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Robert Yao Ramesar: Caribbean film takes off
The local film industry can contribute as much as five per cent to the country’s GDP and it can help diversify our economy. So argues Robert Yao Ramesar, co-ordinator, BA in film production at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI). More people are entering the industry at all levels, such as actors, directors and producers, says the Howard University graduate.
Q: Mr Ramesar, in 2006 you received the prestigious Anthony N Sabga Award for Excellence for your work in the film industry. What is the state of the industry today? (In the studio of the filming unit at UWI, St Augustine, Thursday morning.)
A: Film in the Caribbean is taking off. There are a lot more players, producers, actors, directors and characters than before. It is time to produce products and contents that are viable not just for export, but for ourselves first, so that we can see ourselves more on the screen.
Based on your vantage point, do you visualise one day we may rise to the level of Hollywood, Bollywood or Nollywood (filmed in Nigeria)?
Yes and no. The economy of scale is different.
Is it economy of scale or is it the culture, the type of films that come from abroad?
We have been heavily influenced by Hollywood in particular. In a sense, trying to be a cheap imitation of Hollywood isn’t going to cut it. We have to create films that reflect us in all our glory, in all our complexity, the power that we have, the beauty, the culture...you know...We have to “get out of the woods.”
How deep are we in the woods?
Well, we are so deep in the woods, we cannot see ourselves reflected in anything. When we look at the screen, we do not see ourselves; we see somebody else looking back. That invalidates us. We want to see ourselves; you know, it’s about manifesting our indigenous selves rather than somebody else all the time.
Within recent years, a number of cinemas have shut down, in most instances replaced by churches. Was their closing the impetus for developing the local film industry?
I wouldn’t say it was the impetus. It was just change, because we had—in the early 80s particularly—the coming of the VCR, beta initially; and that drove people home, indoors, to look at movies, driving them out of the cinemas. But we have a different time now, where the multiplexes have come, making the big screens much more viable again.
What is your background?
I was born in Ghana, and grew up in Trinidad, Jamaica and Canada.
Do you get curious stares when you tell people you were born in Africa, you looking more like an East Indian person?
(Loud chuckle) Yes. They think I am saying Guyana, but my dad was from Rousillac in south Trinidad; my mom is from Kingston, Jamaica. But I am actually a Trinidadian by reason of my father’s native land.
What drew you into the film industry?
Well, I always loved taking pictures. I am a very visual person but I want to take the life that I experienced in the “Caribbeing,” which is to reflect our realities in life and our culture on screen. I went to a lot movies but I never saw myself on the screen; it was always western, historical or kick-ups, and I always had the urge to produce films to show us.
Did you experience much difficulty in getting this thing off the ground?
My work? Yes, it was very difficult. Up to today I still struggle to get any sort of monies to make my films. They are not seen as particularly commercial and people really want to you imitate Hollywood. I don’t do that. It is a struggle, but at the same time I am a man and I do what I have to do, in spite of anything.
Are there many Trinis who are eager to get into the industry, whether as actors, producers, or directors?
Yes, screen acting in T&T, in particular, in recent times, has gotten better and better, and there are a lot of areas of improvement: writing is better, we are seeing more colour and texture, and the world that we occupy here is more and more reflected on the screen. The language is sounding better, too. Camerawork is better; directing is better. The actors are crucial, and they are actually getting better; we have good actors now who can sustain a feature.
Is the quality of your productions attracting foreign audiences?
My work gets around the world: it has been in around 140 countries. I really have no problem with that. I don’t do the typical blockbluster, so my work is in the global village a long time now. Not just me; a lot of people are coming to the table producing a product that gets out there. T&T is a new kettle of fish, and due to money and the very plural society, also a very individualistic society. We are able to produce a variety of stories that you probably won’t get anywhere else.
You speak of financial difficulties. Have you sought the assistance of successive governments in pushing this industry forward?
Successive governments have had money and have committed, to a certain extent, to the development of film and film-makers here; part of which was the diversification of the economy. So you have many more who have been financed. 2006 was a critical year.
In what way?
The T&T Film Festival was started that year; the UWI film programme started in 2006; the Film Company of T&T started in 2006 as well. On an individual level, my film Sista God is still the only T&T feature to get official selection at one of the major festivals in Toronto. This festival is rivalled only by Cannes. Then I got the first (Anthony N Sabga) Caribbean Laureate in Arts and Letters.
The material reward you got was $500,000. Was that ploughed back into the industry?
It allowed me to continue to make films and to also float a lot of boats—I spent a considerable amount of money on other artists’ work in T&T.
Did it pay off?
Yeah man, absolutely. They got a lot of impetus from that. I saw it as a collective thing.
As a whole, do you find many Trinis being interested in the industry, at whatever level?
Absolutely. Many actors are coming on board now and they can act…It has taken a quantum leap. It is very important that the people sound believable. It is quite exciting.
Successive governments have spoken about the diversification of the economy. Do you see the industry contributing in any tangible manner towards this goal?
Yes, it is starting to pick up. I would like to see what I call the citizen’s cinema: my belief is that we can produce probably the highest per capita of film-makers anywhere in the world. I would like to see maybe five per cent. It sounds like a little bit, but it is not. We could produce five per cent of GDP from film-making here alone, which is comparable to Nollywood (the Nigerian film industry), which came from nowhere in the 90s, and today it is the number-one producer of features in the world.
I think it is number three in terms of actual economic worth and three per cent of the Nigerian economy, which is, like us, an energy economy. So I am looking at that; but you cannot go with the old paradigm. We have to innovate, create our own economy. You have to create new jobs, new economic space.
How many people are involved in the industry at this time?
Core people (number) several hundreds now. When you look at ancillary areas like catering and transport, set design and all of these things, you can see potentially thousands being employed in the industry.