Filmmaker in Focus: Robert Yao Ramesar
Robert Yao Ramesar is one of Trinidad and Tobago’s leading filmmakers. He has many short films to his credit, and his first feature, SistaGod, about the coming of a black female messiah in a post-apocalyptic world, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, and subsequently screened at the ttff/06. The film’s sequel, Her Second Coming, screened as a work-in-progress at the ttff/09.
Since then he has shot a feature in Barbados, Stranger in Paradise (yet to be released), and is in post-production on a film he shot in Haiti, called Haiti Bride. He was also recently nominated for the Yellow Robin Award for Caribbean and Latin American filmmakers, the winner of which will be announced at the second edition of Curaçao International Film Festival Rotterdam, which takes place from 4–7 April.
We caught up with Yao at Trevor’s Edge bar in St Augustine (a sometime ttff screening venue), east of Port-of-Spain, near the University of the West Indies, where he lectures in the film programme. He told us about Haiti Bride, that he thinks Caribbean people don’t know what a Caribbean film is, and about his next film project, which he describes as “The Wrestler meets Purple Rain meets Rocky.”
How did you come to make a film in Haiti?
Haiti was always on my radar as the priority space in the Caribbean for me to engage in and make films about. I was directing a Chinese co-production in Barbados in 2010 when the earthquake struck and I felt really trapped; I’d have left immediately for Haiti if I could. I didn’t know what friends there were alive or dead. I vowed that the next feature I made would be a Haitian feature, a post-earthquake feature. As soon as I got the opportunity I went there to do Haiti Bride.
What is the story?
Haiti Bride centres around a young lady who leaves Haiti in 2004 with her family, with the evacuation, when Aristide is thrown out of power, as the family is close to Aristide. They are domiciled in New York and the parents vow never to return under the present political situation. Some years later a Haitian guy shows up in New York, and falls in love with the girl. He wants to live in the States, and she wants to go back to Haiti. The family is livid, but they finally strike a compromise, which means they’ll have the wedding in Haiti. Unfortunately the date and time of the wedding coincide with the earthquake.
What was the experience like shooting in Haiti?
It was extremely hard. It was me alone. It was extremely rough, physically, just to negotiate that terrain and shoot alone; it was tough on my body. That would have been late 2010 and early 2011. In June 2012 I went with Edmund Attong, my cinematographer, and we finished the rest of the film.
In the past, too, on your films it’s basically been a two-man crew. Why do you work with such a skeletal crew?
Because I do ultra-low-budget feature films, and I really can’t afford to pay volunteers. The two of us roughed it out in Haiti for five weeks. We had a lot of close shaves with death. It was literally hard on the body. But that helped us feel at least a fraction of the hardship the Haitian people were feeling. We had to feel the ground and feel the devastation of the landscape and even the people to be honest to the film.
That really changed a lot, in terms of the aesthetic of the film. It’s a very stark film, but a film with a lot of hope as well. I didn’t just shoot the ruins, I shot a lot of what people don’t see in the media of Haiti, the beauty and power of the country. There’s a lot of green hills and fertility.
As to the characters themselves, I didn’t want extremes. There’s always a subhuman or a superhuman thing with Haiti, from the mythology of its heroes to the struggle of the people today. I just wanted to get as mundane and as regular—whatever that means—characters as I could. I wanted to see people going about their business. The film was very much inspired by the highs and lows and days and nights of regular folk.
In the end it was deeply satisfying. This is the most satisfying film I’ve made. The funny thing is, with all the hardship, it was the lowest amount of stress that I’ve encountered for a feature.
What was it like working with your actors? Did they speak English?
Not much. The film is a creole-language film. I got a lot of experience doing the Mandarin-West Indian creole film I shot in 2010, Stranger in Paradise. That was the first time I was directing actors in a language I had no clue about. Of course we had translators [on Haiti Bride], but it was a difficult task. You have to be able to gauge what the actors are giving you, because you don’t know the language. But after a while I got a sense of what was not just believable but how the character would sound at that point in the script. I think we did OK.
