Written for and published in Caribbean Beat magazine (July/August 2017)
If making films in countries with established industries is gruelling, imagine trying to make them in the Caribbean — where, more often than not, the infrastructure doesn’t exist. Still, auteurs eager to tell Caribbean stories on screen soldier on, often getting boosts from regional festivals like the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (TTFF), where stronger local features reliably sell out — as was the case with Trinidadian film The Cutlass.
Based on a harrowing true story of a young Trinidadian woman fighting for survival after being kidnapped, The Cutlass delivered audiences compelling performances and stunning cinematography in an impressive feature debut for screenwriter Teneille Newallo and director Darisha Beresford (who both, with editor Drew Umland, served as executive producers). It ultimately copped the 2016 TTFF’s Best Trinidad and Tobago Feature Film and People’s Choice awards — after also winning the Best Film in Development award at the 2012 Festival.
It was nothing less than a labour of love for Newallo, who — having lost her best friend to violence — wanted to find a way to empower women through film. “When I first heard this story, directly from the mouth of the victim, only days after it occurred, I was blown away by her courage and modesty. Most people that knew her and knew of what she went through never really got the details or understanding of what she truly experienced,” she explains. “I wanted everyone to understand.” Beresford was similarly passionate about the film’s power to raise pressing local issues — the lack of support for victims of abuse or those suffering from mental illness, and the connections between poverty and violence. Their commitment to the story buoyed the three producers through years of script development, fundraising, and finally making the film in the remote forested mountains of Trinidad — on a tight budget and production timeline. And once it had finally made its regional premiere, could the film’s local success translate internationally?
The producers have signed with Los Angeles-based Leomark Studios, and The Cutlass had its international market premiere at the Marché du Film (the business counterpart of the Cannes Film Festival) last May, as part of Leomark’s new market line-up. “Many buyers and distributors that have seen our film are impressed, but they are not exactly sure what to do with it . . . yet,” says Umland. The biggest question for this and other Caribbean films appears to be who the market is, and whether the films will translate — sometimes, literally. “We have been told by some that our dialects are challenging, and then by others that the dialects are attractive,” says Newallo, “so I think there is still a bit of reservation about whether or not the world is ready for Caribbean film.”
Wild Eye Releasing has bought the (non-theatrical) North American distribution rights to The Cutlass, and Leomark will distribute around the rest of the world. But the producers have retained the theatrical distribution rights to the Caribbean, Canada, and the United States, managing cinematic releases in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and other Caribbean territories this August, followed by Miami and Toronto and other select North American cities. Once successful, it’s a business and distribution model they hope other Caribbean films can successfully emulate.
“There is no real market yet for Caribbean film, [which] means that Caribbean filmmakers today have the opportunity to consciously create our own market,” says Newallo. The three producers are confident regional filmmakers can carve out a niche in the international marketplace. “As long as the stories are universal and the target audience can emotionally connect with the characters,” adds Beresford, “there is no reason why Caribbean films can’t be showcased internationally.”