played in several films in Hollywood and he was a Mr. universe and a body builder. We also cast through the Barbados association or retired persons and so on.”
The film does end on a bittersweet note, leaning more to the sweet rather than the bitter. There is a good life lesson in this work.
Yearwood acknowledges that there is still work to be done to raise the quality of Barbadian film and believes that the world will begin to see more content within 5-10 years.
“We have the film programme at UWI and the Barbados Film and Video Association,” he said. “Also, the film commissioner’s role is to look at ways of building film. There is a Barbados cultural authority that works to fund culture but we are desperately short of money these days. The legislation is there but it is taking a while to happen. We are hopeful.”
You can catch another screening of Sweet Bottom on the following date:
Tue 27 Sept, 8.30pm, MovieTowne Tobago