“Chee$e” is a Model of What Independent Filmmaking Should Be

Richard Brody reviews Trinidadian-born director Damian Marcano’s Chee$e, which he describes as “the exuberant adventure of a young man with big plans and big problems,” emphasizing that it is a model of what independent filmmaking should be. Read the full article at The New Yorker. [Chee$e is the ttff’s (trinidad and tobago film festival) opening film this year. See Chee$e to-open-ttff-22/.]

There’s a kind of cynicism so brazen that it plays like sincerity, and that’s all the more delightful when its playfulness is at the fore. So it is with the sly and hectic comedy “Chee$e,” the second feature by Damian Marcano, which is screening on Friday in this year’s edition of BAMcinemaFest, a vital annual showcase of independent films. Marcano (who has directed episodes of “Winning Time”) returns to his native Trinidad and Tobago to film a picaresque of a young man with big plans and big problems. The film openly proclaims its crowd-pleasing intentions without concealing the conflicts that lie beneath the surface.

Marcano moved to the United States when he was twelve, and “Chee$e” has an in-between state of mind. Its subject is an outgoing yet pensive young man who wants to get off the island; this dream is as urgent as it is vague, and it packs an ironic sting. The protagonist and narrator, Skimma (Akil Gerard Williams), is solitary, young, Black, and long orphaned. He lives in a remote area called Turtle Village, where he’s the hardworking assistant to a Mr. Ottone, a white Italian tourist who stayed and became the area’s artisanal cheesemaker. Early on, discussing life in Turtle Village, Skimma describes the local approach to well-off tourists: “We smile and play along, all in exchange for that almighty dollar. We suck onto the big fish in hopes that, when it eats, we eat.” American cultural tourists—i.e., moviegoers and the film industry that serves them—are the big fish Marcano is targeting; “Chee$e” is a virtual travelogue of a movie, cheerfully introducing outsider viewers to life on the island and in the village with a satirically loving look at the island’s personalities and customs, and landscapes and locales, packing a confrontational display of its sociopolitical crises.

With quasi-documentary curiosity, Marcano revels in the details of the cheesemaker’s art—one that Skimma masters, but the apprentice’s peculiar uses of that art are the engine of the drama. Skimma warmly regards Ottone as a “father figure”; he also considers his boss, who moved halfway around the world to follow his pleasure and remake his life, an example of what white people can do and he himself can’t. Skimma craves what he sees as their psychological freedom and independence, and he believes that only money can furnish it. What sparks his near-at-hand dream, the first step to getting off the island, is a restored vintage car, turquoise and resplendent, that he craves. He does acknowledge, with an even more distant view of its unattainability, the inner freedom that Rastafarians achieve through religious devotion, and he connects with a Rastaman named Osiris (Lou Lyons), whom he encounters at night on the beach. [. . .]

Against this background of grief and self-doubt, Marcano introduces a jolting, affecting spiritual dimension that’s rooted in the country’s religions and customs, centered on Osiris and on a “black-magic priestess” named Hortencia (Ayanna Cezanne). Along with the country’s distinctive cultural heritage, the movie dramatizes—candidly and energetically—its enduring, internalized colonial politics and mores. Marcano reveals a long-standing patriarchal, and misogynist, heritage of cavalier paternal irresponsibility. He emphasizes that abortion is generally illegal; he shows hectoring preachers who call the procedure murder and who hold the populace—indeed, many women—in thrall. The over-all air of rigid Christian moralism is strengthened by, as Skimma observes, the political absence of separation of church and state. Meanwhile, the country is depicted as oppressed by a hostile and racist police force (even its Black officers are anti-Black) that’s engaged in an absurd and destructive drug war, concentrating on marijuana; there’s no liberalization in sight, and the strict laws give rise both to exceptional cruelty and the authorities’ own absurd, self-defeating actions.

The stress and turmoil of Skimma’s antic adventures are brought to the screen with a sense of style that’s as tender and loving as it is probing and discerning. Marcano does his own cinematography and gives the impression of wielding the camera in the classically metaphorical manner of a pen, evoking his personal and immediate relationship to his subjects and settings. His tangy, off-kilter visual compositions, rendered in an acidulous, sun-washed Kodachrome palette, convey a sense of spontaneous wonder and enthusiasm and lend daily conversations and activities a distinctive cinematic identity. [. . .]

For full review, see https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/cheese-is-a-model-of-what-independent-filmmaking-should-be

[Photo above: Julio Prince as Peter (left) and Akil Gerard Williams as his friend Skimma in a scene from Chee$e.]

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