A shot from Rain, written and directed by Maria Govan of the Bahamas
Rain is a coming-of-age story. The coming-of-age film is a well-established sub-genre of drama; it’s been around for a good half of the history of cinema, certainly ever since François Truffaut so memorably captured childhood’s end through his young autobiographical protagonist Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (1959). So as a coming of age film Rain isn’t exactly original. It is, however, a Caribbean coming-of-age film (and a very good one), and that makes all the difference.
Coming-of-age stories seem to me to be a Caribbean specialty. Why that is so is open to debate (metaphor for the West Indian territories shaking off colonial rule and becoming independent, perhaps), but whatever the reason, survey the literature and you’ll find coming-of-age novels aplenty–George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin, Zee Edgell’s Beka Lamb, Patrick Chamoiseau’s Childhood, Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, Geoffrey Drayton’s Christopher, Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey and For the Life of Laetitia, Joseph Zobel’s Black Shack Alley.
This last novel, of course, was made into a film, one of the great Caribbean films, by the Martiniquan director Euzhan Palcy in 1983. It could be argued that there hasn’t been a comparable Caribbean film since. Well, I think that Rain, the debut feature film by Maria Govan of the Bahamas, might be as good as Black Shack Alley; its contemporary equivalent.
The story: young Rain lives with her grandmother on one of the tiny outlying islands of the Bahamas, in an existence that could be called idyllic. When the grandmother dies, Rain heads to the capital, Nassau, to live with her mother, Glory. Glory, to put it mildly, won’t be winning any mother of the year contests very soon. She abandoned Rain when the girl was a baby (there is no mention of Rain’s father), and time hasn’t changed her feelings towards motherhood–while she isn’t exactly resentful at having to take up parenting duties, she certainly doesn’t welcome Rain with open arms.
Glory lives in a small shack in a depressed area. We don’t exactly know what she does for a living, but with the different men who keep coming around, we can hazard a guess. She’s also a gambler and, worse, a junkie. She also might have Aids. Is there any hope for Rain? Of course there is, and that hope comes in the form of school. Not through academic studies, the traditional route of escape in these stories, but sport. Rain has a talent for sprinting, a talent that the school’s track coach, a Trinidadian, notices and decides to nurture. Rain, it seems, might almost literally outrun her fate.
Taken as is, Rain might appear to be a film ripe with cliché, melodrama and syrupy sentiment. Yet it is not. Rain is decidedly restrained and unsentimental, in plot, style, and acting. Yes, the film deals with “issues”–parenthood, drugs, Aids, homosexuality, religious hypocrisy–but it is not a film about issues, it does not preach or wax self-righteously. And yes, there is much inherently dramatic material involved, but Maria Govan’s skill and assurance as a director (though Rain is her first feature, she has a number of documentaries under her belt), her interest in rounded, three-dimensional characters, her refusal to tack on a standard happy ending, and the wonderfully naturalistic performances keep the film from boiling over.
These performances, from a mix of professional and non-professional actors (Renel Brown, who plays the title character, had never acted before making Rain), the great use of actual locations in the film’s shooting, the film’s concern with telling a “real” story about ordinary folk–all these things make Rain, in a way, a film in the great neorealist tradition. This, to me, could point a way to the future for Caribbean filmmaking. With limited budgets, access to studios and professional acting talent, making Caribbean neorealist films–where perfect production values don’t count as much as gritty authenticity–might be where our filmmakers could decide to go, as with similar filmmaking movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
This is not to say that Rain does not have good production values–the production values are excellent. The film was made for around one million US dollars, which is nothing in Hollywood terms (though for a Caribbean filmmaker that’s admittedly quite a lot of money). You could make an excellent feature film, a film that tells a story about real people and real lives, and relies on solid storytelling and characterisation and not whiz-bang car chases and explosions, for not exorbitant sums of money. The question is whether or not our audiences, bred on Hollywood, want to see such films, and our directors, often no less influenced by Tinsel Town, want to make them. (There are other issues too, of course, including ones related to funding and distribution and so on.)
Of course, every filmmaker should make the films that he or she wants to make. I’m just glad that Maria Govan decided to make Rain, the way she made it. From what I’ve heard, it’s been playing to packed audiences in the Bahamas. I dearly hope it gets released Caribbean-wide; I think it will do well. It certainly deserves to.