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Photo still from 'Sprinter.'

These 5 Hard-Hitting Films by Caribbean Directors Will Give You All the Feels

We look back at the standout films coming from Caribbean talent screened at the 27th Pan African Film Festival.

I was not prepared to go to the intimate places where the Caribbean films from the 27th Pan-African Film Festival took me. The surprises came in the most palpable forms as filmmakers and their characters with roots on the African continent and in the Caribbean's African diaspora painted the most vivid lives in our multi-textured tapestry.

Examining the human experience in minute detail, these stories were hard-hitting. Here are the five standouts below.


RATTLESNAKES

British-Ghanaian director Julius Amedume, and Haitian-American actor Jimmy Jean-Louis united for Rattlesnakes. A therapist, played by Jean-Louis, goes farther for his clients than we expect him to go. His character, Robert McQueen, is the great savior in this story who navigates the complicated lives of three couples whose marriages are being held together by a therapist. Because the husbands don't know the nature of the relationship McQueen has with their wives, they assume that he has cuckolded them and they conspire to teach McQueen a lesson. Where it goes from there, nobody expects.

Jean-Louis also produced the film and has screened over 20 films at the Pan African Film Festival. With the ability to lead in films speaking English, Spanish, French and Creole, he explains his longevity as an actor saying: "If you're in it, it becomes part of who you are. I don't believe that people do things just because of a level of success; you do it because you love it."

Upon winning the festival's Audience Award for a Narrative Feature, Amedume shares that "it meant so much to screen it to an audience and for them to engage with the film in such a great way." Playing the role of a psychologist in his authentic Haitian accent, Jean-Louis reminds us that "It's always been a fight to get people to embrace you for who you are." This film will begin limited theatrical release beginning on April 26 and is just one of the many to come from a team that is producing films from across the African continent, in the Caribbean, in Europe, and in the United States.

Amedume, a British director with roots in Ghana formed a Caribbean-African partnership that facilitates their entry into the multiple markets to which their respective heritages connect. After the screening, the producer Effie Brown raved about the film, saying "I loved it. I thought that it always kept you guessing." Many agreed with Brown with Rattlesnakes winninh the Pan African Film Festival's Audience Award for a 'Narrative Feature.'

SPRINTER

A Jamaican Rastafarian is a superstar runner played by actor Dale Elliott, Jr. in Sprinter. This relatable tale focuses on the impact of immigration from the perspective of the family members left behind in the home country. The undocumented immigrant mother can do little to assuage her youngest son's sense of abandonment as she is forced to parent via video chat.

Directed by Storm Saulter, this film gave a snapshot of the immigrant's story from the perspective of a Jamaican mother who moves to the U.S. in hopes of finding a better job that allows her to provide for her family. Played by Lorraine Toussaint, this mother is keeping her family finances in order as she is forced to give up on keeping the family itself together. Parenting via video chat, the co-parenting dynamic and couple's bond breaks down and the parents file for divorce. Their younger son is a high school track star who gets advice from Usain Bolt before he attempts to earn the opportunity to travel for an international competition. His biggest battle was fought internally after he suffered a debilitating foot injury. Turning to his Rasta roots for healing, he immersed himself into a Nyabhingi ceremony filled with drumming and prayer to repair his body and spirit that ultimately prepared him for the biggest race of his life. His coach, played by David Allen Grier, and his competition, played by Bryshere Y. Gray, pushed him from a good athlete to a great sportsman. Jamal Watson, a producer on the project, related his satisfaction with "the idea that these stories can resonate with more than just the African diaspora…we try to tell a story that has the potential to have a life beyond the current program."

Sprinter won the Pan African Film Festival's 'Best Narrative Feature' award and will open in select theaters across the United States on April 24.

SOLACE

Tchaiko Omawale, the Jamaican-American writer and director of Solace, highlights the inner dialogue of a person struggling with a binge eating disorder—an often undetected mental health issue.

Sole, played by Hope Alide, a 17-year-old who lost both of her parents, moves in with her maternal grandmother and struggles to adjust to life with a new authority figure in the beginning of the film. Her staunchly Christian grandmother, played by Lynn Whitfield, is a fashionable alcoholic who feasts on diet pills and is in a succulent sexual affair with the pastor of her church, played by Glynn Freeman. The pastor ultimately is the voice of reason when the strained grandmother-granddaughter relationship breaks and Sole moves in with the neighbor named Jasmine. Jasmine is a dancer who drinks and cuts herself to temporarily escape the pain of her daily life. A perfectly imperfect friend, Jasmine is the first person to confront Sole about her binge eating disorder. To Sol, fat is her greatest fear. Her entire life is organized around her binging food and her discomfort with eating around others.