You mentioned that 2010 film, Stranger in Paradise. Tell me about that film, and when can audiences expect to see it?
Stranger in Paradise I directed off a screenplay by Wayne Cezair. Basically it’s about a Chinese woman coming to a Caribbean island to escape her husband, but she’s left a child behind in his hands. It deals a lot with globalism and migration and so on. I thought it was a good idea, a very important film. I was always fascinated by Chinese culture and civilisation, too. I really wanted to get to know a bit more. I learned a bit of Mandarin. I’m hoping that film will see the light, if not in 2014, by 2015.
All the features you’ve worked on—Haiti Bride, Stranger in Paradise, SistaGod and SistaGod II: Her Second Coming—one thing they all have in common is a female protagonist. What is it that makes you want to tell female-centred stories?
I don’t want to get into the politics of representational strategies, that women have been underrepresented and I’m some sort of saviour or hero. I just think in my own life, like most people, my life has been centred mainly around women, whether it’s my mother, my teachers, my sisters, my daughters and, of course, my women. I think that naturally extends to my work.
You’ve been nominated for this new Caribbean filmmakers’ award, the Yellow Robin Award of the Curaçao International Film Festival Rotterdam. That comes with the possibility of winning not just a cash prize but also a trip to the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which would include meetings with potential co-producers for future productions. You’ve said you make ultra-low-budget films and I would assume that’s not simply because of a lack of funding, but because you have not wanted previously to enter the whole world of co-productions between north and south. What’s your view on that now?
I have no problem with that. I’d work with anybody in cinema culture in the world. In terms of dealing with the so-called north/south stuff, I don’t have a problem. It’s about creativity. I’m not as hardline as people think I am about Hollywood, even. Formally we don’t have any co-production arrangements here, but it’s not a problem. I’m not being coy, I’m open to anything.
You don’t work in popular genres—you don’t make comedies, action films, horror films. What would you say to the charge that as a filmmaker making arthouse films, that you are an elitist, that you aren’t satisfying the popular demand for local films, and your films aren’t aimed at the average person?
That’s valid. What I would say is that I make films that come to my heart and soul and mind. I don’t make films to satisfy an audience. If they find an audience, fine, but it’s just a reflection of me. I don’t make films in elitist terms, like I want people clearing their throat before responding to my films. Those are just my films.
You don’t think of an audience before making a film? You don’t think of the market?
No. I don’t even think of an arthouse audience, as is clear from the response to Her Second Coming [laughs].
What’s the status of that film? It screened as a work-in-progress at the ttff/09.
We finally completed it and as of this year we’re putting it into international release. The audience for that film will probably be quite exotic—Russia, Indonesia, hippies in the western United States will probably be checking it out.
You don’t see any inherent contradiction between your rootedness in the Caribbean space—you have a philosophy in filmmaking based around that, “Caribbeing”—you don’t see any inherent contradiction between that and the fact that you don’t set out to make films for Caribbean people specifically?
No. The films that I make are Caribbean films in the in terms of their origin and source material. All of that comes from here. I think that Caribbean audiences don’t have a clue about Caribbean film. The films they watch aren’t Caribbean films in the first place. I’m cooking a meal that’s not their food. There’s nothing like coo coo and saltfish on the screen regularly for them; it’s KFC. So what’s the alternative? People have spoken with me about this in terms of maybe having a more happy medium. However, with The Last Dance of the Karaoke King coming up—which will signal my return to making films in Trinidad—that will change.
What will that film be about?
It’s about a chutney singer who had a mega hit in the mid-1990s and in 2013 is subsisting off karaoke earnings while plotting a comeback. He gets plucked out of obscurity at that time by a visiting American documentary filmmaker who’s doing something on Indo-Caribbean masculinism [sic] and the chutney artform. Then his estranged love of his life—who fled at his peak because of women and other issues—returns to the fold as well. He also has a half-brother manager who got most out of the hit. They were estranged but he has to team up with him to try to revive his career. The half-brother has started a musical empire based on earnings from the hit. Coincidentally it’s starring Chris Garcia—
Who is a chutney singer who had a mega hit back in the mid-1990s.
