Unexpected Archives

Seeking More Locations of Caribbean Film

• October 2014

When I set out to curate this discussion on Caribbean film I sought to uncover and explore Caribbean cinema through the metaphor of unexpected archives and in so doing reframe related questions of collection and historiography, hopefully moving beyond mere cultural identity. And yet the essays in our discussion quickly make it clear that approaches to cultural identity in themselves can constitute a type of open archive patterned on shifting and intricate ideas about Caribbeanness. Moreover, the basic meaning of archive as a repository of artifacts quickly became curiously both insufficient and beyond our current reach, even if we expand our notion of the artifact to mean any object that tells the Caribbean story with film or any documents that convey information about Caribbean film production. The term archive is for our purposes richest when set loose to describe the desire for documentation, to gather our scattered artifacts, the pieces of our cultural identities we long to remember. How to tell the Caribbean cinema story? Which tropes, settings, and plots matter the most? Yet with cultural identity in play, I hoped to think beyond several standard genres of Caribbean film studies in which the feature-length fiction film, the construct of the nation, and the Afro- and anglophone Caribbean figure prominently.1

Similar to the authors and editors of classic works of Caribbean cinema criticism, I too faced the challenges of national borders, varied language, and preferred entertainment formats in conceptualizing this discussion. Offering broad internationalism, on the one hand, and a targeted focus, on the other, Keith Warner’s On Location: Cinema and Film in the Anglophone Caribbean “looks at images of the Anglophone Caribbean and its people both in non-Caribbean feature films shot on location in the region, and in films the Anglophone Caribbean has produced on its own.”2 Mbye Cham’s collection Ex-Iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema incorporates various national cinemas, featuring essays on films, filmmakers, and film cultures from Haiti, Curacao, Martinique, and Jamaica.3 Cham was careful to include broad theoretical framings from Stuart Hall and Sylvia Winter as well as interviews, interdisciplinary literature, and film analyses.

Taking up the desires and conundrums around identity, Hall writes, “Identity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think. Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished historical fact, which the new cinematic discourses then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production,’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation.” Then immediately revealing identity’s important paradox, Hall continues, “But this view problematizes the very authority and authenticity to which the term, ‘cultural identity,’ lays claim.”4 The whole project of pursuing Caribbean film is necessarily a pursuit of cultural identity, and to some extent each critical project aims to engage the question of authenticity through animating the sort of evidence that the archive can supposedly offer. However, Caribbean film, like Caribbeanness, is already “enunciated” from multiple linguistic, national, and geographical positions and also from outside well-established disciplinary boundaries. Gabriel Hezekiah’s meditation on Robert Yao Ramesar’s videos in Phenomenology’s Material Presence: Video, Vision, and Experience locates Caribbean film in particular structures of light as the Trinidadian filmmaker seeks a Caribbean theory and practice of filmmaking that manages sunlight in particular ways.5

Regional and national boundaries parallel disciplinary ones and they present instructive challenges. Latin American film criticism excludes the anglophone Caribbean. The borders of the United States define American film history. Even scholarship on cinema of the African diaspora can be limited to countries in Africa, Europe, and North America. Because Caribbean film history stands at the crossroads of all three areas of scholarship, it tends to fall through the gaps between them. The range of film scholarship featured in Small Axe focuses on one or two films at a time and, similar to Ex-Iles, covers both anglophone and francophone filmmaking, with the added focus on video art. In curating this discussion, I pursued but was unable to include scholarship on the Caribbean production, representation, reception, or circulation of pornography. How would it reframe our commonly held notions of Caribbean cinema to include Bollywood or Hindi cinemas in Trinidad or elsewhere in the regions? As our discussion neared publication, the Museum of Modern Art announced in the New York Times and on National Public Radio’s blog Code Switch that curators had uncovered the 1976 print of a 1913 black-cast film starring popular entertainer Bert Williams, who had emigrated to the United States from the Bahamas. The reemergence of this previously unproduced work, provisionally titled Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Field Day, ought to be considered an unexpected artifact of Caribbean cinema.6 It is already well known that the specific national histories, that varied languages, mirror the underlying administrative structures in which islands are in many ways more connected to their European colonial powers than they are federated with one another. This situation is even more pronounced in Caribbean media formations, dominated today by US-based news and entertainment. Yet, as I have written previously on Shadow and Act, broadcast news and Internet technologies bring otherwise faraway events, such as Jamaican Olympic victories, home:

The instant Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the 100M Gold in London, I felt the electricity in Half-Way Tree, Kingston as shouts of joy erupted from every shop window and all along the streets. As I cheered on Usain Bolt along with my friends while emailing back-and-forth with my brother, who was back in the United States, I felt myself part of the temporary at-home-ness offered by the media presentation of these events. In homes but most especially in shops and every other kind of public space with a television broadcast, screens magnetized eyes and bodies. Several times at the supermarket I felt a sudden hush in the hustle and bustle only to turn and see a small audience framed in front of a television set to watch our athletes, us.7

What is more, annual events such as the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, Jamaica’s independent film exhibition Ring di Alarm, and Canada’s Caribbean Tales (this year featuring Mary Wells’s award-winning film Kingston Paradise) are in their own ways islands of intervention where the crosscurrents of global media meet on a Caribbean platform.

