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Monday 23 October 2017
Commentary

A wealth of green days

The trinidad+tobago film festival that ended on Tuesday opened last week, premiering an adaptation of the 1952 Michael Anthony novel Green Days By The River.

The screening attracted a huge audience at NAPA’s main theatre space. It may be that Trinis love free food and drink and to mix up with happening people but in this case I believe people were genuinely interested in the film because of its profoundly native origin as a classic school text and the fondness many share for the book’s author.

The technical conditions for screening a full-length feature film were not ideal at the venue and the film-makers, Michael Mooledhar and Christian James, urged people to see it again in bespoke cinemas when it opens on general release.

I too recommend that as it is worthy of our attention, not least to witness the ambition and achievement of our young film-makers whose careers are nearly as long as the sustained 15-year push to develop a film industry in TT.

The film is lush, the magnificence of our island home beautifully captured, the sound design bold, the acting of benchmarking quality by unproven new talent and memorable by the veterans [Che Rodriguez is outstanding as Pa]. For the screenwriter Dawn Cumberbatch, whose job it was to adapt the novel, it would have been a challenge, as much as it was a big test of the director Mooledhar.

The novel contains very little dialogue, in fact, and the script remained pretty well true to its source, forcing the director to develop the story in pictures, supported by the script. Too many of our film scripts rely heavily on dialogue to drive the action when films have a narrative of their own and best succeed when the two stories — in pictures and words — come together. Green Days By The River made a very good stab at it and largely pulled it off.

The temptation can often be to stick too doggedly to the book. There is safety in that, as you don’t then have to suffer the crushing criticism of those familiar with the original text who resent the necessary culling. I say to those critics, see the film version of The English Patient, a most beautifully made film of the eponymous 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje.

It is a densely layered, 320-page book of the most awe-inspiring writing that was suffused into a 162-minute, 1996 multi-Oscar Award-winning feature film. The director and scriptwriters captured the mood of the novel and the intent of the novelist but rendered them in the narrative of film, keeping the essential plot, losing characters, and focusing on key story lines to move the film along.

A good analogy for this requisite is the translation or interpretation of ordinary speech into different languages. We speak to express ideas. Very few individual words standing alone have any meaning. It is sentences of joined-up words that work to communicate our thoughts.

We cannot therefore translate individual words and expect them to make total sense; so entire sentences may have to change to express the original meaning intended, especially when expressions and cultural motifs exist in each language and each country that are not translateable. So too in film, therefore the screenplay and the novel cannot be identical, especially given the time constraints of film.

Green Days By the River is of particular interest as one of the very few attempts to adapt a text from our great wealth of literature. We have a treasure chest of first class literary material awaiting first class film treatment. The film sector is growing and good storytelling remains the basis of good films and animation. I have seen our animators improve their storytelling skills over time. Our feature film-makers could take greater advantage of our best stories to hone their own.

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