BEIJING—For the world’s best sprinters, passing the baton in the 4x400 relay is about as easy as rolling out of bed in the morning.
Picking a winner in that race used to be easy, too.
A man rushes up to the house in Petit Valley to deliver a bag of corn syrup, condensed milk and red dye to Jeffrey Alleyne. I’m on set with the filmmaker in the sleepy village he has dubbed “Valleywood.”
“This is not a gangster film,” Alleyne tells me, a few days later at the T&T Guardian’s offices, despite the fact the corn syrup and red dye were used as liquid special effects for the bloodier scenes.
There is gun violence in the film, but it’s more than a film about gangsters. “There are scenes on the avenue, scenes in a dancehall, scenes featuring the elders in the community,” says Alleyne. “We’re trying to show the lives that are happening in the sub-culture ghettoes of T&T.”
It’s not a film that glorifies violence: quite the opposite. With its young, talented cast of amateur actors most of whom come from Morvant and Laventille, it’s a film with a message about how depressingly easy it can be for youths to slip into violent retribution in Trinidad’s rougher communities.
“Doing the wrong thing is easier,” says lead actor Raphael Joseph, who plays a character called Machine, a maxi driver with a good heart and some bad acquaintances, whose main aim in life is to provide for his family and enjoy himself. Generous with the little money he earns, we see him in touching scenes giving money to his niece, played by the director’s 16-year-old daughter Sunshyne De Silva. A fondness for winning at cards with unsavoury characters leads him into problems that spiral out of control.
When Alleyne appeared on a morning TV talk show, one of the producers told him his film, Welcome To Warlock: The Land of the Lawless, reminded him of the Brazilian film City of God, an ultra-violent, surreal movie from 2002 which portrays young black ghetto kids taking lives with little forethought or afterthought. But Welcome To Warlock, Alleyne’s first full-length feature film, pays more attention to the impact violent crime can have on lives, relationships and families.
“We want people to watch this movie and say, “I don’t want to be a gangster,” says Darrel Munroe, who plays a peacemaker between the warring factions.
Guerrillas in the mist
Filmed by Alleyne alone, using a handycam and tripod, it could be described as guerrilla filmmaking. Scenes are shot spontaneously. A typical day’s work involves Alleyne assembling his young thespians, briefing them on the scene, throwing them lines from the script, then letting them run with it. This fluid mode of production means scenes can be halted and re-started instantly with directions given in a no-nonsense way.
Later, Alleyne edits the scenes, boosting the audio, re-dubbing dialogue, fixing sequencing and continuity.
An 11-minute trailer on YouTube has had over 20,000 views and created a buzz in Morvant and beyond, where the film’s release on DVD is eagerly awaited.
Following the kind of DIY ethos that characterises underground popular culture in these modern times, the DVD will be self-produced and distributed by cast members.
It’s a shame it won’t get wider coverage by being entered into the T&T Film Festival 2014, but there are reasons that might not happen—predominantly an impasse between Alleyne and the film industry officials. Besides, Alleyne tells me, being in the film festival doesn’t guarantee bigger audiences.
“I went to a screening of an underground movie at MovieTowne and there were two people in the auditorium,” he says. Perhaps word of mouth will carry it to the audience it deserves.
Alleyne describes his style as “a mix between Hollywood and Nollywood. With more emphasis on how a film feels not how it looks and sounds.”
He would be the first to acknowledge that the film isn’t slick or overproduced. But why would a gritty film about street life be filmed in Super HD? That wouldn’t make much sense. Alleyne’s film sits at the intersection of art and real life.
“It’s a community action project. It’s film as a social intervention tool. If the government want to know what to do about violence they should watch me.”
A few days later at the T&T Film Company stakeholder meeting, Alleyne took the floor and said, “I could snap my fingers and make a film. It mightn’t be a high-quality film, but it go be a film people want to see.”
And he’s right. Lots of arthouse movies come out of T&T, barely registering with the public. There is more buzz about this film among ordinary young Trinis. Somebody ought to ensure it is seen by the maximum number of eyes.
Meeting the cast
The following week, five of the actors come to the T&T Guardian’s offices. I take them into the boardroom, where they seem at ease. Sixteen-year-old Omarley Philbert from Morvant sits at the head of the long table as if he’s the CEO, at one point asking, to the amusement of the others, if this is “where they get together and agree who they’re going to fire?”
When Philbert and I first speak I fear we might need a translator for my English accent and his Trini dialect.
Darrel Munroe, 39, has seen a lot. From Morvant originally, he now lives in Gonzales, Belmont. Both areas lie within, “the war zone” as he puts it. He found his own mother murdered and tells me he had two choices: send people to kill the perpetrators or turn the other cheek. He is now established within the Rastafarian community and something of a counsellor for youths on the brink of self-destruct.
“I’ll be real with you, I grew up in the thug life as a kid. I know the life and a lot of youths look up to me. Some would say I’m a leader or a head, but I would say I’m an elder. I don’t promote robbing or any form of wrongdoing.”
He feels the film will be the first to accurately reflect what happens in bad areas.
“If you want to act those roles, come in the ghetto,” he says. “Spend a week or a little two days, see how it is in the ghetto, see what the youths are doing, so when you go back out there you know how it really is.”
Triston Carryl is 20 and softly spoken. He saw the YouTube trailer and was introduced to Alleyne. Getting a part required confidence, passion and self-motivation. His friends are happy for him, he says. “Acting gets me off the streets. They tell me if I keep it up I could find this being my future.”
Would they act in a different kind of film, a love story? I’m trying to understand if it’s the ghetto element that appeals but they say they’d be more than happy to act in a T&T street version of Romeo and Juliet. When Sunshyne arrives I revisit the subject and they seem even more keen to play such a part with her as co-star.
Sunshyne has seen her father, Alleyne, transformed into a film producer and director, having been rehabilitated from a gangster life. There was a time he never dreamt he’d be making children’s films like 2011’s Another Cinderella, with a cast of under-12s. Or Snow Cone and the Seven Brats, a forthcoming film aimed at the Disney market but with an underground vibe.
Film industry economics make it difficult for Alleyne to acquire a new audience across the Caribbean and the global diaspora. Funding from the T&T Film Co requires a marketing plan, something which isn’t part of his agenda, he’d rather immerse himself in the filmmaking process.
As a one-man film production company, it takes up all his waking hours. To get more exposure he needs assistance with grants and with developing a commercial strategy. One hopes negotiations between the two parties can happen. A working partnership could be beneficial to both.
As lead actor Raphael Joseph puts it, “We’re trying to bring communities together. What we’re doing now is a stepping stone for where we’re going. So that instead of picking up guns this might give the opportunity for everybody to make movies.”
Speaking about Alleyne, a longtime friend and mentor, he added “Jeffrey is our influencer and I thank God he influenced me to do the right things. I’m so glad what he’s doing is not a job, it’s something he loves and has passion for. That’s why we’re going strong still. If he was studying it as a job, he might not have reached this far.”
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