Finally, after her grandmother catches her secretly eating cereal from the garbage bin, Sole is comforted in her grandmother's embrace. For the first time, Sole learns that her mother was bulimic and that her struggle with mental health is not unique. Sole is distressed and feels that something is uniquely wrong. Attempting to manage her grief over the loss of both parents is devastatingly stressful and reminds us that we don't always know what dictates how we'll respond to stress . A third generation sufferer of disordered eating (with the grandmother's disorder being undiagnosed but very real), Sole can begin feeding something beyond physical hunger as she moves forward and gets medical help.

An audience member was moved to share that she had felt alone in her suffering with disordered eating until the character on screen behaved exactly as she does in real life. I felt tears welling up as the theater warmed to applause in that moment to support her. And then my heart was comforted as Omawale sympathized with the audience member and offered her survivor's tale on the journey to recovery.

Effects from opening this dialogue about eating disorders were felt even before we left the theatre. An audience member shared that she has eaten out of the garbage and has felt that she was the only one who has done that until watching the film. As the issue is brought out of the shadows of shame, more people can progress in their recovery. "I had a breakup with white womanhood while making this film and it pushed me towards African American women," says Omawale, as she dialogues with the audience.

At the film's end, hope embraced solace in the problematic grandmother who finally puts her judgmental Bible-infused gaze in exchange for a breath of humanity seasoned with sympathy for her grieving granddaughter.

BAKOSÓ: AFROBEATS OF CUBA

Puerto Rican filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi immersed us in the novel Cuban music and dance culture called Bakosó. The budding sound was created by African immigrants who attend medical school in Cuba who collaborated with Cuban artists to birth a completely new genre. Bakosó: Afrobeats de Cuba highlights a new category of music that has spread across the Cuban countryside. The winner of the Audience Award for 'Short Documentary' lightened the lens with which we viewed the effects of immigration in another film. The influx of scholars to the island's medical school results in a cultural fusion in the form of Bakosó. Bakosó represents the mixture of Afrobeats, Conga, techno, and Rumba. One medical student featured in the documentary intimates that "[As] African medical students today, we can say that we are Cubans who come from other countries."

Exhibiting Cuban pride is a primary theme as featured artists include Candyman, the first reggaeton star from Cuba, Kiki Pro, a rapper and music producer, Mykael El Padrino, Alva, Kamerun, and The Inka who contribute to the new explosion of music on the Cuban art space. DJ Jigüe guides the tour of Santiago de Cuba, his hometown which hosts a second medical campus and the garden of growing Afro-Cuban music. Out of respect for his elders, the tour is brought before his grandmother for consideration before he executes it. Invoking African ancestry in the dwelling of his grandmother, DJ Jigüe receives a spiritual message about his plans and blessings on the fruitful journey that is predicted to lie ahead. His grandmother's proverb is "if you sleep well above the Earth, it will reveal its secrets to you." There are indeed secrets in the dance that accompanies the rich rhythms of Bakosó music. This new style represents the perpetual creation of new culture that keeps its ancestral roots.

Cuba's indigenous Taino people, like many in the Caribbean, were mixed in with the enslaved African populations and the European kidnappers who brought them to these Caribbean shores. The African ancestry of the town includes the maroons, a community of Africans who escaped capture, "represents rebellion and freedom." DJ Jigüe's Afro-Cuban grandmother tells history as she delves into the oral tradition, finally beckoning you to come closer as smoke from her cigar floats above her traditionally wrapped head. The scene concludes that "Bakosó has arrived"—and indeed it is here for all to explore.

NINE NIGHTS

Jamaican-British filmmaker Veronica McKenzie poured her personal experience with grief into Nine Nights. This winner of the PAFF Directors' Award struck a deep chord with her directing debut. After a teenaged twin dies suddenly in an accident, his relatives gather to grieve his passing over nine nights. The practice is Caribbean in custom and cathartic in function, as it is believed that the nine nights after death allows the spirit of the dead to leave this plane while allowing time for the living to bid it farewell. The deceased enters a brief spiritual purgatory while his twin sister is in complete denial of his death. She struggles as her family tries to interject truth into her self-preserving alternate reality. During the first three nights, the deceased experiences confusion. During nights three through six, the deceased is getting ready to accept their fate. After this, a character explains, "A spirit can never be Earthbound, the ticket has been paid for, you have to get on the plane." A community of mourners gathered in the home with friends and family each processing the loss in their own way.

I could not keep calm as the story would suddenly take off in an unpredictable direction and I resorted to holding my breath as the last attempt to control this rollercoaster narrative. Each individual grieves differently we cannot judge a single "right" way to process loss. Losing a loved one makes room for something else, but ultimately you choose whether to fill the void with anger or with love.

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Photo by Hamish Brown

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