Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Film Review #178: Caribbean Film Festival at Syracuse Community Folk Art Center October 23-26

Early in Guttaperc, Barbadian filmmaker Andrew Millington’s first feature film, the 10-year-old Eric’s grandfather wordlessly throws down a copy of George Lamming’s classic novel of Black West Indian identity and coming of age, In the Castle of My Skin (1953), for the boy to read. Audiences might take the hint too.

A reluctant summer visitor at his grandparents’ drowsy seaside village while his parents vacation in New York, Eric (Richard Weekes) is bored. His grandfather (Clairmont Taite), proprietor of a small cement factory, considers Eric spoiled and despises the Euro-slanted education Eric’s getting, which omits vast stretches of Barbados’ own political and intellectual history. He sets about filling in the gaps for his grandson. Meanwhile, elderly Sister Pam (the great Jamaican actress Leonie Forbes, a casting coup for Millington) – whom Eric first encounters when she forcefully thwarts his attempt to steal candles from her religious alter – also decides he might just be worth educating in African folk ways still preserved in the countryside.

Eric’s story, narrated in voice-over by an older Eric, unfolds just as his grandfather becomes embroiled in labor unrest over a scheme to displace the village with resort development. The title comes from a sling-shot given to Eric by a village boy. This simple, rough implement, both toy and weapon, provides a ready image of the characters’ fork-in-the-road choices as well as the mental acceleration available when events converge – if we aim our attention properly.

Reminiscent of the deceptively leisurely pace of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and filmed with the same tender eye, Millington’s 1998 film opens this fall’s four-day Caribbean-themed film festival at Community Folk Art Center this Thursday evening. Andrew Millington will be present and on hand Friday too for a screening of a rough-cut of his new film, Zora’s Dream, which also uses a grandparent-grandchild relationship, this time set in South Carolina’s Sea Islands.

Astutely curated by Qiana Williams, CFAC’s new education director, this film festival offers an engaging collection of recent indie features, award-level animation shorts and documentary. Williams’ thoughtful choices speak well for Caribbean film-making both in terms of its cinematic accomplishment – these are admirably well-made movies – and its success in blending art with political comment.

The Caribbean produces some of the best animation in the world – I am fond of Juan PadrĂ³n’s Vampires in Havana myself – and the seven-year-old Animae Caribe, under the umbrella of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, attracts some of the best short animation submissions from around the world and is building a regional network that now includes Cuban filmmakers. On Saturday, CFAC brings Animae Caribe founder Camille Abrahams to present eight award-nominated shorts from this year’s festival, just held in September. As a bonus for kids, artist Yvonne Buchanan conducts an animation workshop after the midday screening.

Ghanaian-born filmmaker Yao Ramesar, who now lives and teaches and makes movies in Trinidad, says that he first met the Black woman who told him the world would be destroyed in a fiery “Apocalypso” twenty years ago in a dream. His 2006 Sistagod, which screens Saturday night, is the first of a projected trilogy exploring that subject. Like Guttaperc, this film has a now-grown narrator looking back. Mari/Sistagod (Indigo Minerve plays the child and Evelyn Caesar Munroe the adult) explains her father was a white US Marine sniper – “one of 467 wounded in Desert Storm” – who married his Trinidadian rehab nurse (Nicole Minerve) but left her when their too-dark daughter ignited his distrust. Mari endures her mother’s grief-struck madness, her grandmother’s loss and, when the spirit enters her at 18, an exorcism by “our aspiring televangelist, Father Divine” (Michael Cherrie). World destruction arises from the fevered dances of costumed revelers in the annual Carneval, led by the blue devils. Edmund Attong’s cinematography and editing are especially worth watching here.

The fest winds up Sunday afternoon with ¡Yo Soy Boricua, Pa’ Que Tu Lo Sepas!/I Am Boricua, Just So You Know! (2005). Noted Puerto Rican actress Rosie Perez enlisted the able documentary team of Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy to assist her first directing effort, a highly interactive, rollicking cultural road trip she takes with her sister Carmen and her cousin Sixto Ramos, framed by New York City’s annual April Puerto Rican Day Parade. They return to the family village of Aguadilla, consider the 4000-year-old indigenous Taino culture that Columbus encountered in 1493, meet Miami cousins and Nuyorican poets, examine 1950s migration to the mainland, sterilization campaigns, Pedro Albizu Campos’ nationalist movement and the rise of the Young Lords of the 1960s. Infectious and sophisticated, Yo Soy Boricua packs its 85 minutes full.

Such first-rate programming by Williams bodes well for CFAC’s year ahead.

This review appeared in the 10/23/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column usually reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.