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.