Yes, but any…
…semblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental?
Yes, it’s pure coincidence. The guy’s name is Robin Singh, right? It’s not even the same name.
The Trinidadian-Indian cricketer, Robin Singh, might object.
Nah, if you look in the phone book in Delhi or Mumbai there’s about two million Robin Singhs. Obviously it’s a pun, the name. I want to have fun with this film. I will be acting in it as the manager. That will be fun.
Is this a response to criticism about the impenetrability or obscurity of your films, or is this just what you feel like doing?
Both. For the longest while people who know me told me if I made films based on my real life they would be much more interesting and I tend to agree with them. A lot of this film would be semi-autobiographical and full of life and colour and characters, and stuff I went through in my life.
So the karaoke king is you?
Well no, it’s not. The karaoke king is a figure, an archetype. I’m familiar with the rise of the chutney artform and the people involved. It’s similar to my experience in film. Think The Wrestler meets Purple Rain meets Rocky.
I would see that.
I’m going to have a lot of fun with it. It’s going to be very accessible. It might even have a bigger crew, you never know. [Laughs.]
Haiti Bride is slated for a 2013 premiere.
Nominees for Yellow Robin Award announced
The nominees for the first Yellow Robin Award of the Curaçao International Film Festival Rotterdam have been announced.
A competition aimed at encouraging up-and-coming film talent from the Caribbean and neighbouring Latin American countries, the award will be handed out at the second edition of Curaçao IFFR, which takes place from 4–7 April 2013.
The nominated films and filmmakers for the Yellow Robin Award 2013 are:
No quiero dormir sola – directed by Natalia Beristain (Mexico)
SistaGod – directed by Yao Ramesar (Trinidad and Tobago)
Children of God – directed by Kareem Mortimer (Bahamas)
Larga Distancia – directed by Esteban Insausti (Cuba)
Ghett’a Life – directed by Chris Browne (Jamaica)
The nominating institutions for the shortlisted films are the Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia (Mexico), the trinidad+tobago film festival, the Bahamas Film & Television Commission, the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), and the Jamaica Promotions Corporation.
The award comes with a US$10,000 cash prize and travel to and accommodation in Rotterdam for the 2014 edition of the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam. The winning film will screen at IFFR 2014 and the filmmaker will be given an opportunity to network with industry professionals present at the festival.
During Curaçao IFFR the festival will create several activities enabling the nominees to learn about IFFR, to network and to get feedback on future projects.
The five films will be screened during Curaçao IFFR, giving the jury deciding the award the opportunity to see the films on the big screen and with an audience. The jury is made up of Rutger Wolfson (director of IFFR), David Pinedo (film critic and script advisor) and Bernadette Heiligers (text producer and public relations expert).
The winner will be announced during the closing night award ceremony on April 7.
Image: A shot from Ghett’a Life (2011)
European Film Festival to take place in May
The European Film Festival (EFF) of Trinidad and Tobago, a showcase of some of the latest movies from Europe and eagerly awaited annually by cinema lovers, is now taking place in May.
Set for its 17th edition, the EFF showcases films from the European Union (EU), and is organised by the European Union Member States with diplomatic missions in T&T—France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom—and the EU Delegation. This year the United Kingdom is the coordinating mission of the EFF.
As in 2012, the EFF will partner with the trinidad+tobago film festival.
The festival will have its gala opening on 9 May, with a screening of the new British comedy Jadoo. Public screenings run from 15–28 May at MovieTowne Port-of-Spain. Screenings at MovieTowne in Tobago will take place from 22–28 May.
The lineup of 27 films will be rich and varied, ranging from hard-hitting dramas and suspense thrillers to hilarious comedies and children’s films. Many of the selected movies are award-winning titles by some of Europe’s top filmmakers.
