Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, June 27, 2014

Fires of Hope

In 1983, Suzanne and Hugh Robertson were still living in Trinidad with children Antonio, then about 10, and little Anna, a toddler. They had returned to Trinidad with high hopes ten years before, made two movies in quick succession (Bim 1974 and Avril 1975). The Sharc Studio at the Tracking Station in Chaguaramas was fully equipped with a large indoor studio as well as location facilities. The Chaguaramas studio was used for Gold of the Amazons - a fanciful story with no relation to the life of the island but which used the location and Trinidadian skill and ingenuity. Suzanne remembers how impressed the producers were by the Carnival wirebenders and papier-mache workers who built the sets. But the film industry had not taken off.

In 1980 and 1982, the location trailer had been used for recording the revived Pan music festival, then named Pan is Beautiful 1 and 2. The challenges of recording pan, live,  in the Jean Pierre (sporting) Complex were unusual and many; and Hugh almost came to blows with several would be sound engineers over where the mics should be placed to gather and blend each orchestra. Arnim Smith president of Pan Trinbago got to practise his rough diplomacy and quell many a flare up with his gold-toothed smile. Those were the days! And another story.

By 1983, Sharc was proposing television documentaries in order to use their elaborate and expensive resources. And so they won the opportunity to produce a one hour documentary on the theme 21 years after Independence. It would be shown on the national station Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) as part of that year's commemoration.  On a slim budget, they nevertheless grasped the opportunity to travel far and wide across the country, adoring its natural beauty and collecting the opinions of individuals involved in many different fields. Among them were Sir Ellis Clarke, President of the newly minted republic; Phillip Rochford, chairman of the ten year old National Commercial Bank; Alwin Chow, then the "youngest" senator to be appointed; Dr Trevor Farrell economist, Clive Nunez, union leader; and captains of industry Bob Yorke, Sydney Knox. By the end of the production, the film was named from the verse in the national anthem, Fires of Hope. Perhaps it also reflected the fires of hope of the Robertsons themselves.

The film is simply structured, with passages marked by lines from the national anthem:
Forged from the love of liberty
In the fires of hope and prayer
With boundless faith in our destiny
We solemnly declare
Side by side we stand, 
Islands of the blue Caribbean sea
This our native land, we pledge our lives to thee
Here every creed and race find an equal place
And may God bless our nation.

The first 15 minutes condense the political history of the islands, from Butler (1930s) to 1962, the year of independence through archived film footage. The black and white film is grainy but truthful. No commentary is needed. Then, for 45 minutes, we step into contemporary 1983, with the styles, attitudes, landscapes captured on film shot mainly by Hugh. Here are some reflections on independence - 21 years gone, how you feeling? -  from the speakers of the day.

With independence, said Knox, "we have the right to make our own mistakes." We have to generate foreign exchange (capital in the world) by performance. He also said that we should learn from our mistakes.

Dean Saidwan agriculturist declared that the farmers of the nation continued to demonstrate the highest degree of patriotism. He was making the case that an independent nation needs to feed itself, begging for food security. He lamented the dislocation of rural communities, flocking to centres of industrialisation. Far better to leave the pastoral man - as the old Paramin peon said - "happy to myself." In 1983, there were still sugar cane fields, customs linked to cutting and burning cane, hard work sweating in the sun, the tilled fields of dark Caroni soil. By the turn of this century, cane is gone, but have we converted that human energy into anything?

Thirty years ago, Dr Trevor Farrell predicted that we were in a race against time, behind and needing to catch up to the technological revolution already speeding along in the outside world. Oil, he said, is the industry of the past; import substitution - the motor car and garment manufacturing industries (in 1983) - a thing of the past. Where would Trinidad and Tobago find characteristic services to take its unique place in the world?

