Still from film 'Angelica.'

These 9 Films Prove Caribbean Cinema Is On the Rise

A recap of nine standout films hailing from the Caribbean featured at this year's Pan-African Film Festival.

Islanders made their mark on films from all geographic regions at the 2018 Pan-African Film Festival. This festival's selections captured the evolution of language, spiritual practices, food and art of a people whose descendants were forcefully removed from the African continent. Caribbean tales bridged the waters that lie between the African continent and the Americas. The story of the transatlantic holocaust of enslavement that began in the mid-15th century and brought some Africans to the Caribbean region echoes in the voices of the present-day inhabitants. The region's soca music moved festival goers at the opening night's party as well as in the final night's screening. As usual, you could count on the Caribbean artists to deliver both education and entertainment.

Haiti led the slave revolts that would later topple plantation societies across the region. Perhaps there's another fight against oppression that is now being lead by Haitian filmmakers. Lalo's House is a film inspired by real events as it shares the story of two young sisters who are abducted and brought to an underground child rape network where they will be sold to sex traffickers. The organization poses as a Catholic orphanage and shows the horrific things that can take place in an orphanage. The film provides data including statistics about the estimated 85 orphanages that now function unregulated in Haiti.

According to this movie, the majority of children in these orphanages aren't orphans, but instead are kidnapped children. Subject to sexual abuse within a religious institution that is supposed to protect vulnerable persons, the young girls are preyed upon. "I needed to tell this story. It could be me, it could be my sister, it could be anybody…" says Garcelle Beauvais, executive producer and lead actress. The commodification of children's bodies is combined with a nun's waning conscience, a conscience that completely disappears when a handful of cash is flashed before her face. This presentation earned The Pan-African Film Festival's Programmers' Award for best short film. To counter the stories of suffering in this film are the stories of success by Haitian artists.

Haiti Is A Nation of Artists is all about Haitian exceptionalism. Art thrives and the resourcefulness of the people is easily observed. This film features Guyodo, a sculptor who displays ultimate national pride. "The art is the power of Haiti," says Guyodo. "It is something you don't understand because it is over your head." Some of the world's most beautiful art comes from a people who have had more than their share of disasters, including a major earthquake that hit the island in 2010.

The ties that bind often threaten to break due to forced migration. Jimmy Jean-Louis Goes to Tijuana for Haitian Food captures the daily lives of Haitian immigrants who left Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake of 2010. In their journey to reach the United States, many are stymied in Mexico, unable to cross the border. The changing of the political recognition of their refugee status continues to negatively affect them and they live in uncertainty. Descendants of Haitian immigrants such as Meta Golding have migrated to the United States and thrive in the midst of stigma held by some against people of Haitian background.

Behind the Movement stars Meta Golding as Rosa Parks. A woman of Haitian descent, Golding's performance decants the private life of Parks as she publicly agitates for the fair treatment of black people in 1955 segregated America. She shares the screen with the acting greatness Isaiah Washington, Roger Guenveur Smith and Loretta Devine. Asked what she hopes this story will instill in viewers, the film's writer Katrina O'Gilvie states "[that] it inspires others to take charge and lead their own movements." The Caribbean footprint deepened as the festival progressed.

Jamaican filmmaker Sasha-Gay Lewis portrayed the real lives of people affected by crime fighting through the documentary The Incursion. In May of 2010, the Jamaican military and police descended on Tivoli Gardens in their search for notorious drug boss, Christopher 'Dudus' Coke. Soldiers entered the village in armored cars, with bullets and bombs piercing through the walls of residents. In the canvassing and crossfire, many civilian lives were lost. Relatives of the deceased shared their stories, allowing us to focus on the victims of crime fighting and the innocent who sometimes pay for the guilty. An alternate narrative is told about the experiences of the families who continue to suffer from the loss of loved ones in the raid of their homes. Familial love is an ever present topic in the stories of the Caribbean family.

"Love is all we need," says Stana Roumillac, the leading actress in Torments of Love. This story features Vana and Myriam, sisters who were raised by their father in Le Saintes, Guadeloupe. Their dad could not give them what they most desperately desired because he was physically present, but emotionally absent. In adulthood, Vana and Myriam make a final attempt to connect with their father, but he is still a shell of a man with limited ability to express love. And what happens when a father's love is expressed way too late in life? You get the story of Angelica, an Afro-Puerto Rican woman who survives what Americans call colorism, but I prefer to call the "colortocracy."

In the colortocracy, merit is assigned according to the lightness of your skin complexion. Angelica, whose skin in much darker than that of her mother, resembles her father and is called "la negra." This translates to "the black girl." Her mother looks European, her father looks African, and the family indirectly mourns the dark color of Angelica's skin throughout her whole life. Angelica gets her father to say "I love you" for the first time when he is on his deathbed. By this point, she has allowed an abusive European boyfriend to treat her as his melanin fetish, and she has settled in most other areas of her life. The broad brush with which society often paints intra-ethnic racism leaves many intricate details to be researched at a later time by the viewer. Yet, this tragedy is a variation on the theme of oppression due to superficial characteristics. The takeaway is that kinfolk who aren't skinfolk may ostracize you too! But this Caribbean circumstance is only part of a larger heritage.

If you have any doubts about the connection of the Caribbean to the African continent, they would be easily erased by a musical journey between western Africa and the Caribbean. Bigger Than Africa, a documentary film directed by Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye, features the invention of the steel pan in Takurigo, Trinidad & Tobago. This musical instrument, created in praise of Ogún, the Yoruba orisha of iron, was the only acoustic musical instrument invented in the 20th century. Evolving since the 1880s after a ban on African drumming, the instrument sets the sankofa scene. "Sankofa" is a word from the Twi language which means, go back and get what might otherwise be forgotten. Avery Ammon and Keith Diaz take a steel pan from Trinidad and Tobago back to the Yoruba empire and present it to the heir to the throne. This type of artistic homecoming continues in the fusion of Afrobeat and soca music.

The Caribbean contribution to the 2018 festival was present until the very end with Machel Montano: Journey of a Soca King, a documentary directed by Bart Phillips. Machel Montano is intensely committed to spreading soca across the world and often introducing soca in fusion with other music forms such as Afrobeats. On a prodigious path since the age of 7, he's an artist whose rebellion is a result of his insistence on representing uniquely Caribbean music wherever he goes. His intentions are clear as Montano leads us on a cinematic journey through his personal and professional struggles that result in his spiritual growth. Mas, or a Caribbean carnival, is always the mission. More importantly, Montano says that "the mission is oneness, the mission is unity, and the mission is peace."

The fact is that enslaved Africans were brought on boats from West Africa to North and South America. A Caribbean person's cultural inheritance depends on which boat stop their ancestors were disembarked and sold. This is supported by the commonalities that resurface in this festival's films. In between these continents are islands that serve as dots to connect the past origins with the present diaspora. Whether African, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, or black, parts of your stories were covered. With different nationalities in the Caribbean, this was a good reminder that many came on the same boat, but just got off at a different stop.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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