The Trinidad + Tobago Film Festival, which opened Wednesday and runs until October 2 at various venues, is a triumph. There are so many local films in it—and they’re doing well—for the past few days Facebook has continually shouted about this movie being sold out, and this one, and that. I’m beyond pleased for the festival organisers. I’m even more pleased for the local filmmakers who have grabbed the opportunity of the festival with both hands and are running with it. I dare us as a country to go further. At the packed opening of the festival at Queen’s Hall on Wednesday night, guest of honour director Kevin Macdonald got a rousing round of applause when he voiced the expectation that the next big film from the Caribbean would come from Trinidad and Tobago. It could have been just an idle piece of mamaguy, designed to raise a cheer from the crowd of local filmmakers and artists who dominated the audience, but at the rate we are going it could actually be prophetic.
As Malcolm Gladwell posits in his book Outliers, success is won through hard work and determination, by practice, combined with talent and a certain element of lucky positioning. In the case of Trinidad and Tobago’s film industry, we are putting in the hours of work—there are literally dozens of films by T&T filmmakers in this festival alone, each representing many hours of scripting, shooting and editing. It goes without saying we are talented: we are storytellers and writers and designers and have a long and venerable stage and video tradition. What we have not had, as founder and festival director Dr Bruce Paddington noted in his remarks at the opening, is an environment in which to nurture these elements to really bring the film industry to fruit. It was heartening to hear the Minister of Trade, Industry and Investment Vasant Bharath say in his own remarks that night that the government is supportive of the film industry. Now these words need to be backed with action by government and the private sector.
Existing mechanisms for the financing of films have indeed been bolstered in recent years, for example with the institution of the Tax Incentive Regime for Investment in the Arts and its 150 per cent deduction allowed for investment in films. There are at least two other pieces needed to increase the number and quality of local films produced. First is the founding of a national arts council that will provide fair, accountable and transparent funding for all arts projects. (The T&T Film Co currently provides support to filmmakers, but the more, the merrier.) The second is the institution of a quota system for local creative content on air. I will focus on the argument for a quota system, because I think the need for an arts council is self-explanatory. It is one thing to make films and quite another to get them out to the public. Despite our many films and filmmakers we still haven’t got one cinema that regularly shows local content, or one regular slot on public television for creative film content. Like our radio stations, our TV stations are dominated by foreign content.
It’s a chicken and egg scenario, because broadcasters and cinema owners might argue there’s not enough high-quality content to supply a regular demand, and not enough audience to demand it. Filmmakers in this country would argue, on the other hand, that the audiences would come if local content were offered. The argument will continue to be academic unless there is an intervention. Foreign content continues to be cheaper to buy than local, and of course businesses will always want the biggest bang for their buck. I do not think local broadcasters and cinemas will take the leap of faith required to show significant amounts of local programming unless they are made to do so. Why should we not make them do so? The benefits of developing the film industry are economic, generating employment and income, but they are also psychological, and it is important for our children to see diverse images of themselves on TV and in film. We cannot be satisfied that the only Caribbean people we see on screen are portrayed as criminals, Lotharios or buffoons. We have the means at hand to show ourselves in a different light, our own light. We should use it.