Earl Lovelace novelist and Ralph Maraj actor identified the need for "sense of purpose" in the arts. "We speak of local business as if it is lesser," said Lovelace, "or as if we have a choice." Lovelace at that time had spent the preceding decade living in Toco, a remote village on Trinidad's north east coast. Ralph had taken the lead in the Robertson's film production Bim, about a boy from the canefields who has to find his place in urban Trinidad.

Analyst Dr Neville Linton (once married to Pat Bishop artist musician historian) made the observation that our culture is us, what we do, how we use our environment. Today, more than 30 years later, this definition is an indictment of a materialistic lifestyle, environments degraded by mining or massive construction; and every attempt to produce "saleable" culture. He also noted, without irony, that we are a migrant people; "we understand the culture of elsewhere, so it's easy to move (away)."

The faces are earnest: serious men trying to make sense of Trinidad and Tobago's first 21 years of independence. Their words, with all the wisdom of straining to see the future from what had already gone, sadly prophetic. In hindsight, they come across the intervening decades as voices of doom. How could we not have heard and understood them then? And if we had, how different might we be now?

The society, in the early eighties, is still feeling its way forward. Among the predominantly male cast of speakers, there are two women. Angela Hamel-Smith, historian, reflects on the self-consciousness of the white Trinidadian, belonging in a minority and taken at "face value." We need to know and understand our history, she says, to come to terms with hostility, anger and fear. Thelma Henderson, industrial relations practitioner, reflects on the role of women, lamenting the stereotypes projected by the media.

The short film Fires of Hope begins with the struggle of the working man in Trinidad to define himself with dignity in his work; and ends with new struggles. The opening sentiments are Tubal Uriah "Buzz" Butler's on the plight of workers in the cane fields, in the oilfields. We hear Dr Williams and Dr Capildeo yearning for self-rule. 21 years on, Clive Nunez, trade unionist, speaks cynically about Britain "shedding colonies." When the British gave (us) up, the Americans took their place, and are still in control. There's universality in the plight of colonies jettisoned with the break up of empire; in the individual's striving for fulfilment.

There is no narration, no voice over, just the judicious choice of scene and comments from the lips of these citizens of the seven-year-old Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It is the filmmaker's art to edit from 20 speakers the truth he would reveal.

Perhaps it is the knowledge of the last 30 years that colours this view of Fires of Hope. The rendition of the national anthem in a slow and ponderous style created by Geraldine Connor (Suzanne's cousin) punctuates the production like a dirge. For whom the bell tolls… it seems to say. For all the young men then who are old today, or dead. For all the dashed hopes that were "forged from the love of liberty; in the fires of hope and prayer…"

In 1983, we also saw the rise of Blueboy with his calypso, Rebecca; the first part of Minshall's River trilogy. To come was the joy of David Rudder's Bahia Girl and Man with the Hammer (1985). Hope is unfinished business. And so Fires of Hope, the film, ends unconclusively, hope diminished but unextinguished. In the middle of the adventure - in the fires of hope - we are unfinished, still striving, still hoping...

Where do we go now? Do we know the mistakes of the past 50 years, and what have we learned?

Written and produced by Suzanne Robertson, directed by Hugh Robertson, the film was edited at Starr Production by Lorraine Chan.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Tom Dooley: hard luck or tragedy?

The movies my husband calls "hard luck stories" another person calls tragedies. Anna Karenina was definitely a tragedy. The stories in which everyone lived happily ever after were comedies. Sleeping Beauty (even the modern version Maleficent) a comedy. The exceptions would be the epic lives of the great religions, where life and death become two sides of the same coin. Death the doorway to life everlasting! But let's for today, stick to stories of mortals. And in particular, Tom Dooley the confederate soldier who learned too late that the American civil war had ended.

