22–28 Sept 2021
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Festival round-up: the bpTT Youth Jury and Prize

Five young people got the chance of lifetime when they sat on the bpTT youth jury at the 2015 trinidad + tobago film festival (ttff/15), which ran from September 15–29.

The initiative was conceived in 2014, as a way of stimulating interest in and a critical appreciation for independent film among Trinidad and Tobago’s youth.

Saskia Johnson, Claude Lilford, Auset McClean, Sarah Mongroo and Teneka Mohammed were the five jurors selected for this year’s jury. They were chosen by an open call. To be considered for the jury, applicants had to be from 16 to 21 years of age. Each had to submit an essay saying what their favourite film is, and why.

Under the guidance of film critic and journalist BC Pires, the jury watched eight feature-length fiction films featuring young protagonists.

The films in competition were:

Girlhood: Céline Sciamma, 2014 / France
The Greatest House in the World: Ana V. Bojórquez, Lucía Carreras, 2015 / Guatemala, Mexico
Güeros: Alonso Ruizpalacios, 2014 / Mexico
Honeytrap: Rebecca Johnson, 2014 / United Kingdom
Margarita, with a Straw: Shonali Bose, 2014 / India
On the Road, Somewhere: Guillermo Zouain, 2015 / Dominican Republic
Stories of Our Lives: Jim Chuchu, 2015 / Kenya, South Africa
Theeb: Naji Abu Nowar, 2014 / Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom

Girlhood—the story of Mariemme, a black girl living in the suburbs of Paris who leaves her abusive home life and joins a gang—was the jury’s choice for best film. As the director of the winning film, Céline Sciamma will receive a cash award of $5000 from bpTT.

The jury also gave an honourable mention to Güeros, and a special mention to The Greatest House in the World for its cinematography.

After the ttff/15 awards ceremony on September 27, the members of the jury opened up about their experience.

“I’ve been a film enthusiast for about three years,” 19-year-old Claude Lilford said. “It’s been a unique chance, not something I would get the chance to do anywhere else—maybe a few other places in the world—but this is a unique experience and something I really wanted to be a part of.”

Lilford’s colleague, 20-year-old Teneka Mohammed, who is a Film Studies major at the University of the West Indies, commented on the scope of the experience.

“I watch film[s] in school but [this] was a bigger experience and I loved it! I want to be a film critic so of course I’m so happy this is going on my résumé.”

BC Pires—who has been writing about films since 1988 and who also sat on the first jury at the ttff—commended the jury members on their diplomacy.

“There are not enough superlatives to describe what a pleasure it is to be working with these young people,” he said. “They rose to their task amazingly well. If our Parliament could see how they spoke to one another. They were passionate and went to their task of listening to one another with, I think, a real honesty, humility and respect for the other person’s point of view. I think they might all consider a career in dispute resolution.”

Pires also gave a little insight into how he sought to guide the jury.

“We had meetings before the adjudication, and I did suggest to them an approach I thought they should take: to try to award the best film, not the film they liked most, although in the adjudication process, I did suggest to them that now is the time to bring back in passion.”

“They have no idea how much I really wanted to be a part of [the youth jury],” 18-year-old Sarah Mungroo said. “ I think I am in that limbo period between being an adult and a child and the youth jury really helped me figure out what I want to do with my life. After we finished deliberating I was thinking that I could do this for the rest of my life. I was so happy. Thank you bpTT and ttff for the opportunity!”

Image: the members of the ttff/15 bpTT youth jury, from left, Claude Lilford, Teneka Mohammed, Sarah Mongroo, Saskia Johnson and Auset McClean

Caribbean films to screen at International Short Film Festival Mauritius

A package of five short Caribbean films—all previous selections of the trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff)—will screen at île Courts, the International Short Film Festival of Mauritius (ISFFM), which takes place from 6–10 October.

The screenings of these short films form part of an exchange between the ttff and ISFFM. A package of short films from Mauritius screened at the recently concluded ttff/15.

The films that will screen at ISFFM are:

ABCs, Diana Montero, Cuba (2013)
Doubles with Slight Pepper, Ian Harnarine, Trinidad and Tobago (2012)
Grave Digger, Gabrielle Blackwood, Jamaica (2012)
A Home for These Old Bones, Julien Silloray, Guadeloupe (2013)
Old Moon, Raisa Bonnet, Puerto Rico (2013)

The package will screen on Friday 9 October. In addition, Doubles with Slight Pepper and A Home for These Old Bones will screen as part of the ISFFM’s closing night festivities on Saturday 10 October.

“Trinidad and Mauritius share remarkably similar histories, never mind that one island is in the Caribbean and the other is in the Indian Ocean, thousands of kilometres apart,” said ttff Programme Director Annabelle Alcazar.

“We are thrilled at this opportunity to share aspects of the Caribbean experience with the people of Mauritius, just as we were happy recently to present Mauritian life to our audiences. We expect this to be the start of a fruitful collaboration between our two festivals, and both countries.”

Founded in 2007, ISFFM is an annual showcase of short cinematic works from island nations of the Indian Ocean. Part of the festival’s stated mission is to develop an audience for a “different kind of cinema” in Mauritius.

Image: A still from A Home for These Old Bones

Film in Focus: Vanishing Sail

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

The documentary Vanishing Sail, directed by Alexis Andrews, won the People’s Choice Award for Best Feature Documentary at the ttff/15. Our blogger, Aurora Herrera, attended the screening of the film on Saturday 26 September, where Andrews was present.

“Life is too short for instant coffee and Rice Krispies.” – John Smith

This is my favourite line from Vanishing Sail.

Vanishing Sail is a film about the traditions of boat-building in the Grenadines but by emphasising this part of John Smith’s interview, director Alexis Andrews is pushing the audience to dig deeper, to size up the routines of instant gratification in their own lives and to do the work needed to experience a deeper sagacity of life.

The film focuses on Alwyn Enoe, one of the last boat-builders of Carriacou, who practises the trade passed down the generations from the Scottish settlers who arrived in the 19th century. At one point, these traditions of boat-building were crucial to the survival of the islanders. However, with the younger generation now interested in other pursuits, these skills have all but vanished. Approaching his 70s, Alwyn decides to create a final sailing vessel before the skills introduced by his ancestors are lost forever.

Through mapping the creation of this vessel, Andrews gifts the audience the ability to witness the miracle of creation.

From the cutting of the trees that form the skeleton of the boat to the addition of reinforcing sinews of planking to fortifying joints of screws, nails and caulking to the fleshy materialisation of sandpapered and painted decks, a masterful mast and swift sails, Andrews connects the audience to the three-year journey to birth the Exodus.

“The film itself took three years, [the length of time it took] to build Alwyn’s vessel,” he said. “During that time I sailed up and down the Caribbean looking for stories, for people who had a connection with boat building and I thought it would be maybe ten people that I find with interesting stories and during the course of my travelling up and down, I did 49 interviews. We [had] 180 hours of footage. So then it took another two years to refine the story and a lot of people, when they heard the project was in development, began to get in touch with us and they wanted to submit photographs or pieces of music or old footage which was wonderful because it all helped to tell a wider story.”

The film features several voices that have all been a part of the salt-sea life, working on boats in varying capacities, as well as a cultural scholar and a storyteller from the Carriacou community who give life to the history of boat-building and sailing, recounting their memories with charisma and the emotion of genuine nostalgia.

Andrews was born in Greece and studied photography in London before moving to Antigua in 1985 to work as a commercial photographer in the yachting industry.

Combined with his natural eye for framing, creativity and composition, Andrews’ natural love for boat-building, sailing, as well as his respect for Alwyn, give the film a beautiful buoyancy. Andrews has lived in Antigua since 1895 and has been visiting Carriacou for over a decade, during which time he was able to build a boat with Alwyn, the Genesis.

I suspect that it is because of this true experience of the island, the people and the boats that Andrews’ portrayal of the life there feels authentic and intimate. Moreover, because he is invested in the story, he gets the audience to invest in the story. I felt like I was right there with Alwyn and his sons all the way through. I mean, they made a sail boat, from scratch, with their bare hands. That is completely beautiful and remarkable. I marveled at the latitude of work and felt utterly impatient to see the vessel in the water. On the launch day, as they were rolling the boat down to the shoreline, I realized I was holding my breath and only when it hit the water did I breathe a sigh of relief, happiness, pride and exultation.

One audience member commented on the cinematography saying, “It was beautifully shot and edited. The camber of the edit allowed for moments of stillness but also it had this racing element as well.”

They also inquired as to the size of the crew, kind of equipment and whether it was invasive in the community. Beautifully edited, it must have been very challenging to put that together.

“Basically I’m not a filmmaker,” Andrews responded. “I’ve never done this before but I know how to use a still camera. So the Canon 5D is what I shot the entire film on. It captures the composition very well, the colours are amazing and it’s completely unobtrusive. Often when you point that at someone, they think you’re just taking their portrait, so the dialogue would continue naturally.

