Cinema of Commoning 2
Symposium, Screenings, Talks
Fugitive Futures: Some Notions of a Caribbean Cinema Yet To Be

Curator and writer Jonathan Ali reflects on how the complex history, porous identity and distinctive geography of the Caribbean has shaped the region’s cinema – and what might lie in its future.

Un Gavillero en la Sierra (Ricardo Ariel Toribio, 2022)

Any speculation about a future Caribbean cinema must begin with an underlying assumption: that there is such a thing as Caribbean cinema. This is not as self-evident or as straightforward as it seems. The Caribbean—and therefore, Caribbean cinema—may exist, but what do we mean when we speak of the Caribbean, and by extension, Caribbean cinema?  

The Caribbean as a physical area may be a geographical fact, yet what we think of as the Caribbean region is more than an archipelago, scattered islands of varying size. All the places of the wider Caribbean basin, whose shores are lapped by the Caribbean Sea and that have known a particular shared history, including certain areas of the continental Americas, can lay claim to a porous Caribbean identity, an undeniable if sometimes ineffable Caribbean-ness. 

And what of that history? It began with the region’s indigenous peoples, connected across vast geographical distances by that azure-green sea, easily spanned in mighty canoes. Then came the violent rupture of imperial conquest, with those indigenous populations decimated, though not, as is often supposed, destroyed. Next, the brutality of the system of African chattel slavery, a people ripped from their culture and forced into a dynamic where they were branded as nonhuman. Later, when slavery ended, subaltern bonded workers were brought from Asia and elsewhere to continue an exploitative plantation-based economic system. 

So was this unintended experiment, the creation of the world’s first modern, capital-driven society, built upon migrant labour from all regions of the globe, perpetrated. The territories were united by common experiences: of exploitation, of oppression and attempted cultural erasure. Crucially, they were also united by resistance against these forces, from daily, individual acts of ordinary refusal on the plantations to collective upwellings of rebellion, revolt and escape, of maroon, guerrilla and gavillero resistance.

I’ll Be Back! (Hope Strickland, 2022)

Yet even with this resistance, the territories of the Caribbean and their inhabitants were at the same time divided by their separate, imposed, colonial identities. And upon gaining their formal freedom, the newly independent nations did not necessarily find themselves bound to each other in pan-Caribbean solidarity. Instead, with the sea that once connected the indigenous peoples now a dividing element, and a polyglot of spoken languages serving to further alienate them from each other, these fledgling countries cultivated new insular identities while often still in thrall to their departed European colonisers and, increasingly, North America.  

To truly speak of one Caribbean, and a common Caribbean identity, therefore, is a radically utopian act, one in defiance of over 500 years of colonial conditioning, neo-imperialist paradigms and narrow nationalist agendas. It is also to include the diaspora, the Caribbean’s essential hinterland, as it were, which continues to draw strength in its layered identity from, and continues to give back to, the region that birthed it.

Such an identity—capacious and inclusive, complex and irreducible—is the foundation upon which any Caribbean cinema, if it is to be of any real substance, must be built. It draws on particular examples of past cinema, including from a previous Caribbean and diaspora cinema, one that usually existed against all odds and made up with ingenuity for its limitations and lack of historical continuity. This new Caribbean cinema not only acknowledges the history of external exploitation of the region, but is aware of the ongoing economic underdevelopment and systemic inequality that continues to deprive many of its people, and is, directly or indirectly, a response to this reality. 

Haunted by ancestral echoes, this cinema is a fugitive cinema of resistance; of useful refusals and potent abnegations. Its first refusal is the classical mode of resource-intensive audiovisual production at odds with its economically impoverished production context. At once and always a decolonial cinema, it is a cinema not of material resources but ideas, whose every participant is alive to their contribution to a collective endeavour. A cinema, to quote Alice Diop, “made every day far from the centres of power, far from the places where laws are laid down, and where people sometimes claim to know what must be said and done or how it should be said done.”