There are different versions of the Tom Dooley legend. The earliest - after the 1868 trial and hanging for the murder of Laura Foster - suggest that he was convicted, but may not have been guilty. The 1959 film coincided with the song made popular by the Kingston Trio:

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Hang down your head and cry.
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Poor boy, you're bound to die.
I met her on the mountain. There I took her life. Met her on the mountain. Stabbed her with my knife.
This time tomorrow. Reckon where I'll be. Hadn't-a been for Grayson, I'd-a been in Tennessee.
This time tomorrow. Reckon where I'll be. Down in some lonesome valley hangin' from a white oak tree.
(- Kingston Trio 1958)

The Legend of Tom Dooley, the film made by Ted Post with the 21 year old Michael Landon in the title role, is tragedy. You know the song. You know the ending. It was early days in the film industry; the movie is black and white. In the style of the western, it is played without pathos, without self pity, with rough justice a certainty.

It does bear watching for the simplicity of plot, and early but efficient use of film technology. In the mid 1950s you could still believe in the wide open spaces of the 1866 American west where men on horses were larger than life; swift enough to outstrip news of a war's end.

For just under 80 minutes, the downbeat in the ballad echoes the footfalls of galloping horses as Dooley's fate plays out. We see the camaraderie of three friends, Tom, Country Boy and Abel; Tom's love for Laura and the unrelenting approach of justice. The time ahead of the news is taken back for the doctor's visit, for finding and marrying Laura, and fending off those who would bring him to that old oak tree in a lonesome valley.

Inexorable fate is the nature of tragedy; as is unequivocal unwavering justice. And The Legend of Tom Dooley a reminder that we also appreciate stories (movies, books, plays) even if the ending is certain.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

White rabbit day

What does the sighting of an agouti mean? Simply that they are comfortable around people. Don't come too close though, or they will run!
Do you believe in omens? The original meaning of omen "sign of a change" not the later meaning that suggests a dark future event. I have to admit that animal omens can change my disposition, settle a mood, calm my outlook. Consider the night that we found the tiny emerald hummingbird fluttering between the fluorescent tubes - probably thinking he had found the sun or some source of unending light. Of course, we rescued it and set it on a branch outside. Every so often, I am staring into the void and an emerald body buzzes me back to here and now. I am sure it's the same bird!

Or the young corbeau that duck walked to the kitchen porch. The dogs set up a racket. Mr Corbeau walk hopped away and wedged itself in a corner. I went after it along the perimeter of my property until I picked him up and put him over the fence. The next day, he was back. This time I contrived to put him over the fence near the gully where the older corbeaux roost in the trees. Someone told me that young corbeaux spend a lot of time on the ground before they fledge - before their wing feathers have grown out and strong enough to fly. Toobesides, even full grown birds have trouble taking off from the ground and especially among trees and underbrush. So I pay attention to the corbeaux - they are sociable creatures, gathered in two or three. And I am certain they look at me.

Cobos in the trees look at me.

What number do you play for two, three or four cobos?

Yes, there have been other creatures. An iguana sunning on a neighbour's wall that tolerated me long enough to photograph it, then grew impatient and fell into the bougainvillea. Young agoutis foraging in the bush. Woodpeckers rat-a-tatting on the bois canots. Cornbirds (oropendolas) cawing and shrieking as they come and go from swinging nests. And snakes that came to my door.

Oropendola nests swing in the breeze while the bird negotiate their way in and out!

This day, the sky behind the massive cassia grandis trees was lightening at five. I rolled out of bed to see why the dogs were barking. There was a white rabbit hopping up the driveway. No, he was not carrying hat or gloves and he was not saying "I'm late. I'm late..." Shucks, I thought, if these lazy dogs decided to pen it, bunny would be a goner for sure.

Still in pyjamas, I closed the gate at the bottom of the stairs keeping the dogs inside. I approached yon rabbit. It scampered down the driveway and slipped through the bars of the main gate.

To the joggers who were coming up the hill: "Good morning, do you know who owns a white rabbit?" They looked up the hill and saw it hopping along.


5.30 too early to call Christine. Anyway, the rabbit was outside my gate and would probably go back the way it came.

