Despite shadows, City on the Hill shines

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 11.17.05 PM

A review of City on the Hill by B.C. Pires for Trinidad and Tobago’s Guardian.

There are several contenders for the best moment in Michael Mooleedhar and Prof Patricia Mohammed’s Belmont, Picton and Laventille documentary, City on the Hill. They include a wonderful understatement of the threat of violence from folk group representative Gail Edinborough, the spoken-word poetry of Freetown Collective president Elton Scantlebury, the opening and closing video montages and the narration and insight throughout of 3Canal leader and Belmont native, Wendell Manwarren.

There is, though, one clear worst moment; regrettably, the filmmakers chose to put that at the very start, before the film has a chance to declare itself.

After a largely impressive 75-second-long montage of images of Laventille over a Maria Callas aria from M Butterfly, another great tragedy, the filmmakers throw up on the blank screen two paragraphs of dreadful text taken from the back of the DVD box, where it should have remained.

The text switches from American (“focused” instead of “focussed”) to British spelling (“epicentre”) and from the third person (“this film”) to the first (“we were unable”) without seeming to notice; or care. Its two paragraphs would be cut to two sentences without cliché—history here needs must be chequered, the artistic traditions are required to be rich and vibrant, the City on the Hill (with capital letters) is not at the mere centre of an evolution of a chequered history but at its epicentre (but at least it’s not at the epicenter, except perhaps when it is focused).

It is a pity, for the rest of the film ranges from entirely solid to exceptionally good, and there was no need for that text at all, apart from identifying the film’s impetus—which could have been done in the credits. It takes away a great deal from the film, severely lessens the impact of the M Butterfly video overture and adds nothing at all, unless one counts the negative apprehensions it instills in the viewer; the only good thing that can be said about it is that it scrolls far too rapidly for all but the fastest readers to appreciate quite how bad it is.

There is a quantum leap in quality from the language of the filmmakers to the language of the film itself. The bulk of the written script is taken from the finest of sources: the poetry of Derek Walcott (and Wayne Brown) and the prose of Earl Lovelace, from poems and fiction written specifically for Laventille, and performed, rather than narrated, by Wendell Manwarren. Yet another contender for the film’s best moment comes when, after images of neglect and deprivation, Manwarren deadpans Walcott’s great line from the poem, Laventille, that, “to go downhill from here was to ascend.”

When the film script moves away from being very well written it becomes very well spoken. Belmont’s best-known son, David Rudder, was unavailable at the time of shooting, but everyone given the chance to speak, including the most ordinary of Laventille and Belmont residents, becomes an orator.

Dr Asad Mohammed, Wendell Manwarren himself, Freetown Collective president Elton Scantlebury, Rudylynn Roberts of the Institute of Architects, traditional mas maker Glendon Morris, Henry Atonine of the Rada community and more all do the film, the architecture, the neighbourhoods of Laventille, Picton and Belmont and themselves, justice. (A cynical reviewer might opine that resident Preston Alexander’s enthusiasm for the view from Breezy Hill might have been counterbalanced by another great line from the same Walcott poem: “This is the height of poverty.”)

The best line in the film, though, if not its best moment, must be the massive understatement of Gail Edinborough of the North West Laventille Folk Group. “Sometimes we get pan music from both angles,” she says, gesticulating in either direction, “from Music Makers and from Despers… So probably that bring out that energy in us; [or it] could be maybe the gunshots.”

If there is a gaping bullet hole in the heart of the film, it is that the crime that, sadly but truthfully, plagues the area is entirely sidestepped. Any mention of it—such as Bolo Shankra’s comment that believers are too afraid to come to the Hindu temple on the hill—is deliberately faded out. Older footage of Witco Desperadoes in their own panyard high on the hill is not followed by more recent images of Despers scurrying from the Apsara car park in search of a rehearsal site where their members can be sure they will not be dismembered.

The filmmakers deliberately focussed on the positive aspects of the communities, and might respond that this was the story they chose to tell; it would seem, though, that so central a subject ought to be at least raised to be dismissed, and more substantially than in the assertions of talking heads that there was more to Belmont than bullets. Even if only two or three minutes were allotted to a statement of the single greatest challenge the communities face, the film would have been better.

And there was enough time to do it.

City on the Hill devotes ten of its 47 minutes towards documenting the many and varied beliefs of residents. From the conviction of Orisha shepherd Oliver Quamina that rams to be sacrificed should be virgins through Henry Antoine’s assertion that Rada is different from Shango to Bolo Shankra’s observation that all manifestations of deities spring from Shiva, all of the communities’ superstitions are reflected—but of the down-to-Earth reality of bullets whizzing through windows unbidden nothing is said.

The cinematography deliberately reflects the area as being full of turns and twists but there are still sometimes glaringly jumpy camera movements—explained by Michael Mooleedhar as resulting from their being filmed by handheld camera, to facilitate quick escape, because of the danger of shooting [sic!] in certain locations; apart from that, the cinematography, by Enillio “WizzKydd” Bynoe is outstanding, with the only possible criticism being that some shots—such as the one of the steps—could have been held a lot longer (as they well might have been in an ideal world, or even a less hostile environment).

The archival footage, too, is top-notch and particularly fascinating to watch from the perspective of an entire anthropological generation’s worth of bikini and beads being treated as though it were mas. The extended versions of the video of 60s Carnival bands and limbo dancers would make excellent extra features on the DVD.

One of the best sequences in the film is the ending. To the soundtrack of live African drumming (with one drummer sporting a Chelsea team shirt), two young boys flying kites high on the hill battle to cut one another’s thread. After an extended, very well-edited sequence, what might be the best image of Laventille so far made emerges: that of one kite flying higher while the other spirals down to crash, presumably lost forever.

It is a reflection of the truth about life everywhere, from Laventille to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea: despite all the positives anyone opts to focus on, one person’s ascension is usually paid for by another’s downfall; and it happens far more regularly, with far less fanfare, in East Port-of-Spain than in London’s West End.

Screening dates:

City on the Hill will be screened in the T&T Film Festival on the following dates:
• September 18, 6.30 pm, UWI
• September 21, 4 pm, MovieTowne Port-of-Spain
• September 23, 6 pm, Nalis, Port-of-Spain
• September 26, 11 am, MovieTowne Port-of-Spain

For the original report go to

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