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.

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