The folklore in Trinidad and Tobago about the prized member of the catfish family known as the Cascadura (and in Guyana and Brazil as Hassar), speaks ominously of:
“Those who eat the Cascadura will, the native legend says, wheresoever they may wander end in Trinidad their days,”
For wanderlust T+T native sons like Sam Selvon who wrote Those who Eat the Cascadura and film maker-Damian Marcano who launched Chee$e at the I Max Cinema, Port of Spain this week, painful evidence of this sense of incompletion, this void, is obvious in their world-straddling artistic efforts.
“Because (the late) Sam Selvon seemed to be a simple and unpretentious man, and because his writing seemed the same way – funny, sad, bittersweet, natural – people thought he was a literary lightweight. A serious mistake”, wrote Jeremy Taylor in Caribbean We Beat magazine” in 1994.
“In many ways, Sam Selvon was an improbable candidate for international literary success. He was born in south Trinidad in 1921, close to the cane-fields and the oilfields, and the sounds and smells and feel of rural Trinidad stayed with him all his life.
“When I come back here to Trinidad,” he told film-maker Bruce Paddington in an interview, “I hear the kiskidee in the morning. You can identify yourself with the soil and the feeling of those sounds, and you instantly become part of the land.”
As a boy growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, Damian Marcano often spent his days at play in the streets of his community of Morvant/Laventille, in east Port-of-Spain. He migrated to the US at the age of 12, and later enrolled at Ohio State University, intending to study medicine.
Instead he moved to New York and became a web design programmer, then entered the world of filmmaking.
Currently based in Los Angeles, Marcano made his first film, the charming short The Little Boy and the Ball, in 2011. Now he has returned to the streets he knew as a child to shoot his first feature, the gritty drama God Loves the Fighter, the story of Charlie, a young man down on his luck who reluctantly gets drawn into working for a drug-dealing gang leader.
In a chat with people of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, Marcano talked about his journey to becoming a filmmaker, the making of God Loves the Fighter, and the charge that Caribbean filmmakers are only content to show the negative side of life in the region.
“God Loves the Fighter is a portrayal of a few characters’ lives in east Port-of-Spain. Essentially these are people who live in all the communities of the hills, Morvant, Laventille, Belmont, Beetham—all these places.
It’s a portrayal of their life and some of the circumstances that they face trying to just do the everyday things that you and I do. The story follows Charlie, who’s a young man growing up in Port-of-Spain. He needs to earn some money; he’s down to his last dollar. He goes on a very interesting path of finding a job. Our female lead is Dinah, a prostitute who finds time to go to church. Eventually their stories intertwine amongst all of the other characters’ lives”.
In a far different setting, Marcano directs his attention for Chee$e island countryside to a “tired of monotonous place” on the northern coast of Trinidad known as Turtle Village (or “Behind God’s Back”, as the locals call it) where “Skimma dreams of seeing something different.
“But notwithstanding his constant complaints about his small village, after receiving the news that he has gotten Rebecca pregnant, Skimma comes up with a plan”.
Taking advantage of skills honed alongside a tourist man cheesemaker, Skimma embraces a new profession: the village weed supplier. It quickly becomes evident that everyone wants what he’s selling – even local Rastaman Osiris. He is faced with making some money to provide for his new child and keeping his business out of reach of the law.
Quite beyond the ambition of the violently colourful characters in the works of Selvon and Marcano, there always lurk the those figures who are symbolic of the deeper need of the “small island” man to venture outside of the narrow strip of land to which he often feels condemned.
“One of the problems that I see is that in our community of the hills, if you will, or just east Port-of-Spain, there’s so many territories a young man can’t go, and I didn’t grow up that way. So it was very important for me as a young man from there to team up with other young people from the same community”, Marcano stated.
Years after God Loves the Fighter, he found himself caught in an emotional trap – frantically seeking to recover the lost boy of Morvant, seeking to connect with the very successful man he had now become after his flights abroad, but to no avail.
“I need (Chee$e score write and actor) Lou Lyons! I need Akil (Skimma) Williams: I need all of you to truly celebrate the great success we can all become together!”, Marcano shouted at the top of his tremulous voice to the packed audience at the Chee$e Gala.
