Understanding the Caribbean of today through the trinidad+tobago film festival

Posted on November 17, 2022 by Patrice Robinson

Categories: FEDS Scheme, Festival Reports

FEDS International offers FEDS alumni the chance to secure a short-term placement with an international exhibition partner, providing an opportunity to develop their skills and understanding of the wider exhibition sector, forge connections with international colleagues and build on their past FEDS experience.

In this blog, Patrice Robinson (Cinema Assistant at the Barbican) discusses their recent placement at the 17th trinidad+tobago film festival and what their trip showed them about the Caribbean film industry today.

This year, the UK celebrated 74 years since the beginning of the post-war commonwealth migration to Britain. The arrival of those known as the Windrush generation has left a remarkable and unmistakable mark on the societal and cultural makeup of the UK.

For example, the landscape of the culinary and music industries has changed dramatically since the migration. But upon reflection, I question whether the same can be said for film.

I am aware of some amazing festivals and pop-up cinemas which showcase Caribbean cinema, but it appears to me that contemporary films made in this region are not as available as one would expect given the past and present influence of the Caribbean community in the UK. Ongoing generations of now Black British filmmakers have made strides in creating spaces for themselves in the UK, but I was keen to explore for myself what filmmakers from the Caribbean are producing today and understand the current landscape of the film industry there. I figured that applying for FEDS International would be a fantastic way to learn more.

I was fortunate to secure a placement with the amazing team at the trinidad+tobago film festival (TTFF), headed by Director Mariel Brown. On one hand, as a recent FEDs graduate, I wanted to further my professional development by supporting the operations and event management side of the festival. On the other hand, I was keen to listen, learn and of course, watch.

The opening night had all the markers of any film festival. Held in Port of Spain’s IMAX cinema, there was a red carpet, a branded step and repeat board and some of the best and the brightest from the Caribbean film industry. Live coverage of the event by TTT (a television station) and an Instagram Live taking place meant that the entire island and those beyond it could participate in the festivities. For me, the night was fuelled by adrenaline. Partially because the festival environment is fast-paced and the team was up against an oncoming tropical wave, but mainly because the effects of jet lag meant that I was awake for 23 hours that day. Although tired by the end, the experience was a firm reminder that the exhibition space, and the challenges that come with it, is the perfect place to nurture professional development.

Presenter Siobhan Metivier and Actor Michael Cherrie at the TTFF Opening Night

I continued my festival experience at NALIS (National Library and Information Service Authority). A special venue in my view, given that it is the national library for the nation of 1.4 million people and served those in attendance as it held industry workshops, panels and school screenings. What was impressive is that access to most events was free with registration. Provided there was space, walk-ins were also accepted.

“The Caribbean Sea That Unites Us” – Mural at Nalis, Port of Spain by Paula Osoria Pineda

Attached to Nalis is a beautiful amphitheatre with a capacity for approximately 400 people and an old fire station; the first being used for the outdoor cinema, Cinema Under the Stars, and the second hosting industry events and mixers. Although the use of the old fire station is both a logical and practical use of the space, I think the repurposing of a colonial building for a festival which this year was tasked to focus on maintaining the heritage of a republican nation, and to bring that forward to future generations, is sobering yet empowering. The use of space as an additional contextual layer is common for community festivals and continues to be a feature that I truly adore.

Nalis Amphitheatre and Old Fire Station

Cinema Under the Stars was a personal highlight for me. Held over the weekend, the warm breeze and the calming sounds of the urban wildlife acted as the perfect setting to welcome everyone in.

Across the three titles screening — Chee$e, Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes and One Hand Don’t Clap — I saw a wide spectrum of the Trinbagonian community. From young to old, with guests feeling free to laugh, as the locals would say — lime (hang out) and sing along to songs by legendary artists such as Calypso Rose.

Cinema Under the Stars

My trip to TTFF took place at an important time for the country. On 24 September, the nation reached its 60th year as a republican state. I was also visiting at the time the new financial budget was published in the country and, similarly to us in the UK, it was clear that the cost of living for your average Trinbagonian would be increasing. With both in mind, it made sense to me that the theme for the festival this year was #seeyuhself; an exploration of what it is to be from Trinidad and Tobago, what it is to be Caribbean today and a look into what tomorrow could bring. In a panel discussing this exact notion, it was said that seeing yourself was about defining your own stories on your own terms and not having someone else do it.

In a nation that is approximately 40% African, 40% East Asian, 18% Mixed background and 2% Other, representation (i.e. seeing someone that both looks and sounds like you) is important, but seeing a multidimensional depiction of said groups is valued more than having a 2D shell on screen.

The idea of not having others tell you your own stories was not lost on me as a guest who had observed the monopoly that the neighbouring entertainment giant — the USA — held on local programming.

Protest outside the Red House, Port of Spain

The #seeyuhself concept was perfectly portrayed in the programme in several ways but most notably through the Banyan retrospective.  Banyan Productions created local film and television content in the 1970s which represented everyday life in the Caribbean and lived and breathed the idea of ‘for us, by us’. As locals came in and spoke fondly of the memories they held of the pioneering productions, it was clear to me that today’s filmmakers and creatives alike are looking to re-capture the same essence of independence and innovation as their forebears. With TTFF in its 17th edition, talent and ambition for the industry is present, but as a young nation the structure to accommodate and project that further is not where it needs to be.

I met some who felt that the funding and gatekeeping that goes alongside it is what is killing creative content from being produced and distributed to audiences. Accessing funding through local government or through sponsorships can easily be tied to political agendas and navigating these makes it difficult for the industry to grow.

Part of the Banyan Exhibition

Despite the very real challenges, I am of the view the spirit of Banyan was and continues to be reflected through the festival team. With a small core, I saw members with notable talent given the responsibility and freedom to exercise their creative license. With access to those further along in their careers, who genuinely seemed invested in them, I can see that when watered there is only room for growth. Observing this dynamic made me assess the opportunities I have, to ‘show up’ in my working life, and think about how in the absence of this I could create an opening for myself.

I would like to thank, Mariel, Mikayla, Kamille and the entire TTFF team for making me feel so welcome. I plan to keep in touch and hope to work with them again soon.

I shall end by saying that my FEDS International experience encouraged me to be bold in going for what I want. I am not guaranteed to gain access to all spaces, but my time in Trinidad reminded me of the value in experiences. These enable one to self-criticise, develop a true understanding of your skills and truly #seeyuhself.

All pictures taken by Patrice Robinson.

FEDS International is supported by The British Council.

A blue logo with four blue circles on the left and the words British Council on the right.

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