The essays in this collection reframe the Caribbean’s reflexive cosmopolitanism through film history and media production. Such a construction loosens and critiques the narrow parameters of nationalism, while it helps me to broaden the idea of film. We are interested in how the movies (both national and foreign) came to be meaningful in the Caribbean, how they reverberated in popular culture and what their role is in nationalism. Rather than privileging any particular genre or sensibility, we ask, What does the historical record reveal about film exhibition, production, and distribution in the Caribbean? Rather than merely discovering the primitive or folkloric in Caribbean films or relying on a notion of the authentic, we look at formations of the modern and parse the complex relationships that inhere between tradition and change, dominant and minor cinemas, fiction and nonfiction.

I wanted to read about Caribbean film in ways I had not seen yet or do not hear about enough. Because film sits between the commercial and the artisanal, exploitative and expressive, we need studies of Caribbean film that take account of such vicissitudes. With this collection we begin the work of not only recovering but also reimagining the parameters of the missing archives of the Caribbean’s transnational history with motion pictures.

As a collection we reflect upon Chineseness in the Caribbean via the American blockbuster series Pirates of the Caribbean (2003–17), track early-twentieth-century traveling film exhibitors crisscrossing borders, read government-produced nationalist films against the grain, and listen in on a conversation between a scholar and a video artist about the geographical life of food and how variations in food preparation archive identity, place, and generational knowledge.

Our consideration of Caribbean film history challenges a number of conventions in both film studies and Caribbean studies, such as (1) the division between nonfiction and fiction films, (2) the emphasis on fiction or commercial entertainment in film history, and (3) the assumption that the preindependence era holds little of value in terms of either motion pictures or cultural authenticity. In particular, it is time to look at the colonial era, not as a vast darkness awaiting the light of independence but as a cauldron of cultural identity and artistic consciousness, however nascent and imperfect it might have been.

Cara Caddoo’s contribution, “Circuits of Exchange: The Caribbean in Early Black Cinema Culture,” traces the role of early-twentieth-century Caribbean moderns in film history via examining the travel narratives of film exhibitors. In “Chineseness in Caribbean Cinema” Sean Metzger opens a window to his internal dialogue on the framings of Chinese cinema in the unexpected archives of the hugely popular franchise series Pirates of the Caribbean. Metzger examines the financial structure of the Walt Disney Company product in connection with the ethnoracial economy of Chineseness in the film. Rachel Moseley-Wood scrutinizes the ironies of nationalist narratives and uses close analysis of archival footage in “Unbinding Identities: Unbinding Identities: The Challenges to Nationalism’s Myths in Jamaica for Sale,” to unpack the way the 2006 environmental documentary does more than argue for sustainable tourism. Finally, we hear from video artist Richard Fung, in conversation with Chi-ming Yang, as they discuss food practices as an archive amplified through Fung’s documentary Dal Puri Diaspora (2012).

It is true that Caribbean moving images are not merely reflective, yet neither are they transparent windows of content. For today’s audiences, perhaps especially for the diasporic subject, characterized by dislocations, the films do convey content, if only as a glimpse into a time and contingently configured place to which one can connect, where before there was unknowing. Yet, from a critical viewpoint, our discussion offers modes of seeing these images in terms of aesthetic, historical, and ideological frameworks that attempt to resituate the Caribbean viewing subject, media maker, and exhibitor at the Caribbean center of modernity.

 

Terri Francis is an associate professor of film and media studies at Indiana University. In the fall of 2011, she published “Sounding the Nation: Martin Rennalls and the Jamaica Film Unit, 1951–1961” in Film History. She is the author of Josephine Baker’s Race Burlesque: Blackness, Power, and Visual Pleasure, forthcoming from Indiana University Press in 2015.  To find out what she’s watching, follow her on Twitter at @Terri_Francis.

 


1 My thinking on the poetics of archives relied in part on Marlene Manoff, “Theories of the Archive from across the Disciplines,” Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 1 (2004): 9–25.

2 Keith O. Warner, On Location: Cinema and Film in the Anglophone Caribbean (London: Macmillan Education Limited, 2000).

3 Mbye Cham, ed., Ex-Iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema (Trenton, NJ: Black World, 1992).

4 Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Cultural Representation,” in Cham, Ex-Iles, 220.

5 Gabrielle A. Hezekiah, Phenomenology’s Presence: Video, Vision, and Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

6 Walter Ray Watson, “Rare Silent Film with Black Cast Makes a Century-Late Debut,” 25 October 2014, Code Switch.

7 Terri Francis, “Slow Jam: Experiencing Media as Love Letter in Jamaica, or What I Thought of the ‘OnePeople’ Documentary,” 9 August 2012, Shadow and Act.

 

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