Caribbean People: Filmmaker Euzhan Palcy gives back

By Colin Rickards

euzhaneliz2TORONTO – When award-winning filmmaker Frances-Anne Solomon announced her intention in 2005 of staging a Caribbean-focussed film festival in Toronto I recall a naysayer commenting: “It won’t work. Frances-Anne is dreaming.”

The lady was wrong in her assertion, because, though on a modest scale, the first Caribbean Tales Film Festival did work, and worked very well. She was right — though not in the way she meant the phrase — that Solomon was “dreaming.” She was also making the dreams into realities: The 4th Caribbean Tales Film Festival — a four-day visual feast — ended last Sunday.

“It is Canada’s only standalone festival showcasing the best of Caribbean cinema from around the world,” Solomon says with justifiable pride.

Featuring local and international Caribbean cinema, the Festival brought together full-length films and shorts, stories and documentaries, by Caribbean or Caribbean Diaspora filmmakers from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, the UK, Africa, India, the U.S. and Canada.

It has been said that the respect and esteem which any film festival enjoys can be gauged by the calibre of the guests — not just the filmmakers who attend to screen their work — the established professionals in the industry, who attend because they want to be part of it all.

Consequently, it was an enormous feather in Solomon’s cap when Martinique-born filmmaker Euzhan Palcy enthusiastically responded to an invitation to come to Toronto and play an active role in her Festival.

“Caribbean film festivals are always important to me,” Palcy, who flew in from Paris, told me. “It has always been my dream to be able to connect — and connect with — people in the Caribbean who are making films.”

She was the first Caribbean woman — and also the first woman of African descent — to direct a movie for a major Hollywood Studio movie. This was MGM’s 1989 South Africa-set film “A Dry White Season,” starring Donald Sutherland and Susan Sarandon, with a cameo appearance by Marlon Brando, which earned him an Academy Award Nomination.

Euzhan — it is pronounced Urzan — Palcy was already a fairly seasoned director, producer and writer by then, having made her first TV film, called “The Messenger,” for Martinique television at the age of 17.

She told me that she was so certain that filmmaking was what she wanted to do that when she went to the Sorbonne — University of Paris — she not only took Literature, Theatre and Opera, but also enrolled to study Cinema at the Rue Lumiere School.

At the age of 14 her mother had given her a novel by Josef Zobel about sugarcane cutters in Martinique, and she used it to direct a short film called “The Devil’s Workshop” in 1982. The following year she directed a full length film version of the book under the title of “Sugar Cane Alley.”

It won Palcy a Best First Film award from the French Academy of Cinema and the Silver Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival. Since then, she has won awards at the famed Cannes Film Festival and elsewhere, and received French civil honours as a Chevalier in the National Order of Merit, and the Legion of Honour. Yet even with her international adulation she has remained grounded.

“Remember where you come from,” Palcy urged the young filmmakers attending the Festival. “Never forget. Always go back — and give back!”

She deliberately includes young would-be filmmakers on the sets of her films, to give them an understanding of the craft, and her director/producer — and writer — credits are significant.
They include an important 1994 three-part documentary on Martinique’s literary giant Aime Cesaire, who died last year. It was called “A Voice for History.” Her 1999 TV film for ABC called “Ruby Bridges” was about the six-year-old African-American girl who integrated the New Orleans’ elementary school system.

Palcy was last here in 2001 for the premiere of her film “The Killing Yard” at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was about the Attica Prison Riot of three decades earlier — and its official cover-up — and starred Alan Alda and Morris Chestnut.

“I pick my stories,” Palcy says. “I have a point to make.”

She was guest-of-honour at a lunch on Saturday, during which she was publicly interviewed by Trinidad-born author Elizabeth Nunez — who came up specially from New York — and answered audience questions. “A Dry White Season” was shown that afternoon, she received an Award of Honour on Saturday evening and “Ruby Bridges” was screened on Sunday.

Supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Caribbean Tales Film Festival had the theme “Caribbean Film — A Tool for Education and Social Change” and featured some hard-hitting documentaries, as well as films depicting social problems in the Caribbean and the Caribbean Diaspora.

“Caribbean film is palpably taking off,” Solomon says. “There has been an explosion of work over the past three years, but filmmaking is a back-breakingly hard profession, and a lot of us work in isolation.”

Her Festival opened with the Canadian premiere of “Carmen & Geoffrey,” a fascinating documentary about the lives of dancer, choreographer and actor Geoffrey Holder and his dancer/choreographer wife Carmen de Lavallade.

Solomon was running on adrenalin. She has just successfully presented her play “Lockdown” at the Toronto Fringe Festival, and tells me that it may in due course also become a film, as was the case with her stage play “A Winter Tale,” which went on to win awards at many international film festivals. The DVD was launched last Saturday.

For the record, Frances-Anne Solomon is still dreaming — of making next year’s Caribbean Tales Film Festival, the fifth, even better.

Photos: Euzhan Palcy in conversation with Trinidadian author Dr. Elizabeth Nunez; being interviewed by journalist Colin Rickards; and receiving the CaribbeanTales Film Festival’s Award of Excellence from Founder/Artistic Director Frances-Anne Solomon.

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