Five minutes later, white rabbit slipped back into my yard, hopping up the driveway again. While the dogs were still barking, I went to the driveway, closing the gate behind me, cleared my mind and approached young rabbit.

"Pss pss," I called, then paused and let it come to me. All the way to my feet. Then I stooped and gently scooped it up, holding under the belly. Where to put it? With rabbit in one arm, I opened the trunk of my car with the other spreading newspaper pulling the screen over. Then I pushed the rabbit in and closed the door.

It was after six, so I called Christine and asked if she had lost a white rabbit.
"Is it ... dead?" was her whispered response.
"No. Will you come and get it?" I asked the question and already knew it would be easier to drive the car down the hill. "Don't worry, it's in my car, I'll drive it down."

Christine came out to greet me, "The children will be glad Houdini is back!"

And so, Houdini, the wily white rabbit with the thick neck muff was home after a night out in the Grove.

But at the end of the day, there was more animal drama. Sox sprinted down the hill after a black cat which hung on the fence over his head for half a minute before it leaped to the other side. 

I don't know what each animal symbolised or what happened on any given day. But each encounter with an animal spirit lifts me out of the ordinary. I open my mind, and heart, and I think, not alone not apart, but a part of the continuous fabric that's life.

I'm fumbling for my phone but this old man is coolo breezo sunning on the wall!

Maleficent and the Sleeping Beauty

Magic happens in movies. New interpretations, 3D formats, inventive and interactive landscapes, marvellous stunts are lifting stories off the page. They have the power to invigorate old myths, to tease out fresh meaning and inspire ideas about identity and one's place in the world. More vivid than the stuff of dreams, movies have the power to present subtlety and frailty; but more than anything else, mysterious and magical transformations.

The newest retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale is masterful in its use of the medium. Isobelle Molley plays the young Maleficent with healing hands. She returns the precious jewel to the pond and reproaches but forgives the young human boy Stefan for his theft. Ella Purnell is blossoming Maleficent who receives her first kiss. But it is Angelina Jolie who comes into her full power as personification and protector of the fair land called the Moors.

It neighbours the land of men, ruled by the expansionist king who has cast a long eye on the fair land. Harmony innocence and sustainability on the one hand; ambition, greed and schemes on the other. Community and eco-conscience in the fairy realm; massed armies and subjects bent by the will of the king in the other.

And so, it happens that Maleficent is drugged and duped and loses her wings. Her sorrow and pain are released in a mighty scream and a light goes out that is seen everywhere. This is the backstory to the Sleeping Beauty, the baby cursed by Maleficent to prick her finger on a spindle before the end of her 16th birthday and fall into a deep sleep from which she might only be awakened by true love's kiss.

We see Aurora grow up. She's played by Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, Angelina's daughter, at five years old. And by Eleanor Worthington-Cox at eight. But it is the lovely Elle Fanning (the giggly but grown up 14-year old in We Bought a Zoo) who delivers Beastie's (as she's called by Maleficent since she was a baby) promise, the hope for peace again between the kingdom of men and the fair lands.

When Maleficent loses her wings, it is a rape. Who better to deliver the emotion and pathos than Angelina who is speaking out for women everywhere, and working to change the law and fate and self-esteem of those who are raped in war. She saves a crow that is being bludgeoned to death and gains an ally who becomes her wings. The crow in human form is Diaval played with wry humour by Sam Riley. He pledges himself to Maleficent's service, and as a crow, becomes her loyal informer. He allows himself to be transformed into creatures for her defence: wolf, human or dragon.

As for Sleeping Beauty: aren't we all walking dreamers, longing for the fairy tale? Hopefully, we will be able to recognise truth when it intervenes.

In the end, Maleficent regains her wings. Aurora wakes up. The lands are united. Peace reigns. And that's all I will say. Go and see the movie. It's worth it.

See the trailer here: