It’s not for TT to create a film industry, rather to create a film culture. That’s what Yao Ramesar, filmmaker, programme coordinator and lecturer at the UWI Film department, is trying to do. “People were always hankering after this mythical film industry. I think the UWI Film School represents that. But what about a film culture? Because an industry is about content, an industry is a mechanical logistical thing but what’s a culture? Exposing students from film around the world from some of the best filmmakers and teaching them these aesthetics and techniques foster something that we call a film culture.”
Ramesar spoke to Business Day last week about creating this film culture, and ultimately, a film industry, in the Caribbean. Adapting works of literature for the screen is one way of unifying a great tradition to this emerging base on culture in film. He referenced alumni, director Michael Mooleedhar and producer Christian James for their film adaptation of Green Days by the River by local author Michael Anthony, which opened the film festival one year ago. It’s important, Ramesar said, for people to tell their own stories. “But what are those stories? We have reached a stage in the film industry where we are producing but the next step is what are we producing?” He said it’s not just about dealing with themes and stories from the past but also dealing with immediate writing by young people, some of which is really good.
Speaking about the impact of film on the region, Ramesar, who was a former chairman of the TT Film Company, said he had projected a billion-dollar film industry between 2014 and 2024. “That was based on something I called citizen cinema, which would have seen (an increase) in TT per capita filmmakers in the world by 2024. We would have contributed by 3.5 per cent to the GDP from the film sector by 2024… Jamaica would have gotten $120 million for the year from film. Back in the day Pirates of the Caribbean would have pumped US$80 million into Dominica’s economy for example,” he said. “People don’t understand film is extremely lucrative if you approach it from a commercial perspective. Look at Black Panther. It generated US$2 billion dollars. That’s about a third or quarter of our annual economy from one project.”
Shea Best, an audio and visual technician and another alumnus, believes that TT culture does not promote collaboration or teamwork but the film programme forces that mindset out of its students. “I’ve seen many students form teams and work together to produce. Because of the nature of film, no one person can do it alone, it takes several people to make a production come together. By the second year, students tend to know their skills, strengths and weaknesses and know how to lean on each other and work together.” Best described this process essential for operating in the film industry and an important experience to gain in any film school.
The film programme engages its students in learning and understanding all the roles in film. It can be extremely fast paced – it’s like having to go from zero to industry and culture ready in three years, Ramesar said – but while with other subjects like art, physics or math students build a foundation through their secondary school life, most of those coming into the film programme straight from form six and don’t have any experience or foundation. “I’ll flip the script, it’s not that people choose film, it’s more like film chooses you and you are compelled to tell stories this way.”
The bachelor’s programme for film production and film studies at UWI started in 2006 although the university introduced film courses in 1998 under the department of creative and festival arts. There are currently two bachelor’s degrees available under the university’s film programme: film production, which is designed to ensure that there is balance between theory and practice and taught high level analytical and critical skills, and film studies, which is designed to teach students to evaluate, critique and analyse film products and to understand how film images work.
There is a range of courses available for students to help expose students to film of all types. Some of these courses include Caribbean Cinema, Latin American Cinema, Indian Cinema, Cinemas of Africa, Cinema and Gender, Film Literature and Drama. Ramesar said he sees a trend for adaptation of Caribbean literature to the screen as a crucial area for film.
By the end of the programme there is a great diversity of stories and narratives coming from the students. “We have a case, for instance, when our final year students made a one hour and 43 minute feature. It’s almost unheard of. Even at master’s level you can come up with half an hour film, but these are final year coming up with up to hour-long feature feature films of some considerable quality,” Ramesar said. The students bear a responsibility to advance society through the medium of film.
“I have seen a couple of individuals who have that level of maturity and drive and discipline who have made leaps and bounds and pushed the industry forward,” said Best.
Although the cost of purchasing film equipment is expensive, UWI students are fortunate as they have access to equipment they can borrow to do their work once they are enrolled in the programme or a film course. Best said the department does not always have the fastest updates with technology in the field, but he said it teaches the students how to innovate. Best believes this teaches the students how to be more functional and multi-faceted in the field as well as making them open to problem solving. “There were ways of capturing or doing certain things before certain equipment was made, I encourage students to find out how it was done or find ways to innovate. You can give someone an electric power saw to use without having to use a regular saw, but the moment they have to use a regular saw they become dysfunctional.”
Third year student Rebekah Guillen said her love for film started as a young child, loving to write stories but when she did she always envisioned them as movies. “My mom is an English teacher and I would always write these stories, but instead of writing them the way a story is normally written, I included a lot of extras details that you would not necessarily see in a story and I wrote it in a way that wasn’t exactly normal. It used to cause some conflicts. Later I realised what I was doing was writing scripts. UWI has been a guide and taught me the proper way to do that”
Guillen and another student, Yasha Hanoomansingh both have documentaries they created in their second-year screening at the TT Film Festival (TTFF). JAI, Hanoomansingh’s film, is a documentary following her mother and uncle and their story. Round Pegs in Square Holes, Guillen’s documentary, is about being dyslexic. Hanoomansingh said “Lynne (lecturer in the UWI film department) suggested to get involved in the TTFF and enter our films and see if they get chosen.” More than five students from the UWI film department were selected for their films to be screen in the TTFF.
The students believe certain points of view of film need to change. Guillen said people are trying to take advantage of upcoming film makers, while Hanoomansingh believes a lot of people see film or relate the skills for film with journalism only, although there is a wider reach people are neglecting. They both agreed that anyone who has an interest or passion for film should study it.