“For me and my wife Alexa, it’s no longer about money. We have a lot of that from the business I am getting overseas. It’s about healing a wound that’s causing pain from deep down inside in a place that’s well concealed but always festering. Something I cannot unravel or understand”, he said.
“It’s about finding our greatest elusive self in these insignificant-looking little islands where white people relax on the beaches and none of them take the musicians, singers and dancers seriously”.
This is why it’s so easy to miss the key figurative narrative of Lou Lyons acting as the Obeah Man who sometimes into the absent father of Skimma who kept following a seemingly impossible dream to leave a place where one Prime Minister – the late ANR Robinson – was flabbergasted after shouting to his troops to “Attack at Full” force under siege from Muslim terrorists in the Parliament – to discover that no soldiers came forward.
And what about the response by former Attorney general Karl Hudson-Phillips to me when I asked him why he had ventured to go for the position of Prime Minister of Sweet T+T ?.
“As a black Caribbean Law student in London, I was once disturbed by a commotion outside the bus I was boarding. An old man had dropped dead and people who buzzed around, were whispering that he was a former governor of a British territory called Trinidad’, Karl recalled.
“So I told myself, if a former governor of my home-land, Trinidad could lay dead in the streets like a dog, (he now lapsed into the TT vernacular) What de hell am I stayin’ in these white people country for, man?”
That’s why he decided he came back home to get involved in politics.
Similarly, Sam Selvon found himself coming back, as recounted by Jeremy Taylor:
“By the middle of the afternoon, a Caribbean classroom can be a sweltering place, with the temperature in the mid thirties and 45 adolescents – truculent and perspiring, restless and drowsy – deeply disinclined to debate niceties of English grammar, punctuation and comprehension”, Taylor wrote about Sam Selvon’s recollection as a school teacher in Trinidad.
“It was difficult to get too excited about literature either: no matter how hard you worked at Shakespeare or Steinbeck, the agonies of Scottish kings, Roman generals and misunderstood Moors seemed impossibly far away as the afternoon wore on.
“I used to feel it as a teacher too, and liked to abandon the curriculum when time allowed and simply read. We would dig out stories, plays, extracts from novels, and read them aloud round the class, different voices taking each character. It felt a bit like playing truant, enjoying writers instead of solemnly studying them, and the faint sense of illicit activity encouraged weary classes to humour me”.
As Taylor saw it: Somehow, Sam Selvon always managed to speak to those youngsters through all the boredom and the heat. Once we got into stories from Ways Of Sunlight or another episode from The Lonely Londoners, they perked up, they were laughing, anxious to turn the pages and read more, competing to read a character’s lines, and cross when the class was over.
“Those students were seeing themselves in a book: the way they spoke, the way they thought and laughed, the way they were. Literature was no longer about other people’s lives and tribulations, it was about themselves. Selvon brought those classes alive through a delight in self-recognition”.
“The truly joyous factor of the film is that we get a full sense of life-hood in the small Caribbean island. The language/dialect, the people and environment really give ‘Chee$e’ its pleasant vibes through the pleasure and displeasures of our main character Skimma, marvelously played by Akil Williams”. the writer quotes Damian Marcano in Film Shortage.
“As far as they were concerned, I had their trust. So the pressure was on. And after the edit I wanted to offer up the first episode as a “sacrificial lamb” of sorts. Let’s see if the people like it. Let’s see if they like CHEE$E. We all like it, but some of us smoke so who really knows”
Red Mango Reviews Head Writer Nevile Jules put it this way on August 4, 2021:
“While chatting with a member of the TT film industry about my Caribbean film industry (Cariwood) coverage for Red Mango Reviews they mentioned two shows to check out—Chee$e and Fish (sounds delicious, right?).
And for this article I will be checking out the first of these recommendations, 2015 comedy crime drama Chee$e Episode 1; I haven’t seen any other episodes so I believe it’s stuck at the pilot stage.
“What stands out immediately about this show is the high production quality. Chee$e looks very polished and I could easily watch it on major streaming platforms like Netflix. There is also subtitles for the Trinidadian dialect which adds to the international marketability of the show”
Even so, while we may be cautious about listing the works of Selvon and Marcano with historical classics like Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, readers will surely admit that for these and other authors, the journey is the same.
And, like Skimma in Marcano’s Chee$e, you may never see a way to get out of the stifling space, but – once out – you know for sure that you can never completely get back in.