“I am delighted to announce that the European Film Festival 2013 will take place in May,” said British High Commissioner Arthur Snell. “The EFF partners once again with the trinidad+tobago film festival, and this year promises a vivid and diverse range of films from across the European Union, once again reflecting the rich spectrum of cultures found within the EU.”
Tickets for all screenings are $30 each, with tickets for children and students in uniform priced at $20.
Filmmaker in Focus: Steven Taylor
Steven Taylor is a Trinidad and Tobago filmmaker who isn’t lacking in talent or ambition. His short supernatural thriller Buck: The Man Spirit—which was his thesis film for his degree from the film programme at the University of the West Indies—won him the audience prize at the ttff/12 for best local short film. Recently he was accepted to study for a masters in fine arts from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, the oldest and one of the most prestigious film schools in the world (alumni include the likes of George Lucas, James Ivory, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Zemeckis). The 25-year-old recently sat down to chat with us for this installment of our Filmmakers in Focus series.
Congratulations on your acceptance to the University of Southern California. How did you decide you wanted to attend USC?
It was very easy for me. I was inspired by Steven Spielberg. Jurassic Park was my initiation into film, at the age of seven. From then on I knew that’s what I’d be doing for the rest of my life. Steven Spielberg actually applied to USC, and he was denied entry twice. So getting into USC is like a major feat.
You’ve already done an undergraduate degree at the UWI film programme, graduating with first-class honours in production and film studies. Why did you feel it necessary to go further in studying filmmaking, and not just start making feature films?
One of the reasons I decided to do the MFA is that I haven’t worked with film [stock]. Yes, people are saying that film is dying out and the DSLR revolution is something that’s taking us by storm, but people still shoot on film. It’s something that you can decide for aesthetic reasons that you want to use. I also wanted to be able to understand the tools of large-scale production, to incorporate that with what I’ve learned as a guerrilla filmmaker, to become complete.
Your most recent film, Buck: The Man Spirit—the story of a taxi driver who unwittingly brings home a buck, a supernatural creature from Caribbean folklore—was your thesis film from UWI and a selection of the trinidad+tobago film festival last year, where it won audience award for best local short. How did you decide on the subject for the film?
I have always been fascinated by one’s imagination and the ability to bring it to life on screen. That’s why Steven Spielberg influenced me—his imagination has no ending, no full stop. On another level, Buck represented my family; the buck was more a symbolic character, some element that comes into an institution and destroys it. I decided to do Buck and use the mythical, folkloric thing we have in Trinidad to disguise a story about a family that was going through some kind of turmoil. The buck character was my way of bringing in all these things, and not just using it for blood and gore.
Your previous student shorts traded in genre material as well—suspense, and a bit of gore. Would you say then that you see yourself primarily as a genre filmmaker working in action, suspense, horror, those genres?
I can’t say that as yet until I complete the MFA and get to explore this film world as we know it. I’m still limited in the tools and the experiences that I have. The films that I’ve done so far aren’t really what I want to do. I haven’t done that as yet for a lot of reasons—budgetary, crew, etc. So I don’t know yet if I’d call myself a genre or art cinema filmmaker. I’m still experimenting with different styles to find one that is truly mine.
Why did you decide to go to USC as opposed to, say, schools more known for producing independent filmmakers, such as New York University or Columbia?
I’m really a fan of big-budget productions. I like to be able to do anything you want to do in a film. Filming is supposed to be something like a playhouse. Here in Trinidad we have a lot of constraints with doing what you really want to do. You have to sacrifice your story a lot of the time to make things work. Big-budget productions are the kinds of things I want to experience. I know it’s not as intimate as a small production, but I’ve experienced that, working with four people on a crew. And, well, I grew up in the blockbuster era with the Gremlins and Ninja Turtles and Jurassic Parks. So for me it’s about seeing how I can bring that sort of level of filmmaking to the Caribbean by tailoring it to us, by taking the elements that are necessary to make it happen.
How do you see yourself being able to do that given the obvious economic constraints that we have here? And how do you see a Caribbean film industry developing given those constraints?