Sous le ciel des fétiches (Caroline Déodat, 2023)

Not only is such a cinema made every day, by people for whom its making is a necessary act, but it is also an everyday cinema, which does not see cinema as separate from life but revels in it, in the ecstasy of its workaday poetry, which can also be a poetry of unrepentant opacity. A cinema of the ordinary and even the pedestrian, it refuses certain kinds of performativity and spectacle—so often for an audience not its own, an audience eager to consume the Other’s pain, as well as its joy—in the name of representation. 

Instead, it is a cinema alert to the Caribbean’s history of ruptures, where conventional chronology is undone, a history of perpetual beginnings and unceremonious endings, and of inescapable heterogeneity. It is, therefore, a cinema often nonlinear in narrative and hybrid in form, where unnecessary distinctions between reality and fiction, the speculative and the actual, are collapsed. Naturally, as a cinema concerned with what it needs to do as cinema and not as a saleable commodity, it is a cinema of variable duration, where time is free to repeat, and memory is invented and constantly remade.

As this is a cinema of refusals, both in terms of its forms and modes of making, it naturally follows that this cinema is not necessarily seeking funding from what are often extractivist, neocolonialist sources within a hegemonic and unequal system of financing and co-production models. Just as conventional forms of cinema invite those on the periphery to perform their traumas for a Global North gaze, so too the systems of funding, centred in the Global North, invite the historically marginalised to perform both their identity and their material lack in order to access the precious resources needed to make their films. 

Given that access to these resources is usually predicated upon certain predetermined ideas of cinema and culture, and therefore what types of cinema people of a particular culture should make, access is restricted to those who will make such a potentially stereotypical and imaginatively limiting cinema. Similarly, access is restricted to sites of exhibition, primarily the established film festivals that form the traditional route by which this cinema is largely seen, festivals to which the funding initiatives often form an indispensable adjunct as part of what is virtually a vertically integrated system of development-production-exhibition.

A Caribbean cinema of refusals would resist such sites of exhibition, if that exhibition meant a cinema—of “quality”, of technical perfection—forced to conform to the expectations of the established system. Instead, this Caribbean cinema seeks new platforms for its exhibition, new ways of discovering its audiences. This could mean festivals divergent from the conventional model; smaller, values-based events that privilege filmmakers as primary stakeholders, events not beholden to ossified cinema aesthetics and competitive film-festival policies. This could also mean more community-based exhibition initiatives organised around inclusion, solidarity and active spectatorship; liberatory spaces for a liberatory cinema.

L’homme-Vertige: Tales of a City (Malaury Eloi-Paisley, 2024)

Signs of such a Caribbean cinema, happily, exist, and are increasing. Films are emerging, everyday cinema made every day, by filmmakers working in the region and its diasporas, and sometimes moving across borders between these spaces, as their indigenous ancestors once did in their canoes. Refusing the toxic strictures of conventional models, this cinema refuses equally toxic ideas of essentialism, and is as open and mutable as the Caribbean itself. 

Yet also like the Caribbean, it frustrates conventional expectations; an unruly, hard-headed cinema, it is only consistent in its inconsistency, reasonable in its unreasonableness. It should therefore not be assumed that this cinema has no truck with visual pleasure, narrative coherence, or even spectacle. There is no moratorium on joy—indeed, joy as resistance is hardwired into its makeup. And refusing the laws of classical aestheticism does not mean that there is no room for “art”. In a Caribbean cinema of the future, as Julio García Espinosa said memorably of his imperfect cinema, “Art will not disappear into nothingness; it will disappear into everything.” 

More than anything else this Caribbean cinema is a fugitive cinema, a maroon cinema, a gavillero cinema; a cinema of bountiful, poetic resistance and flight. Sometimes it takes literal marronage as its subject, but that is only a point of departure for what can and will be a thousand fugitive filmic gestures, emanating from the region, its diaspora, and anywhere there are people dedicated to making films who feel a runaway impulse. It is both unnecessary and unwise to attempt a further description of this cinema. You’ll know it when you see and hear it.

Jonathan Ali has over fifteen years of experience as a film curator and writer. He is director of programming for Third Horizon Film Festival.