On Saturday 24 September at The Reader’s Bookshop in Port of Spain, at a laid-back event that took place as part of the ttff/11, journalist and film fan BC Pires counted down his ten favourite Caribbean films of all time. The event was snappily titled Men from Africa, Girls from India, Conquistadors from Germany and Some Cosquelle Rebels: A Personal List of His Ten Favourite Caribbean Films by BC Pires.
Pires’s definition of the Caribbean was suitably broad (The Godfather, anyone?!), and his selections ranged widely in terms of genre and content. Here, in ascending order, and preceded by the runners-up, are his selections, with accompanying comments for the top ten.
20. The Godfather
19. The Mosquito Coast
18. American Beauty
16. What My Mother Told Me
14. Open Water
13. When the Drum is Beating
12. Moloch Tropical
10. Flight of the Ibis: Men of Grey II. G Anthony Joseph’s sequel to the film he made to graduate from film school is a far, far better film than anyone should have been able to make in Trinidad in 1996. A smoking soundtrack by Sean Bartholomew, great stunt and fight choreography and Tricia Lee Kelshall brandishing an automatic pistol made this an easy choice; it’s also the only local film I’ve ever seen on cable.
9. ’70: Remembering a Revolution/Fire in Babylon. I cheated because it was, first, such a Trinidadian act and, second, impossible to leave out either of the leading contenders for the documentary prize this year. Festival editorial director, Jonathan Ali, called ’70 “the definitive work, in any medium” about 1970; he is likely to be proven right. Fire in Babylon explains why the West Indies cricket teams of the 70s and 80s were as hugely successful as they were. If these films don’t document the Caribbean spirit, nothing does.
8. Chico y Rita. The animated Cuban film that opened this year’s festival may be the best animated film ever made, with Only Waltz with Bashir giving it serious competition.
7. Rue Cases Negres aka Black Shack Alley aka Sugar Cane Alley. Euzhan Palcy sets out subtly all the powerful contradictions of West Indian society through her apparently straightforward tale of the young black Martinique boy who yearns for education.
6. Bim/Japon. Another cheat. Still the best T&T film ever made, Bim starts with a strong script from Raoul Pantin. Masterfully directed by Hugh A Robertson, Bim features Ralph Maraj, who would later enter the T&T Cabinet, declaring that he “not too sure about this politics thing,” and a dream soundtrack from Andre Tanker. Japon, by the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, is a beautifully understated film that honours ordinary people struggling to make good in difficult circumstances.
5. Man from Africa, Girl from India. I’d have dismissed this Harbance “Mickey” Kumar melodrama but for a story posted by David Rudder on Facebook. David once played with a band featuring Zimbabwean musicians. When one of them heard he was from Trinidad, he said, “Man from Africa, Girl from India!” Until this movie, black people in Zimbabwe had never seen a black man in a lead role in a film.
4. The Emerald Forest. John “Deliverance” Boorman made the definitive Caribbean/New World adventure film. It tells the story of a young white boy “rescued” by a rainforest tribe and raised as one of their own. The search by the boy’s father is the device of a film, the Amazon is its backdrop, and it is rightly classed as “adventure;” but, within that context, there is real philosophy. A film that makes you reconsider how you live your own life.
3. The Harder They Come. Perry Henzell’s famous film relied entirely on ourselves alone to make itself and its point; and it starred Jimmy Cliff and his songs. Never before had West Indian people been shown themselves as themselves so clearly and so well.
2. Amores Perros/Araya. Another cheat. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s great work avers that all lives matter, not just those of the rich and famous. Its theme of interconnectedness brought startling success when copied by Hollywood’s Crash. Iñárritu cites American writer William Faulkner as his major influence. Anyone who’s read Absalom, Absalom! understands that Faulkner, like Iñárritu, is really a West Indian. Araya, the poetic 1959 Venezuelan-French documentary, shot in dazzling black-and-white, makes you fall on your knees and give thanks that, whatever salt mine you think you work in, you don’t actually work in a salt mine.
1. Aguirre, The Wrath of God. No one should be given any position of responsibility anywhere in the Caribbean unless he or she has seen and understood this film, which sets out the Caribbean condition with stunning clarity in its opening five minutes, in which a group of black and brown people are led, in what might properly be called an Indian file procession, down a precarious path by a crazy white man, who is as insane as he is sure he is right. Aguirre’s descent into open madness becomes inevitable because he is unable to relinquish the vision he has brought to the New World of himself as the enforcer of the Old World. Hopeless, tragic, rudderless, deluded and misled, his expedition heads towards doom, dreaming of richness measured by someone else’s yardstick, and blind to the wealth by which it is surrounded. If you want a better illustration of Trinidad’s plight than that, you have to look at a PNM manifesto.
Image: Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)