I think in this day and age there really aren’t a lot of constraints. Now technology is accessible, cameras are accessible. What we lack is the knowledge. A lot of the time we find the money to pay German directors, American directors, to come right here and use our talent to make big films. There are a lot of examples of that. But what they come with is the know-how. For me it’s not bringing down a whole studio, but working with what we have, which is the innate talent, use the equipment that is not available to us. I don’t think technology is the issue; it’s the know-how. Hollywood has a great mechanism to keep those things away from us.
Getting back to USC, what was the entry process like?
It was like applying to any other school. There’s a form online, you show samples of your work, what awards you’ve won, make a mandatory statement of purpose. I basically took all the work that I’ve done until now and put it together and hoped for the best. And they liked it. And most of the things I’ve done, guess where I did them? In Trinidad and Tobago. I did all of those films right here.
Film festival trio in historic Berlinale experience
Proudly representing their country and region, three members of the trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff)—Nneka Luke, Jonathan Ali and Ryan Khan—braved freezing temperatures and attended the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, the Berlinale, which took place in the German capital from 7–17 February.
Founded in 1951, the Berlinale is one of the top five film festivals in the world, along with the Cannes, Venice, Toronto and Sundance festivals. It is also one of the largest, with over 400 films screening annually.
Ms Luke, director of external relations and the newest team member at the ttff, was at the Berlinale as part of the DW Akademie Film Festival and Event Management Workshop. Hosted annually by Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international media broadcaster, the workshop brought together film festival managers from eleven developing countries.
The workshop—which ran from 20 January–22 February—shared information about improving the management of film festivals, supported the creation of valuable contacts through networking opportunities, and immersed participants in the Berlinale itself. Ms Luke’s participation—which was partly funded by the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company and supported by the German embassy—marked the first time in the eleven-year history of the event that a Caribbean film festival was invited to participate.
Mr Ali, the ttff’s editorial director, was at the Berlinale to scout films for possible inclusion in the ttff/13, which takes place from 18 September–1 October. He also engaged in extensive rounds of networking, and met with producers, representatives of other film festivals and other film-industry professionals, with regards to identifying funding and other production-, exhibition- and distribution-related opportunities for local and regional filmmakers.
Meanwhile Mr Khan, a filmmaker himself and until recently the ttff’s technical operations manager, was in Berlin to attend the Berlinale Talent Campus, a training opportunity for young filmmakers from around the world. He benefitted from participating in workshops and panel discussions with top filmmaking professionals, including celebrated filmmakers such as Jane Campion and Ken Loach.
“As we enter our eighth year the ttff is pleased to have had such a high level of representation at the Berlin International Film Festival,” said ttff founder and director Bruce Paddington. “The ttff was also able to participate in a vibrant trade market and such exposure will benefit the growth of the Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean film industry.”
Photo caption: Nneka Luke, director of external relations of the trinidad+tobago film festival, in green hat, with fellow participants of the DW Akademie Film Festival and Event Management Workshop.
Better Mus’ Come to screen at ttff headquarters to mark US release
Celebrated Jamaican feature film Better Mus’ Come (2011, 103′), written and directed by Storm Saulter, will be shown at a special screening on Wednesday 13 March at the trinidad+tobago film festival’s offices at 199 Belmont Circular Road, Belmont.
The screening takes place to coincide with the film’s theatrical release in the United States. There will be theatrical runs for the film in New York and Los Angeles, and special one-night engagements in several other US cities. The local screening is taking place in association with the film’s producers, Firefly Films of Jamaica.
Set in Jamaica in the 1970s, Better Mus’ Come is a fictional story inspired by a real event, the infamous Green Bay Massacre. The film follows the fortunes of young Ricky, who lives in one of Kingston’s violence-plagued garrison communities, and who leads a gang funded by one of the country’s two major political parties.
Trouble develops within the gang when Ricky begins to have doubts about the path he has chosen, and starts yearning after a different life, especially for his little son. To complicate matters, Ricky falls in love with the headstrong and beautiful Kimala, who lives in a part of the ghetto controlled by the rival political party.
