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Sharing Stories of The Bahamas’ “Boat People”

Posted on 19/05/2015
By Commonwealth Foundation
Beach still from Kareem Mortimer's Passage
Beach still from Kareem Mortimer’s Passage

First we have an idea that we want to address. We work hard to express it visually in the most expressive way, we execute that vision and then, naively, we feel that we are done. For those of us who make social justice films it is in fact the beginning of the longest part of the journey. The real journey is to make sure your film has resonance and impact in the community you are rooted in. This coming September will mark two years since our film Passage premiered in Bristol along with four other brilliant Commonwealth Shorts: in that time the film has had close to fifty screenings around the world and won a total of nine awards. Last year, we received funding to bring the film to various Bahamian Islands including New Providence, Eleuthera, Grand Bahama and the Abacos Islands. We had an opportunity to use the film to build better understanding in our society.

The Bahamas is an archipelagic island chain that stretches some thousand miles, consists of over 700 islands and cays with permanent settlement on 17 of the islands. The population of the country is below 400,000 with two thirds of the population living on the Island of New Providence, on which the capital city of the country is also situated. The Bahamas Island chain is north of Cuba and Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and the Bahamian island of Bimini is only 40 miles from the coast of Miami Beach. Throughout its history, this country with abundant waterways (covering 180,000 miles of ocean space) and a small population has often been used to transport cargo through the United States. This also makes it a perfect location for smuggling migrants into the U.S.

Passage tells the story of a seventeen year old girl who is on a boat filled with immigrants traveling through the Bahamas into the United States. This young girl must hide the fact that her brother is ill so that he is not thrown overboard. Passage, based on accounts in newspaper reports, is a story told in 15 minutes of a journey that can take several days or weeks. I knew had not experienced such a harrowing journey, as many in my audience may have, so what right did I have to speak about it? I felt that I owed it to the community to be truthful and responsible.

Woman looks up - still from Kareem Mortimer's Passage

One of the first times I encountered a person who made a passage on a boat was on Out Island in the Bahamas. I was there for a screening. A teacher at a school told me about a student named Adam who had been having behavioral problems in school. Adam had come to the Bahamas from Haiti on a poorly constructed boat. After watching the film, he spoke about his experience to his fellow classmates. What we saw was an expressive, excitable young man with first-hand knowledge about a subject that his classmates found interesting. He was alive, sharing his true story and that was a gift.

Another community screening introduced me to Ghislaine, a twenty something single mother who made a beeline to me after a screening and asked me about my inspiration for the film. I told her, as I had told others many times before, that the film was inspired by my watching a story on the news when I was nine years old with my mother and seeing the dead bodies of Haitian immigrants that had washed ashore in the Bahamas. It was the first time I had ever seen a dead body. The bodies were dead and bloated. They were then dumped in mass graves and I had never been able to forget that image.

I told Ghislaine, that I had often wondered about the stories of these individuals and wanted to explore it through film. Ghislaine told me that one of her early memories was when she was four or five years old as she tried to get to the US with her mother and sisters to join their relatives in the United States. The journey was intercepted and Ghislaine, her sisters and mother hid in the bushes while armed immigration officers rounded up groups of immigrants. Ghislaine has never forgotten how she felt. She wells up even now, experiencing the intense fear of herself as a child, and seeing that same fear in the face of her mother.

Still from Kareem Mortimer's Passage

Over twenty years has passed and Ghislaine has yet to connect with her family in America, since she cannot secure a US visa or passport. However, her mother has recently made the short and successful passage from the Abacos in The Bahamas to South Florida in the United States. Ghislaine thinks about making the journey now as the passage from The Bahamas to the United States is less risky than the one from Haiti but she does not want to leave her young child behind in the Bahamas or risk his life. While her son is a Bahamian citizen, Ghislaine is not. As such, she is unable to have a bank account or secure a job that is comparable with her skills and potential. There will have to be a shift economically for Ghislaine, or she may be forced to take the journey that failed her so many years ago.

Jack, a winter resident from Canada, also pulled me aside at the very same screening where I met Ghislaine. He informed me that a few weeks earlier he was enjoying a dinner with some friends, when their meal was interrupted by some loud clammering on the deck of their house. Outside there were a group of migrants whose ship had just run aground. Some were barely clothed, quite thin and looking for food and shelter. Jack and his wife were conflicted about how to help. They are not Bahamian and were unsure if they should get involved as it may be against the law to provide shelter. There is no such law, but Jack, his wife and their friends did not house the migrants. Instead they provided them with some food, water and blankets, and then watched them disappear into the night. Jack confided that he assisted the best way he knew how but yet he still felt helpless.

The majority of people at our screenings were Bahamians, some of whom – despite news reports over the last thirty years of devastating human smuggling stories – remain ignorant of the lengths that people go through when entering and exiting this chain of islands. I don’t wish to make a judgment here, as I believe we are bombarded with so much information that we sometimes filter out things that we don’t want to hear. We don’t hear about sacrifices people make; instead we hear about the strain on our resources. We do not see frightened people; we see invaders. If we can change that perception there will be greater understanding and we will be able to confront the ignorance that surrounds this issue.

Sea still from Kareem Mortimer's Passage

I was told a story dating back 15 years about a young teenager who collected five thousand dollars from a group of immigrants wanting to get to the United States. The young man stole a boat, collected the migrants and left them stranded on a deserted island. Assuring them that they had arrived in Florida, he returned to school the next day like nothing had ever happened. Those people perished. This young man is to blame for this heinous crime but we as a society are also somehow culpable, for not creating an unbiased view on immigrants. If we continue to see people as threats, they become less human to us and when that happens shocking and tragic things become possible.

I believe we need to confront our own ignorance and biases in a non-judgmental and objective way. It is important also for Bahamians to express their fear, whether we feel it is politically correct or not – so we can work through it. I believe that through expressing of these fears in an environment that seeks to promote understanding we will be able to see our prejudices and fears for exactly what they are.

At a screening in Nassau, a young Bahamian man addressed the audience and described the arrival of immigrants in terms of life in a house: “Imagine you have a house and you have only a limited of food inside your house, then slowly people start to come into your house and want the right to sleep in your bed, take over your kitchen…Our country is our house and we have a right to protect it.”

There were a few people who agreed very enthusiastically. Erin Greene, an activist and a panelist at our screening told the young man: “You did not build that house by yourself, you did not make the materials, you did not manufacture the supplies. Who maintains it for you? Who will do the work on the house that you are unable to do or will not do?”

The topic of illegal migration is such a sensitive subject in our community that it is a rare event that we are able to listen to one another without judgment or fear. This is the purpose of art. Art finds the common human ground that allows every viewer to identify with a human face. This opens a door that can bring about change.

More Features on the blog

Passage – a film by Kareem Mortimer

Kareem Mortimer

KAREEM_MORTIMERKareem Mortimer is a filmmaker from the island of Nassau in the Bahamas. He wrote and directed the short film Float (2007) that won five festival awards and was distributed in North America, Germany and Austria. Moving Pictures Magazine crowned Float as one of five short films to look out for and Kareem as a writer/director to watch. He also directed the documentary I Am Not A Dummy (2008) and a debut feature film Children Of God (2010) which won 18 awards. Passage won an African Movie Academy Award for Best Short Film from the Diaspora.