The Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival: Something for everyone

jonathan ali

This year, the T&T Film Festival hosts its ninth consecutive celebration of films created in this country, in the region and the diaspora. Mark Lyndersay speaks to its editorial director in this interview for T&T’s Guardian.

It’s been a steadily growing enterprise, recording 18,651 attendees for its screenings in 2013, the lion’s share of which were viewed during the festival proper.

The TTFF’s editorial director, Jonathan Ali, sat to answer some questions posed by MARK LYNDERSAY (a customer-focused devil’s advocate), about the state of the festival and where it seeks to go in the future.

Q: Who does the film festival hope to attract as an audience? For the few shows that I’ve attended it seems to be largely the same folks over and over, with a lot of cross-pollination between the world of art galleries and the Lit Fest.

A: You clearly need to get to more screenings, Mark! We strive to be diverse in our selections when programming the festival, and the increasing, and increasingly diverse audiences reflect this.

The audience that will go to see the two-hour-long avant-garde ethnographic documentary set in Nepal (Manakamana) is not necessarily the audience that will go to see the local farcical comedy A Story About Wendy 2, which is again perhaps not the audience that will go to see Bad Hair, a Venezuelan social-realist drama about a young boy obsessed with straightening his curly locks.

Who does the film festival hope to attract as participants? Is there an overarching agenda or mission that guides the selection process and the efforts to bring new film-makers into the festival?

The festival’s main mission is to show the best new films by filmmakers from T&T, the Caribbean and the diaspora. We also seek to help develop the local and regional film industry by hosting workshops, panel discussions, presentations and so on.

So we seek to attract the filmmakers who are making these films, and who are enthusiastic about what they are trying to do for the industry and be a part of it all.

We also hand-pick professionals from the international film industry—directors, producers, funding agencies, distributors and more—who are interested in what’s happening in the Caribbean.

Many people are interested to come and work with our film-makers, share information, network, and make real and lasting connections that can get Caribbean films seen by a much wider audience.

With the exception of God Loves the Fighter and the A Story about Wendy filmlet, have there been other films that have drawn in a popular audience?

Every year multiple films play to sold-out or near-sold-out audiences during the festival. Two examples from last year in addition to God Loves the Fighter would be Bruce Paddington’s documentary on Grenada, Forward Ever, and Miquel Galofré’s Jamaica-set prison film, Songs of Redemption.

And then, there were several screenings of packages of local and regional short films that were also sold out.

In previous years we’ve had films like Mariel Brown’s Eric Williams documentary and Remembering a Revolution, on the 1970 events, plus internationally acclaimed films like Beasts of the Southern Wild (whose director, Benh Zeitlin, was our guest) selling out multiple times.

We feel vindicated when we see these large audiences; we know we’re succeeding in our mission.

Is the entire film festival being staged this year with a blind eye to the runaway success of Welcome to Warlock? Even if it isn’t the kind of fare that usually gets screened, doesn’t it deserve some discussion or examination?

You said it yourself: Welcome to Warlock—which I have seen and admire, if more for its ethos than its aesthetics—has had unprecedented success.

The festival seeks primarily to provide a platform for local films—all kinds of films—that are yet to see the light of day, let alone any kind of success.

That said, there will be a number of panel discussions during the festival, and no doubt Welcome to Warlock will come up in conversation. In fact, I look forward to it.

What was the original intention of the film festival and what is its current mission if they aren’t still the same?

The festival began in 2006 as a much-needed forum for local audiences to see themselves reflected on the big screen.

That still remains a core intention, but the mission has broadened. We now show films not only from T&T and the Caribbean but also from independent world cinema, which has proven a hit with our audiences.

We also are working more than ever before to help develop, in association with several partners, including the T&T Film Company and the film programme at UWI, the local and regional film industry.

If we want to show local films, we realised we needed to help local film-makers get those films made. So absolutely, there are synergies between the two, there is interdependence.

Can you point to decisive successes that have emerged from the film festival? Have these served to provide leverage points for a local film industry?

The ever-increasing audiences at the festival show clearly there is a desire, a market for local films.

We are fighting a formidable battle: a century of domination by Hollywood, and, therefore, a public that by and large has traditionally not been able to respond to anything but the commercial American formula. (I love good Hollywood films, by the way.)

Again, the increasing audiences at the festival and the increasing number of local films being made are positive signs. We need to be patient. And we need the committed support, financial and otherwise, of those who can and should give it.

If you had to explain the T&T Film Festival to someone who has never been to one before, how would you describe it? Why should they attend?

The festival has many different components: great films of all kinds; relevant, affordable (usually free) workshops and other industry events; a chance for local filmmakers and cinephiles to interact and network with professionals from throughout the region and around the world.

But above all else, the film’s the thing. So I’d narrow it down and tell your hypothetical person to come to this year’s edition and see a certain film, an Indian film, called The Lunchbox. It’s a small movie, about how a mislaid lunchbox brings a young woman in a loveless marriage and a phlegmatic middle-aged widower together, without them setting eyes on one another.

It’s a spare, poignant, human drama, perfectly balancing sentiment and tact, with exquisite performances. If the person doesn’t find the film to be beautiful, tell them come see me and I’ll give them the cost of their ticket back. No, double the cost.

Guardian Media Ltd is an official partner of the T&T Film Festival. 

The TTFF runs from September 16–30 at MovieTowne PoS and Tobago, Little Carib Theatre, Film Programme building at UWI, Medulla Art Gallery, Alice Yard, Alliance Française, Hyatt Regency Hotel, UTT at APA, and Drink Bistro and Lounge.

All films at MovieTowne and Little Carib Theatre are $30 each.

At MovieTowne, students in uniform or with student ID pay $15.

Find out more at the festival’s Web site, http://www.ttfilmfestival.com or pick up a copy of the printed guide from MovieTowne or Little Carib Theatre.

An electronic copy can be downloaded here: http://issuu.com/ttfilmfestival/docs/ttff14_guide and for the dedicated cinephile, the festival app for iPhone and Android is available on the appropriate app store.

For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.tt/entertainment/2014-09-15/film-festival-something-everyone

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