Filmmaker in Focus: Micah Fink



This isn’t mentioned in the film but shortly after his first visit back to Jamaica, the Royal Canadian police found a pressure cooker filled with nails, a bomb, on Maurice’s front step and they had to remove it.

The Abominable Crime directed by Micah Fink, is a story about a mother’s love for her child and an activist’s love for his country. Told as they unfold over several years, these personal, intimate accounts of discrimination and violence perpetrated against gays in Jamaica take the audience on an emotional journey. The film also seeks to get to the roots of homophobia in Jamaican society, revealing the psychological and social impacts of discrimination on the lives of gays and lesbians.

The film, along with two other ttff/14 selections, is in contention for a prize sponsored by Amnesty International for a Caribbean film that best highlights a human rights issue.

Micah Fink is an award-winning American producer, director and writer specialising in international affairs and public health and environmental issues. His films include The Climate Reality Project (with Al Gore), and Mann v. Ford, a feature documentary for HBO. His work has been recognised with three Emmy nominations, two Cine Golden Eagle Awards, a Silver Screen award, and an International Film and Video Award.

Fink was able to have an in-depth conversation about the film and its suorrounding issues with ttff blogger Aurora Herrera.

What was the moment in your life when you decided to use media as a platform for social good?

That’s a hard question. I think I’ve always had a strong social consciousness. My parents, particularly my mom, had a very strong social consciousness. I was raised to understand that social factors, political factors shape lives and I think that’s just become part of the work that I’ve done pretty much my whole life.

Why media? Why not some other platform?

Well I started as a writer. In college I helped to start a newspaper and so I began my career as a journalist and as a writer and it really wasn’t until four or five years later that I made the transition into film. Even before I was a writer, I was a photographer. So for me the combination of writing and photography that is film was very attractive. I also just love the collaboration that goes into making a film; the work with the people who become your characters that you get to know really really well and the entire team that goes into making a film, the camera, the sound, the production, the editing. You’ve got a whole host of people that you’re collaborating with and that’s very satisfying when it works out well.

With this film, did you have Jamaican friends or links to what was going on? How did you come to want to make a film about it?

That film has its roots in another project that I was commissioned to do by the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting to go down to Jamaica to look at: HIV/Aids. As you probably know, Jamaica has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world particularly when it comes to their gay community. The year I went down, the government had just reported that one out of every three gay men in Jamaica was testing positive for HIV and the question was why would that be happening in Jamaica? What are the social, political and cultural factors that would create one of the highest infection rates in the Western hemisphere? It’s also one of the highest rates in the world. So that began my work in Jamaica. What we uncovered is really how the culture of homophobia drives the Aids epidemic and also has a huge collateral impact on all sorts of people like Simone, and Kayla, her daughter, who become the main characters of The Abominable Crime.

The project begins nine months after Simone’s shooting and the last few scenes are of her daughter joining her in Amsterdam four years later. Did you live in Jamaica all of that time or were you going back and forth?

I was going back and forth. I interviewed Simone twice in Jamaica and then she left and went to seek asylum abroad and then Maurice’s story is sort of folded into her story, so when his story picks up, I continued returning to Jamaica with Maurice in order to track the work that he was doing there. So I didn’t live there but I was back and forth quite a bit.

What was it like for you getting to know their stories and becoming involved or were you able to be completely objective all the time?

You know it’s funny because I have actually come to love Jamaica and its people. There are so many parts of the culture which are just so warm and welcoming but it’s sort of like you have this new best friend and they have this cancer on their forehead and I think at this point it’s hard for me to look away from that now because it so deeply impacts the lives of so many people that I’ve met. I think I have a complex relationship with Jamaica these days. On one hand I love the people, the place and the culture and on the other hand I’m deeply saddened that this one thing should so harm so many people. And not just people like Simone and her daughter and Maurice who have to leave, but people who live there and then more than that, HIV/Aids impacts everybody. It’s not just the gay community that’s impacted.

As an American, there are parts of my that I love and parts of my culture that I would rather not see, so I know that every culture has its issues and for Jamaica, this is one of those issues where they are sadly damaging themselves far more than anyone else because of these attitudes.

Based on your experience and research, what do you think is the main sociological crux of the issue?

It’s a question that I’ve talked with lots of people about over and over again. It’s really complicated. I think at the root of what is happening in Jamaica is literally homophobia which is a fear of gays and I go back to that word because one of the things that I came across quite often talking to straight Jamaicans was there is a general belief that gays are made, that they are not born. And in Jamaica, they think that gays are made by rape, that one gay person rapes a child and that turns them into a homosexual and so if you believe that, then all the things that come out of it, the violence, the hatred, the aggression. Not that you can condone it but you can kind of understand where it’s coming from but sadly it’s based on something that is just not true.

Here in the States I think that people have come to accept that people have preferences and are born with those preferences and that makes you who you are. Maurice and I did some touring in Europe and we were talking at some inner city schools in London and one young man stood up and said to Maurice, “I can’t approve of your homosexuality. You’re a danger to society.” And Maurice said, “I’m not a danger to society. I live a very boring married life like probably many people that you know and more than that, you don’t have to be afraid that by talking with me or by engaging with me that you are going to become gay. When you look around this room, what do you notice? Well I notice something different and that is just who I am and you are who you are and nothing I can say or do will change that.” Then he told the story about how his parents for years tried to get him not to be gay, and that he is who he is.

Gay and lesbian issues were new to me in taking on this project and I think my journey as a journalist, my own understanding has grown and developed a great deal in the course of the five years that we made this film and now I really do believe that people are who they are. I think they are born that way, shaped that way and we don’t have to be afraid of gays and lesbians. I don’t think that there is any danger that they represent to society. Jamaica also has a very intense religious fundamental culture that takes the Bible literally and there are various lines in the Bible that condemn homosexuality but again, hanging out with Maurice, he is quite clear that there are many parts of the Bible which condemn extra-marital affairs and I think in Jamaica seventy per cent of the population is born out of wedlock. That’s not a game I can play really but there are a lot of different factors that go together to create the violence that exists today.

In the film you feature the lyrics of the Buju Banton song “Boom Bye Bye”, which is about killing gay people. Homophobic lyrics are pervasive in Jamaican music. What are your thoughts on this?

I danced to that music. I had no idea what they were saying. That music is everywhere. The first year I was in Jamaica, I was just amazed how on the busses, in the cabs, that kind of music, particularly homophobic music, was being played everywhere all the time! It’s just the background to daily life.

This isn’t mentioned in the film but shortly after his first visit back to Jamaica, the Royal Canadian police found a pressure cooker filled with nails, a bomb, on Maurice’s front step and they had to remove it. They didn’t want to talk about it at the time because they were doing an investigation but I think this shows that the tension is real, even in a place like Toronto. It’s sad when you have the leaders of these movements exposed to that kind of violence and the high possibility of losing your life.

I found that Simone was very comfortable talking about her story on camera. How did the relationship evolve between the two of you with respect to her coming to a point of comfort in talking about what happened to her?

Well we had met a number of times beforehand. I met her when I was doing that original reporting for the Pulitzer Centre, who also supported the making of this film. I think Simone is a very comfortable person despite all that she has been through. She is a confident in who she is and so her telling her story is at the heart of the film. I think that she truly felt that either she would get off the island or that the people who had shot her would find her and kill her so this film would be kind of a testament to what was happening and something that she could leave behind. I don’t think anyone quite expected the odyssey that she went on.

Kayla, Simone’s daughter, she has this brilliant grownup personality and she is definitely a light in her mother’s life. The moment she arrives at the airport and takes out a handkerchief for her Mom is on of the most touching in the film. Why is this scene so important to the film?

She is amazing. She is always taking care of her Mom. They have a very good, supportive relationship and I think that they are unique in their ability to survive what would really crush a lot of people. We showed this film to high school and middle school students and what people say is that by watching the film it transforms how you understand people who are gay and lesbian.