When a particular shooting leads to an escalation of violence in the community, an army lockdown takes place. Ricky is forced to make a difficult decision, one that will have profound consequences for himself and those he loves.
Winner of the audience award for best narrative feature at the ttff/11, as well as the audience award at the Bahamas International Film Festival the same year, Better Mus’ Come went on to screen at the Black History Month programme of the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival in 2012. The respected UK film journal Sight & Sound has called the film “potent”, drawing comparisons with the Perry Henzell classic, The Harder They Come.
“We are very pleased to again be screening Better Mus’ Come,” said Jonathan Ali, Editorial Director of the ttff. “It is an excellent film—and, might I add, a timely and relevant one—made by an extremely talented young regional filmmaker. And we are doubly pleased that now international audiences will get to experience this landmark achievement in Caribbean cinema.”
The screening of the film, which is for persons 18 years and over, begins at 8pm, and doors open from 7pm. There is a cost of $25 per patron, and there will be refreshments on sale. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 621-0709.
The ttff, which is in its eighth year, is presented by Flow and receives leading sponsorship from RBC Royal Bank, bpTT and the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company Limited.
SEE THE TRAILER FOR BETTER MUS’ COME HERE.
Call for submissions now open for ttff/13
The call for submissions for the 2013 edition of the trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff), which takes place from 18 September to 01 October, is now open.
The ttff seeks to highlight excellence in filmmaking through the exhibition of dramatic, documentary and experimental feature and short films made in T&T, the Caribbean and its diaspora. The Festival therefore accepts submissions from Caribbean filmmakers, Caribbean filmmakers in the diaspora, and international filmmakers with films from or about the Caribbean or its diaspora. Submissions must have been produced after 01 January, 2011.
The Festival screens short films (under 60 minutes) and features (60 minutes and over) in digital, Blu-ray and 35mm formats. The festival also screens music videos of any length.
Films screened in competition are eligible for one or several of the following jury prizes: best narrative feature film (US$4,000); best documentary feature film (US$4,000); best narrative short film (US$1,000); best documentary short film (US$1,000); best T&T narrative feature film (TT$10,000); best T&T documentary feature film (TT$10,000); best T&T narrative short film (TT$5,000); best T&T documentary short film (TT$5,000); and best Caribbean film by an international filmmaker (US$1,000).
There are also four people’s choice awards, for best dramatic feature, best documentary feature, best short film and best music video, each worth TT$5,000.
Apart from its programme of regular screenings, the Festival is also accepting submissions of video art and experimental films. These works will be shown as part of the New Media initiative, which is held in conjunction with ARC Magazine. Artists working in this field who are from the Caribbean and its diaspora, or artists who address these spaces in their work, are eligible to apply. This section is also in competition and comes with a TT$5,000 prize for best film/video.
All submissions must be made online, via www.withoutabox.com, trinidad+tobago film festival.
There is no submission fee.
THE DEADLINE FOR ALL SUBMISSIONS IS 31 MAY 2013. THIS DEADLINE WILL BE STRICTLY FOLLOWED. PLEASE DO NOT SUBMIT FILMS THAT DO NOT FULFILL THE STATED CRITERIA.
In addition to screening Caribbean and diaspora films in competition, the ttff also has a panorama (non-competitive) section featuring films from around the world. However, the Festival only accepts submissions from Caribbean filmmakers, Caribbean filmmakers in the diaspora, and international filmmakers with films from or about the Caribbean or its diaspora.
The ttff seeks to make all screenings at the Festival T&T premieres. Occasionally, however, the Festival considers films that have already been shown publicly in T&T. Please contact us directly if you have a film that falls into this category at email@example.com or 621-0709.
The ttff reserves the right to determine the eligibility of the submissions to be screened at the Festival, the appropriate venues and time slots for the screening of films, and to use excerpts of the films for publicity purposes. All films submitted must have applicable clearances and the Festival will not be held liable.
The Festival, which is in its eighth year, is presented by Flow and receives leading sponsorship from RBC Royal Bank, bpTT and the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company Limited.