Mayaro, 1952, was a time and place of innocence and tranquility, on the surface at least.
Michael Anthony’s nostalgic 1967 classic novel, Green Days by the River, dealt with issues of poverty, race and intermarriage, but, told through the lens of 15-year-old Shell, naivety softened some of the brutality lurking behind the peaceful façade of rural Trinidad.
Fifty years later, Michael Mooleedhar’s adaptation reproduces that fine balance between innocence and menace, freedoms and bonds, kindness and cruelty, love and hate.
Visually stunning, with lush photography, his debut feature opened the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival last night, and it gets almost everything right. Brilliantly acted, it features a richly expressive soundtrack and has a costume department with an impressive eye for detail.
This is the mid-20th century British West Indies of your grandparents’ youth, a blissful idyll before guns and drugs, when colonialism began to diminish and depopulate, and the new mechanisms of TT’s emerging nation replaced centuries of institutionalised racism. Access to greater opportunity, wealth and power was opened to more and more non-white Trinidadians –as the stratification of society eased and a generation who did not know servitude emerged. But as this new society grew, so too did new problems.
After beautiful opening frames of the beautiful wide river and its wildlife, with the ominous sound of drums being cracked with throbbing hands, Shell (played faultlessly by Sudai Tafari), the only child of poor, black parents, Ma Lammy and bed-ridden Pa, spies the alluring Rosalie, daughter of Indian landowner Mr Gidharee and his Creole wife. As tempting, though not as scornful, as Estella Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations, Rosalie playfully teases him.
Initially Gidharee (Anand Lawkaran) takes more of a shine to Shell than his much-admired daughter does. It’s not until Shell meets an elegant and clever black girl –Joan (Vanessa Bartholomew) from Sangre Grande –that Rosalie’s intentions towards him become genuinely amorous.
Gidharee takes Shell and a pack of huge dogs to work and hunt the plantation. He sees Shell as a future son-in-law and himself as a stepfather ready to replace the boy’s seriously ill father.
Eager to please, Shell climbs trees and rains down oranges on his new mentor. In return, Gidharee teaches him bush survival tips, like how to handle a cutlass and which water to avoid (“in here have alligators like peas, boy”). Above all, he imbues Shell with a connection to his physical surroundings.
“I believe in land and planting the land,” he says in one eloquent and expressive monologue.
And why wouldn’t he? The nature is abundant and fruitful. There are soaring scarlet ibis, wading water buffalo, dormant egrets, hunted caiman. Chadon beni grows wild, sapodilla trees are ravaged by corn birds, rich cocoa pods are harvested and their beans trodden like grapes in a vineyard. The dogs, Tiger and Hitler at the fore, catch wild meat, pigs and alligators and Gidharee slits the beasts’ throats.
A dissolve from a bleeding caiman into a snow cone dripping with red syrup opens the scene of a Discovery Day fete, as evocative a depiction of a bygone Trinidad as any I’ve seen. Trumpets ring out old-time jazzy dances – the mambo, the foxtrot, the cha-cha-cha – and the young adults are in heaven.
Scene by seamless scene, seductive sound and vision spill from the screen – like the gentle clopping of horses’ hooves, the soft gurgle of running water, the way Trinidad is transformed into an authentic piece of the past.
Is Mooleedhar hypnotising us, to disguise a thin script? Maybe. But who cares when it’s so sumptuous?
This may not be the most socially impactful film to have come out of Trinidad – how could it be, when it speaks of the past, not the present? – but it is the best film to have come out of this country and is certain to be enthusiastically received by film festival audiences worldwide.