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Through a different lens

Posted on 31/10/2017
By Emma D'Costa

Despite extensive planning, when Commonwealth Writers start work on a creative project, we don’t always know the exact course it will take or what unexpected results it will achieve.

In 2012 we launched a capacity building scheme to give emerging writer-directors the opportunity to make a film on the theme of relationships. Five filmmakers – from Bahamas, Barbados, Canada, Kenya and New Zealand – made short films which highlighted issues affecting them and their communities.

The subject of one of these short films, Passage, by Bahamian filmmaker Kareem Mortimer, is now an award-winning feature film, Cargo, which won the Amnesty International Human Rights Award at the Trinidad+Tobago Film Festival recently. The Award recognises the importance of film as a vehicle for raising awareness about human rights issues and advancing inclusion and social justice. Films such as Passage and Cargo tell the personal story and human cost of illegal migration, putting dangers and suffering under the spotlight, and giving the viewers a different perspective.

‘Cargo examines the world’s refugee crisis from a very local perspective’

Kareem has described Cargo as the ‘feature version of (his) short film Passage’, feeling that ‘there was a great deal more to be said about human smuggling.’ Passage tells the story of a young Haitian woman and her brother fighting for survival while being smuggled into the United States on a dilapidated fishing boat. With over fifty screenings to date, including showings in New Zealand, Nigeria, Europe, the Caribbean and the US, Passage has also won a number of awards including the Best Diaspora Short Film at the Africa Movie Academy Awards 2014. It also made Kareem the first Bahamian filmmaker to show a film in Havana, Cuba, at the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema.

Inspired by true events, Cargo examines the world’s refugee crisis from a very local perspective. When his income, further eroded by his gambling addiction, proves insufficient to cover his son’s school fees, an American exile living in the Bahamas turns to human smuggling in order to raise desperately needed funds. He finds that he is good at this dangerous yet profitable enterprise —good enough to trust himself with smuggling his own girlfriend and her son to the US. But when faced with having to abandon refugees at sea far from Miami shores, he is suddenly forced to reassess his responsibilities.

The largest Bahamian film project to date, this latest feature from Mortimer is, as described by the Miami Film Festival where it premiered in March 2017, ‘a thrilling, vital call for empathy in troubled times.’ As Mortimer has said, he hopes the film ‘sparks conversations …. We live with this and have been living with this for the better part of 30 years. It’s time to address it. Bodies wash up on shore a couple of times a year.’ As well as portraying the human cost of illegal migration, the feature film shines a light on Bahamian culture, something rarely seen in films where the islands are more often simply an exotic backdrop.

‘The last scenes are gutting, yet your heart is left pounding for unexpected possibilities for survival and opportunity.’

One of the judges for the Amnesty Award, Trinidadian writer, activist and scholar Gabrielle Hosein, said that Cargo, ‘presents real life for many Caribbean people in layer after layer of devastating, intimate and disturbingly beautiful detail. The story-telling is deeply personal, yet feels global. You visually connect to the land and seascape of the Bahamas, where Mortimer’s film is based, but cannot help but think about such experiences cross-cutting our blue planet. The film follows multiple vulnerabilities and imperfections as experienced by Jamaican migrant workers, Haitians seeking a better life and middle-class deportees. It also explores the difficulties of family as they intersect love, sex and the global economy, and their complex inequities. While focus is on the disempowering effects of illegal migration, trafficking in persons, the drug trade, and domestic and retail sector workers’ low-status and informal labour, you are left gasping for breath … The last scenes are gutting, yet your heart is left pounding for unexpected possibilities for survival and opportunity.’

Four films from Commonwealth Writers’ latest film project, Commonwealth Shorts: Pacific Voices, are about to be premiered at the Hawaii International Film Festival on 10 and 11 November.

Six writer/directors from Tonga and Papua New Guinea attended script development workshops with local script editors before developing their own scripts and shooting their own films, with the assistance of BSAG Productions in New Zealand. Like the original Commonwealth Shorts, all the films highlight stories and issues which affect their communities, as well as shedding new light on Pacific culture and opening the world’s eyes to talented filmmakers.

Emma D’Costa is Senior Programme Officer for Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation.