WEEKEND FEATURE: The Ghost of Hing King Estate
Trinidadian entertainment writer Josanne Leonard speaks with Belmont-born international film-maker Horace Ove to talk about his latest movie based on true events shot in Trinidad in August 2006.by Josanne Leonard
PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad, October 5, 2007 - It is a sizzling hot Republic Day in T&T as I sit down with Belmont born international film-maker Horace Ove to talk about his latest project The Ghost of Hing King Estate a film based on true events shot in Trinidad in August 2006. A conversation with Horace is really a meandering through life, politics, events, people, history and of course the craft and business of film with the conversation always coming back to ourselves. As we speak, Horace shares some of his thoughts and memories of his early boyhood days in Belmont, moving to London and later Europe and his forays into the world of film and television. Though not known by many outside of the local film community, Horace went to the UK in 1960 to study film and has made several ground-breaking films and documentaries over forty years and continues to work.
Many times during our musings, he is animated as he recounts details of some of his films and is keen to share them, his mind sharp as ever, never mind it threatens to throw us off our task at hand, which is a deadline for this paper. One film that seems close to heart is his first feature film Pressure, the first ever by a black British director. With funding from the British Film Institute, Horace made Pressure (1975) a film based on a Trinidadian Windrush family and the harsh realities faced by their off spring being young, black and dispossessed in Britain in the 1970’s. Horace recalls collaborating on the screenplay with fellow Trinidadian, Samuel Selvon.
Says Horace: "I didn't make the film sitting in my living room. I went out with Sam and we researched it. It was Sam's first film script and as black Londoners we were aware of what was happening but when the film came out people didn't want to admit it was true. In fact they wanted to ban the bloody film but the critics saw it and insisted that it be released and today DVD’s of the film are still selling!"
I feel the tug in my heart as I listen to his anecdotes and marvel at his accomplishments mindful that we in this place (the Caribbean) carry on as if this business of making films, creating music, writing books and inventing dances to go international, now starting. And sadly how we defer to the Hollywood Shuffle hustlers who come through the auspices of our tourists boards, universities, film commissions and other foreign governments and agencies to teach us about building a film industry while Horace Ove, Euzhan Palcy (French-speaking Caribbean), Lina Gopaul (Jamaica) and many other internationally acclaimed film-makers from this region are lucky to be dusted off every so often for PR dross.
After spending a few hours with Horace at the Glencoe home of Annabelle Alcazar, former wife, long time working colleague and one of the producers of The Ghost of Hing King Estate, I kept thinking about how important, necessary even, it is to reconnect my son’s generation and those to come with our beautiful and accomplished history in film, music, literature and the visual and creative arts. The following is but a glimpse of Horace Ove extracted from that leisurely yet inspiring 'ole' talk with him. It is one I hope will continue with him and others like him in the region.
JL: Horace, you know we could break morning here when we start to talk so let's see how best we can edit ourselves as we go along (laughter from both). You said something very significant I think…." Trinidad prepared me for the rest of the world"….what do you mean?
HO: I was lucky to grow up in Belmont in the 40's and 50's. Belmont was an exciting place. There were people from all over the world…French, Spanish, Indian, African, British, Portuguese, Syrians, Germans and Chinese and maybe because of the size of the place, we all got to know each other. And this happened at all levels of society because we had to trade and buy from each other. The area taking in the Belmont Circular and Belmont Valley Roads was the shopping hub with folks coming down from the hills on donkeys from Gonzalez, Laventille and Trou Macaque to sell their goods. We never saw anything as 'mix-up' as the boys playing football in the Savannah and because we were as eager to learn about them, as they about us, we expanded our minds, found new ways of understanding ourselves, got curious about the world, saw ourselves in a social and political context. You know, the only time I heard my mother swear was when she said to us ‘we free. This family is free and mixed because we ---ked everybody. (laugh).
JL: What is it about this upbringing that has marked you so indelibly?
HO: Belmont was a rich cultural community. My deceased brother Neil Jones started Stromboli, a famous Belmont steelband. There were some other fascinating features about cultural life in Belmont all of which were pivotal in my own life. Firstly, a lot of the people who came from Europe brought with them their tradition of theatre and would stage plays in private homes. My family and others created theatre and everyone moved around to each other's homes to see these plays. Secondly, another powerful influence in Belmont was the Yoruba culture and again, the Yoruba followers would come out and move around with their drums for their various festivities and celebrations and the community would also attend the Shango feasts. I learned to paint in a room at the back of White Hall (Prime Minister's official Office) in a class conducted by a foreigner and was enthralled when Noel Vars, an Englishman who lived in Jamaica, produced one of Shakespeare's plays in the Botanical Gardens. In our home we spoke Patois and heard smatterings of different languages.
JL: And is this where your fascination with film began?
HO: Most definitely. The other side of this great cultural experience for me was the cinema. There were several cinemas all over the country and in Belmont we had the Olympic cinema which was a major influence on my life as well as others like Stefan Kalipha, my cousin, now a top actor in the UK and Mustapha Matura, an accomplished writer and playwright who also grew up in Belmont. A major character in our lives was the projectionist at the Olympic cinema, a man called 'No teeth Harry' who was a serious film buff. If we arrived late for a film or wanted to see part of a movie a second time, we would shout out to him from pit or balcony to run it again and he would do so much to the annoyance of the rest of the cinema fans. He did it though because we were the film freaks. We would then stand for hours outside the Olympic talking about the films we had seen. At that time too, a number of French and Spanish films were shown at the Astor and so as my fascination with films grew I decided to go off to the UK to try and study Film.
JL: What was that like?
HO: Ketcharse! When I got to England I didn't have any money so I couldn't get into film school. I had to do various jobs like a cleaner, packer, stevedore and one of the best (smile) was at the National Temperance Hospital working in the morgue cleaning up dead bodies. Sending me down to the mortuary was punishment for flirting with all the foreign European girls. Well I made those bodies pretty for their families and as it turned out I used a scene like that in my first feature film 'Pressure'. I also worked on a trawler with my cousin Stefan (the actor) catching fish in winter. We got hired because the darkies and foreigners were the only ones willing to work in the cold. Eventually I was able to earn enough to keep myself afloat. In between I was viewing films and eventually landed parts as an extra on films in Europe. My first real first job was in the film 'Cleopatra'. Elizabeth Taylor got tired of her lead Australian actor; fell in love with Richard Burton, gave him the lead and took the film to Italy. I got a part in the movie as a slave. Going to Italy proved to be a major turning point for me. I was lucky to be there at a time when the realist and surrealist cinema went beyond Hollywood. Plus I got all this experience in Europe observing how films were made so it really opened my mind. By the time I got accepted at the London School of Film Technique, I had wracked up a lot of knowledge about European cinema.
JL: How did you manage to get into film school being broke and all?
HO: I was lucky. When I did apply to the London School of Film Technique, the first film school ever, I got a grant. I was one of two black men in the school, the other being Yemi Ajibade, a Nigerian who became an actor and film-maker. You know I come back to how Trinidad prepared me for the world. A lot of my tutors were astounded about how much I knew about films just being a little black boy from the West Indies. The cinema I was exposed to here at home was alien to a lot of my English peers. The experience too of living in Europe for me was closer to Trinidad than England. In Europe they were making films about real people and what was going on in their heads, their minds, their dreams and it really turned me on and so up to today I'm still stuck with it!
JL: So would you say this realist/surrealist approach to film-making is your 'brand'?
HO: Most definitely, this is my brand even though I was into a few Hollywood directors like Elia Kazan who were tops but this is closer to me. It always has been and still is a major part of my life. Since I've been making films and even with the passage of time, I've seen that this style of film-making is still out there and has become very universal.
JL: Fast forwarding to the present, how would you describe The Ghost of Hing King Estate from that perspective, given that some of the reviews have said that parts of the movie are overstated, over dramatised etc?
HO: I brought that same approach to the making of this film. That's why you have the flashbacks, the dreams, the voice-overs and the points of view of the character (played by Susan Hannays-Abraham) going back into her life and how she observes life and talks to people. Although some people may say it's over dramatised, it isn't. Even as a low budget film, nothing was done by chance. I would never compromise my knowledge and years of making films even at the risk of ticking off the financiers and others working with me. My experience as a film-maker means that I go out and observe the real world and the characters coming out of that world. So when I began work on that film I knew how to direct the actors, I knew how I wanted to shoot it, the locations I wanted to use. I had to know when the actors were going over the top since most of our actors in the film came off the stage. I had to personalise it and tell them it was about their real lives for them to act the character coming out of the real life to get the right performance. I know that people scream and shout and bawl….this happens in Trinidad. While I welcome criticism, I would say that our problem is that Trinbagonians don't see many films on themselves, so may be that's why they didn't relate to it.
JL: Can you develop this idea a bit?
HO: Sure. Most people here only see American films and television, so when they relate to real life in the cinema or television, they relate to American films that have nothing to do with them or their reality. It is do with America and even American movies and films take real life much further. Maybe this is part of why we have a culture of crime in the country. Everybody is imitating the America culture so some youth takes up a gun and shoots up another youth, his woman or his mother. You're reading about murders everyday but are we questioning how much of it comes out of the cinema? It's not like people didn't fight when I was growing up but not in this cinematic Hollywood way.
JL: Let's get back to Ghost of Hing King Estate.
HO: Like I said previously. In this film, I'm only pointing out the reality that is us. This is a real story. We read about it but we don't see it. The only time we can see it is in a film. In The Ghost of Hing King Estate I tried to make the actors portray what real people do when they are angry or get upset with others. I'm not a foreigner talking about this, I grew up in this country and I've seen it. I see this country from top to bottom and so when I make a film like The Ghost of Hing King Estate, I'm telling one of our stories.
JL: How important is film and the moving image in helping us to see ourselves and tell our stories as you've just said?
HO: Very, very important. That's why most of my films, television features and documentaries are based on socio-political themes whether they've been made in the UK, India or the Caribbean. In all my works, I'm telling the stories of real people and their lives. Its not that I can't do comedic or action films or what are considered more commercial films. In fact, even the films I've made with US producers are about people's lives. I made two films with producer Dave Lacy – Native Son about renowned writer Richard Wright and the Emmy Award winning ‘Free to Dance' - a film on the history of black dance. This project brought me to Trinidad to interview Beryl Mc Burnie, Boscoe Holder and Molly Ayhee about the influences of the Caribbean on the black American dance experience. I also made the first in-depth film on the emergence of the skateboarding phenomenon in Los Angeles with Tony Alva and Stacy Perralta in the late 70's called Skateboard Kings. I've always made films to help society see itself and in that process hope that people can work things out by relating what they've seen to their own personal lives or the society around them. That's an important role of art and film is just one medium.
JL: Let's touch on the business of making films. It was difficult for you back in the earlier days of your career to get money to make films and I'm referring here to the UK. From your perspective as an international film-maker, what if anything is different in countries like the UK, Canada, US. Is it now friendlier to film-makers like yourself which by extension also means Caribbean films and film-makers?
HO: To answer your question right away, today Nigeria makes more films than the UK. The Nigerians started a film industry known as Nollywood because they were committed to it. They put their films on tape and now you have the DVD. As a film producing country, they surpass the UK and others. It's the same with Bollywood. There was a time when Bollywood films could only be seen in special places even here in T&T. These countries struggled, persevered and supported the development of their local film-industries and look at them today. So you can't just talk about a film industry with a bit of money here or there and expect it to become successful. Then there is the heart and soul of the thing…the craft of making films. If you really want to have a film industry with local people making films, you have to study every aspect of it. Film-makers or aspiring film-makers have to learn how a film is made, how it's put together, how you do a budget, what you may need or not need if you don't have the money. You need skilled producers, co-producers, script writers and others who've had the experience to teach so a lot of mentoring and training is needed here from among experienced Caribbean people and others who are accomplished in their respective fields. Before we get off this, let me tell you that my first break came with independent money when I made a documentary film on acupuncture called The Art of the Needle with Sidney Roseneil. Sidney had opened the first health farm in the UK outside of London and wanted to introduce acupuncture to the Brits so he paid for the entire production. A film-makers' dream is not to have to look for money and believe me, I do know what its like to have a film fold or be shelved because of no money.
JL: With all kudos to those working for the development of our film sectors across the region, and I leave Cuba out because Cuba does have a well developed film sector, what does the renewed buzz about ‘creating' a film industry mean to some one like you?
HO: Let me answer you in two ways. Firstly, you mentioned Cuba. Cuba has made brilliant films but the Cubans were smart. They studied continental film-making…the French and Spanish filmmaking and low budget film-making and adopted that in making their own films most of which would be considered low budget films but have international acclaim. I think our problem in the English speaking Caribbean is that we're trapped into Hollywood and we're trying to do what Hollywood does. And we can't if we're starting from stage one. I'm not saying you're not supposed to go and see Hollywood films and admire them but Hollywood has many, many years of making commercial films and they have many years of experience in the business and because of it have developed the infrastructure and models to dominate the rest of the world and sell their films because they control distribution and technology. We can't just look at Hollywood and say ‘let's go for that or let's do that here'. Secondly, we have to find film-makers and companies…out of Nigeria, out of India, out of South Africa, out of the UK maybe even some out of Hollywood, that are making very interesting films that get shown all over the world and try and work with them (co-productions) to try and build an industry with the sort of money and experience we have. We have to look at this in a realistic way.
JL: Horace, you know I have to conclude this part of our discussion but la luta continua. What's next and any final thoughts before we go to an intermission?
HO: I really want to commend everyone who worked on the film, The Ghost of Hing King Estate. TT$1.2 million is not a lot of money for a full feature film but we got it done. Francis Escagy wrote a brilliant script so it made my job that much easier. I hope all of T&T enjoys the film when it does have a full cinematic release. As for me, I have to head back out to the UK. My work continues and then there is the business of the Her Majesty The Queen conferring the Commander of the Order of the British Empire for my contribution to the UK film industry. Considering how controversial my films have been, this is quite a surprise but one I accept graciously.
JL: Well congrats and big love.