Somebody said after one of the screenings it’s impossible to think of Simone as a lesbian after watching the film, what you think about her is as a mother. It really is a film about mothers and daughters and partners. Somebody else pointed out, whether or not you like Tom, whether or not you approve of their lifestyle, isn’t what everybody in the world wants is somebody who can say to their partner, “Look, I think you’re an idiot and I don’t think you should do this but if you’re going to go into a dangerous situation I’m going to go with you.”

The film focuses on relationships and I think that’s the strength of it and that’s what comes across. So when kids watch the film, they relate to Kayla, they relate to her Mom, they relate to the pain of separation. I’ve had a lot of people from the Caribbean, particularly women of colour, tell me that their mothers had to leave and she left me behind or that they had to leave their children behind to go work and they are connecting on a much deeper level with the experience of a mother who has to leave her child. I think that’s part of the success of the film as well, that they are seen as people and in terms of their relationships which really define us far more than our sexuality or political or religious beliefs.

This situation in Jamaica is really a microcosm of what is going on with how LGBT people are treated globally. These are just people living their lives. What do you think the issue is so prevalent?

I think you’ve put your finger on it. That’s the other thing that we’ve often discussed . I think it’s easy often to scapegoat the LGBT community because they live on the margins and periphery just going about their lives and whether it’s Jamaica or India, who reversed their ruling recently to recriminalise homosexuality, it’s easy to pick on them when you have other bigger social problems. Are gays and lesbians really the problem when it comes to all of the issues? I that think they are an easy target.

What was the shooting process like?

I think I made about fifteen or twenty films during the course of this filming process. It was done with very little money, going down whenever the story sort of developed another step. Also, I had promised Simone that the film would not be shown unless Kayla was safely out of Jamaica, so that’s why it took so long. That final scene of Kayla being reunited with her Mom triggered us being able to finish the film. There was a lot of travelling—London, Toronto, Kingston and Amsterdam.

With Maurice and Tom, the shooting covered about a year to a year and a half of their lives. The two stories arc and are so parallel that they match up beautifully; he returns, Simone leaves. There are differences in trajectory but they are both stories about having to leave and having to decide what to do and how the relationships survive those choices.

What was the reaction like when Simone, Kayla, Maurice and Tom saw the film?

I think they were all pretty happy and I think it succeeds in doing what I hoped it would do, which is show their humanity and show the strength of the character that I think they have, all of them. They have all stood up against some pretty horrific things are survived them and thrived even in those environments and I find it a rather inspirational story.

What’s next for you?

We’re working on a project for PBS which is about Mexican immigration to the United States.

Do you have anything that you would like to add?

I’m delighted that it is being shown in the Caribbean and shown in Trinidad and Tobago. I think the islands are such a beautiful and intense community and I think that having people aware of these issues and talking about these issues is really the way forward. I think seeing the film changes the way people feel about these issues because it does cut through the propaganda and it does cut through the images that people have. I’m not telling anybody how to think or act in the world but I hope that seeing Maurice and Simone and Kayla as people that people become a little more complicated in their understanding of these issues. I hope that it’s not just so simple to stereotype and it’s not just so simple to dismiss when you understand that what you’re dismissing is Kayla’s life, what you’re dismissing is Simone’s life.

The conversations we’ve had with students have just been really inspiring. For me as a filmmaker it’s really meaningful and it just makes me more and more aware of the power of the medium. You really can show people something that they haven’t seen before and if you do it well, I think you can change or influence how they look at the world in a good way, not in a manipulative way. There is so much information and misinformation floating around these days and I think that people have the intelligence to discern what’s true and what’s not true if you present it fairly and that’s ultimately my objective.

Going back to the beginning, I was raised to believe that people are people and you should look at them as such and not label them by stereotypes or simplistic ways of trying to understand who they are.

The Abominable Crime will be showing at the ttff/14 on the following dates.

Wed 17 Sept, 1.00pm, MovieTowne POS

Sun 28 Sept, 3.30pm, Little Carib Theatre

[vimeo 58133687 620]

Date: Sat 13 Sep, 2014
Category: ttff news and features

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