“The other person who shot the film, Justin [Sihera], he is from Carriacou himself and the two of us kind of developed this way of moving through the village in a very natural way. It’s a huge honour to have been part of the life there and to tell the story because it was collaborative and Alwyn and his family not only gave of their time and their stories but they were hugely supportive all the way through and they trusted me.

“Alwyn is a man I have huge respect for because he represents a very important thing that we sometimes miss in this fast-paced world and that is if you love to do something and you have a culture behind you and you do it and keep doing it and love it, you build respect. I love that about him.”

There were also Carriacouans in the audience who commented on the film.

“I’d like to congratulate you as a Carriacouan for such a wonderful piece of work, a wonderful film and a great work of art,” one of them said. “You have preserved our history, our culture and our heritage in a form that’s just incredible. I’m very impressed. Well done and thank you very much.”

Another audience member informed Andrews that members of the Compton family, who are featured in the film, were in the audience.

“This film was very special because they got to see some of their family,” they said.

When asked about why traditional boat-building is struggling to survive, Andrews pointed out the changing priorities of the young people and the economy.

“Young people are not willing to put that kind of work in,” he said. “It’s a lot of hard work. It’s much harder to build a traditional vessel than it is to build a speedboat. You can build [a speedboat] in a month and he can do business with it really quickly. The only way that traditional boat-building could really survive in this culture any longer is two ways. One; build boats for people who appreciate it—people who like to race and identify with lost traditions. There are a few of us crazy people out there. Two, the main way it works is tourism, because a lot of people like to experience to real Caribbean. But the real Caribbean is not going around on a chartered catamaran on a rum cruise. That’s fun but it’s not very cultural when you put it next to feeling the soul of a wooden boat under your bare feet and when you go out there, and then you have the rum. Tourism is a lot of these boats taking charters and that’s how they survive.”

Films in focus: Quedate and Margarita, with a Straw

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

The short fiction film Quedate, directed by US-Puerto Rican filmmaker Bradley Bixler, and the fiction feature Margarita, with a Straw, directed by Indian filmmaker Shonali Bose, screened at the ttff/15 on Friday 25 September. Our blogger, Aurora Herrera, attended the screenings, where Bixler and Bose were present.

Guillermo works for a human trafficking ring. One night he discovers two refugees, Alondra and her son, Victor, hiding in his truck. He reluctantly shelters them in his apartment, and begins to grow attached to them. Soon the secret makes its way out.

According to the director, Puerto-Rico born Bradley Bixler, the idea for Quedate came from a half-page story he read about a guy who shelters a woman who fled her fiancé on her wedding night.

“[That story] has nothing to do with trafficking but I guess that notion of flight [carried though],” Bixler said when asked about his motivation for this film.

Based in New York, the independent filmmaker is currently pursuing his MFA in Directing and Cinematography at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“I lived in Guatemala for six months and while I was there I experienced many accounts of migrant workers,” he said. “This is a dramatised story.”

One audience member asked about the editing style.

“As far as the technical part of it, I guess if we’re talking about editing, it’s a matter of keeping a certain pace but I think there are overall certain things in [my] style,” he said. “It’s shot on 16mm film. It’s very hard to come by now, even in New York. There is a very organic feel to it, it’s very visceral and complements the acting style.”

The 23-minute film was shot in an apartment in Washington Heights in Manhattan over five days.

“We worked on giving it a more dilapidated, rustic feeling,” he said. “I think a lot of the feel was just the camera, the reflection and the movement. It’s jerky, it’s handheld, shots are also composed when the actors are moving so I guess it’s a combination.”

Melvina Hazard, ttff director of community development, who introduced the film and hosted the Q&A, said that she felt that the film was very moving.

“When you look at the idea of human trafficking there is something so horrendous and you think about all of these nameless, faceless people and you have put a human face to it in a very sweet and touching and emotive way,” she said.

I too felt that the film dealt really well with the issue of human trafficking, as it humanised both sides of the business. Bixler does a good job of exploring the stories of both the trafficked and the traffickers. One does not usually feel empathy for the traffickers so I really appreciated this change in perspective.

Bixler also spoke about the casting process, explaining that it was not as simple as one would think.

“I had a casting director do the casting,” he said. “There are over 50,000 actors in New York but there aren’t as many Latinos as one might think. The film involves Central Americans. We were looking for certain things like Central American Spanish and certain accent highlights. You want that for accuracy.”

****

This film is magic.

