My son Kyle’s first word was “Car”. His second word was “Bang”. So I’m hoping this isn’t a harbinger of things to come.
Tobago 1677, a docudrama about the 17th-century tussle between the Netherlands and France for control of the island, got its Trinidad premiere this month, following its world premiere in Tobago in December.
But the film received a mixed reception at the private screening at the Hyatt hosted by the Trinidad Hotels Restaurants and Tourism Association (THRTA).
It had been talked up as an important project for the country, but the view shared by members of the T&T film industry was that the film turned out to be a demeaning, Eurocentric account of Caribbean history which neglected local expertise.
The film—overly long at just under two hours—was split into two sections. The first half is a present-day documentary about the archaeology of the historic battles fought in the port of Scarborough between the two European colonial naval fleets. The second is a dramatisation of the events of 1677 when France twice attempted to wrest the island from the Dutch by land and sea—successfully destroying the Dutch fort at the second attempt.
The drama used Tobagonian actors in non-speaking roles playing black French mercenary soldiers acquired from already conquered islands and from Africa. The camera crew was mostly local and the animations were done by Brett Lewis’ Eye Scream Animation company based in Diego Martin.
The historical and archaeological section of the film ignored local academics entirely. Instead of Bridget Brereton, UWI’s expert in Caribbean history, or Susan Craig-James, Tobagonian historian and sociologist, the filmmakers brought in a French naval military historian and a US-based Russian marine archaeologist.
The two producers (and scuba divers) are from Germany, Rick Haupt and Sylvia Krueger. They own a company called Oceans Discovery, which has produced similar historical programmes for the Discovery channel.
The company is poised to be the biggest beneficiary of the project, as well as an unnamed local company that co-funded the project. The film has been bought up by Sky Vision, the UK-based global television giant, which owns the licensing rights to hawk it around the world to cable TV channels like National Geographic.
It is hoped that the Tobago tourism industry might also benefit. That was one of three objectives set out by Kevin Kenny, vice president of the THRTA, who initiated the project ten years ago after seeing Haupt and Krueger’s documentary about Captain Henry Morgan’s wrecks in Haiti.
Speaking to the T&T Guardian, Kenny (who has a small role in the film) said if the film got a global audience Tobago would be put on the world map and receive more tourists.
Kenny says there were three reasons for making the film. Firstly, to promote Tobago. Secondly, “because it was a stage missing entirely from the history books. An event nobody knew about, including myself, until Jerry Besson showed me a paper on the battle.” Thirdly, “It might encourage the state-building of a quality history museum in Tobago.”
One important element missing entirely from the film was the transatlantic slave trade.
In the period the film was set in, the Dutch fort was been manned by slaves from Africa. They are referred to once but aren’t seen.
Instead, we see Dutch women and children cowering and afraid, eventually evacuated on a ship which catches fire and sinks.
“It’s racially inconsiderate,” said film critic Jonathan Ali. “It privileges white lives over black. The slaves are firmly secondary in the narrative.
“I don’t know who the target audience is, but it definitely should not be shown in schools.”
In a piece on the production for Caribbean Beat magazine in 2012, Skye Hernandez noted that of the 2,000 people who died in Tobago in one of the world’s bloodiest ever sea battles, 300 were African slaves.
The film would have been improved by a greater emphasis on that side of the story.
It’s fair to say schoolchildren won’t be seeing the film. Aside from the fact it is out of whack with the Caribbean Studies syllabus, it’s the kind of film that would make students fall asleep.
Stephen Cadiz, the former minister of tourism, was in the audience. Cadiz, who was (perhaps ironically) presented with a book on how to shoot documentaries in T&T by Kenny who introduced the film, was executive producer of a recent film success, the documentary ’70: Remembering A Revolution. But at Hyatt he seemed as underwhelmed as the rest of the audience.
Kenny defended the lack of local contributors within the film by saying little-known names would struggle to get attention for a film when taken to the Cannes film festival or the New York Documentary Film Festival.
“Unfortunately, and this is the case that was put to me, when these people are watching a thousand documentaries and you want yours to stand out, it’s difficult to sell if the names aren’t known. They want to know which cameramen were used and those kinds of details.”
Making waves overseas, not on these shores
A film that could have made waves in T&T is far more likely to make waves overseas.
It panders to the image of the Caribbean the world wants to see, a Pirates of the Caribbean-style adventure-book colonial storytelling, with men in silly wigs and tights blowing each other’s ships out of the water with cannonballs.
It’s narrated by the only surviving Dutch commander, who sits writing his account with quill and ink on parchment in the prison hold of a French ship. All of his compatriots are dead or maimed, he says sombrely, whilst chomping noisily on bread and cheese.
Reloading his quill, he recounts the screams of women, children and soldiers burning alive after attacks from fire ships and bombs...“and sharks!”
We see the French troops storming the fort and extras falling to the ground, shot. One extra even dies twice.
When the smoke clears, Tobago is under French control, the sea is red with blood and the film cuts back to the 2013 search by divers looking for evidence of 20 shipwrecks on the seabed in the Scarborough harbour.
Divers find a pipe and some bottles but little else. Ferries regularly arrive and depart, churning up mud and sand, hampering their task.
The artefacts they do find, they must, for some reason, leave in the sea. How will they be studied, documented, dated and exhibited if they aren’t retrieved from their watery grave?
The film ends with an ominous warning that “the third battle of Tobago is about to be waged—to wrest history from the waves.”