Margarita, with a Straw is a film about love, loss, learning, growth, pain, resolution and happiness. It is a gorgeous moving snapshot of precious life. It is about Laila, a bright young woman from Delhi with cerebral palsy. She comes from a very loving family. Laila falls in love with Nima, a fellow musician in her class. When this boy rejects her, a heartbroken Laila accepts a place at a university in New York with the support of her mother. There she meets Khanum, a blind Pakistani girl. Slowly their friendship blossoms into a tender romance, and Laila is made to reconsider everything she thought she knew about herself and her world.

Shonali Bose has a Masters in Political Science from Columbia University, and an MFA in Directing from the UCLA Film School. Her debut narrative feature film Amu (2005), opened at the Berlin International Film Festival and won numerous awards. Margarita, with a Straw, opened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

I truly feel that if I did not see this film and witness the charm, wit and love of Bose when she spoke at the Q&A, that my life would have been less, that I would have missed out on a luminous experience.

Bose’s real life inspiration behind the film brought me to tears.

“My first cousin has acute cerebral palsy and she is only a year younger than me so I grew up doing everything with her,” she said. “We did everything in the same way until the point we were teenagers and I was able to date and she wasn’t. I was very conscious of that and I actually didn’t date at that time because I felt that she would feel terrible now to be left out. So when I was 40 and she was 39 and we were in London at a pub and I asked her what she wanted for her birthday and she said, “I just want to have sex!” it just threw me. She pointed out that family members and caregivers ignore the sexuality of the disabled the most and don’t enable it.

“Then in the summer of 2010, I was having lunch with my son Ishan, and I told him for the last couple years I finally feel in my own skin, I’ve been doing this work on myself and instead of seeking external affirmation as a filmmaker, finally I feel internal affirmation, empowerment and acceptance. This movement of seeking external love and affirmation to total self-love and acceptance so that you can go on a date with yourself, gave me the working title of the film, I Have Me. I asked him if he knew what I meant and he looked deeply into my eyes and he said “Mama, I totally know what you mean because I feel I have me.” Three weeks after that conversation he died in a horrific accident. The journey of the last five years is really raising a margarita, a toast to life, life with all of its ups and downs and celebrating the darkness and pain as well as the good things.”

I was really surprised to find out that the actress who plays Lila, Kalki Koechlin, was not disabled. She was totally authentic. Bose, who has a very close working relationship with her actors, explained that at first she did try to find a disabled actor to play the part.

“I did first try to find somebody who had cerebral palsy, not to be politically correct but because I felt that no one else would give them a chance,” Bose said. “I did a nationwide hunt in India for actors who were blind and had cerebral palsy. I couldn’t find 19-year-olds who could do that so I turned to professional actors. Of course it was terrifying to find someone to pull if off authentically because if it wasn’t authentic I would not have made the film and the agreement with Kalki was that even if we go through this whole thing and we get to the set and we can’t pull it off, we are going to abandon it because I cannot not have it be authentic.”

In terms of the multilayered storyline, Bose faced many challenges to get the film to the screen.

“As soon as I made the character bisexual, we lost 50 per cent of our funding,” she said. “It’s illegal to be gay so it became a political issue. I said, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re not going to give me money because it’s dealing with a gay issue?’ Now I’m going to find the money because this is so wrong and I have to fight this now.”

Eventually Margarita, with a Straw opened on 250 screens in the country.

“So many young gay people wrote to me and said, ‘We took our families to see the film and then we came out to them.’”

Bose maintains though that the film is not about being gay, disabled, Islamic or inter-caste.

“Why should we always show the mainstream, the Punjabi North character?” she asked. “[The character of] Khanum is Muslim but she is not standing in for Muslims. It’s a not about Muslim identity. It was not a film about disability nor is the film about being gay—why not have a character that is gay but it’s not about the issue? I feel that you shouldn’t get locked into identity politics.”

Melvina Hazard, ttff director of community relations who introduced the film and hosted the Q&A informed the audience that it was a unanimous decision by the ttff programming committee to include this film.

“I was struck by how delicately you handled the story, telling it so tenderly,” she said. “You can see that there is a lot of love that went into this film and lots of love in the interactions of the characters.”

I could talk about the script, camera angles, colour, production and sound design of the film but I won’t. The only thing I have to say is: For the enrichment of your own life, please, watch this incredible film.

Image: a still from Margarita, with a Straw

Festival round-up: the bpTT Youth Jury and Prize

Caribbean films to screen at International Short Film Festival Mauritius

Film in Focus: Vanishing Sail

Films in focus: Quedate and Margarita, with a Straw

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