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2004-12-22 19:52:26

Film Festival's 'Where I'm From' Begs Tolerance

Where I'm From - a full-length documentary which laid bare for all the world the devastating effects of the HIV/AIDS pestilence which has been sweeping through The Bahamas.

Last weekend when the Hollywood robbery flick Oceans Twelve premiered in North America, shooting to the top of the money-making chart with ticket sales of $40.9 million, the film, starring George Clooney and Julia "Pretty Woman" Roberts, also opened at the Atlantis Theatre on Paradise Island as a glittering part of the Bahamas International Film Festival.

The dream and brainchild of Bahamian Leslie Vanderpool, the Festival, which ran from December 9 to 12, showcased a total of 74 films from around the world, including 12 from the Caribbean, six of them by Bahamian filmmakers.

Jointly sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism and Atlantis Paradise Island Resort, the Festival weekend was a first-ever event of truly spectacular proportions, bringing together an impressive cadre of international filmmakers.

To that mix there was added an eager congregation of local and foreign press folk and aficionados, students, political figures, and other personalities, all conspiring to lend yet another dimension to the cultural and touristic possibilities of The Bahamas.

In that connection, Prime Minister Perry Christie expressed the view that the festival "will place The Bahamas on the international stage as a place where culture and leisure can go hand in hand, and this will no doubt further enhance the reputation of our nation in the world."

Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe expressed the hope that through the Festival's attendant panel discussions, retreats, interaction and exchange of ideas, "both Bahamian and foreign filmmakers will get a better appreciation of the depth of The Bahamas as a local destination."

Leslie Vanderpool, founder and executive director and daughter of Hospital Lane's Dr. Cyril Vanderpool, explained that the Festival, with its theme, Spirit of Freedom, "is committed to enhancing the cultural arts and the growth of a cinema-literate society in The Bahamas."

Yet of all the 74 screenings in the Atlantis Theatre and Galleria Cinemas, champagne soirees in Paradise, cocktail receptions at Hard Rock Café and Mountbatten House, and panel discussions and workshops at Ardastra Gardens, there was something of singular significance on the Festival's agenda.

It was an item which forced the sensitive viewer, from home or abroad, to absent himself from the felicity of the overall Festival, at least for an hour and a half or so, and focus on a leading social scourge the otherwise outstandingly successful Bahamas faces.

At the Galleria Cinema on John F. Kennedy Drive on Sunday afternoon, a near-capacity audience viewed, first, an 18-minute film short called Amal, which told of a simple Indian taxi driver who epitomized honesty, humble dignity, and decency.

The paradoxical twist of the exquisite piece, however, was that Amal endured a challenge in his life which prevented him from experiencing the fruition of a wonderful dream any poor Indian - and the vast majority of them were and continue to be poor - would surely savour.

What followed at the Galleria, however, was Where I'm From, a full-length documentary which laid bare for all the world the devastating effects of the HIV/AIDS pestilence which has been sweeping through The Bahamas from at least the mid 1980s, and which has earned for this country a dubious distinction as the leader in the disease in the English-speaking Caribbean.

It was perhaps a classical irony that the well-researched and documented film depicting the gore of this grim and unfortunate plague afflicting The Bahamas should have been an integral part of such a positive and excitingly promising new aspect of cultural enterprise in this country.

Where I'm From was offered by the film's director, Maria Govan, as a proud example of the careful documentation, superb photography, dance and music prowess, and insightful professionalism possible right here in The Bahamas renowned primarily for sun and sea and elegant gaming.

Yet, intentional or not, Where I'm From came perhaps at precisely the right time to heighten public consciousness of a social blight which is killing, infirming, and emotionally maiming thousands of individuals and their families in The Bahamas.

The film came barely 12 days after The Bahamas joined the rest of the wounded and suffering globe in marking World AIDS Day.

The promo noted that Govan's Where I'm From, which was produced by Bahamians Erica Robinson and Kareem Mortimer, "delves into the realities of living with HIV/AIDS in The Bahamas . . . the first of its kind to explore the many layers of the Bahamian experience cinematically, unveiling the shadow underworld of cocaine addiction while exploring emerging activism, and reinforcing the power of creativity and music as a vehicle of healing."

But that brief newspaper feature description of what was to come severely minimized the passion and the pathos of Maria Govan's descriptive telling of a story of slow human depreciation and exhaustion of lives - often of youthful innocents - wantonly wasted through promiscuity or overindulgence, or else forced upon weak Bahamians through ignorance or circumstances of abject poverty.

The film's bleak excursions through lives in residence at Glenroy Nottage's All Saints Camp for addicts and AIDS patients, undoubtedly, for the first time for hundreds of Bahamians, at last on the big screen presented a stark in-your-face exposition of human existence beyond the pale of that dark and often still only whispered slice of local life.

Not since Debbie Bartlett's Bay Streets documentary on cocaine use and addiction on ZNS TV 13 in the late 1980s has anyone dug so deeply into the gloomy vortex of an unconquerable Bahamian social calamity which continues to touch the lives and the families of the scrounging and the well-heeled, the high and the mighty in the Bahamian society.

A woman confessing she sells her body to support her drug habit, an addict happily packing his "pipe" with crack then lighting up for the ultimate high, ghetto dogs stuck in the act of copulation, and the mournful faces of little children never losing hope that their errant mother would return - all that, and more mutilation, was the stuff of which Where I'm From was made.

And the children's hope consisted chiefly in Glen Nottage's courageous camp of salvation on a backwoods New Providence village site which once outcast lepers in The Bahamas called home. There Nottage cares compassionately for the modern outcasts of the community, even conducting what appeared an Episcopal Eucharist and offering consecrated wafers to the diseased communicants.

There was hope, too, in the frequent interspersions of the musical stylings of the talented Andrew Jones, and AIDS suffer for more than 20 years, who has used his affliction as armament to fight for acceptance and tolerance for others, singing in Lower Manhattan in New York and on the glistening beaches of the islands of The Bahamas.

His music comes through again and again, like a beautifully haunting idée fixe, constantly reminding that the virus is not scornful or shameful death, so long as there is hope and tolerance and understanding.

Indeed, that hope and that plea for tolerance and understanding pervades the whole film, and is perhaps voiced most poignantly by the Rainbow Alliance's Helen Klonaris, apparently an early lover of Andrew Jones, who tearfully reminds viewers - and especially disdainful Bahamians - that we are inescapably our brothers' keepers, no matter what the condition or predicament of the sisters and brothers.

That was the hard-hitting message of Where I'm From, and quite apart from accolades Maria Govan deserves for the film, Leslie Vanderpool must be applauded for, accidentally or otherwise, making the film an intrinsic part of her wonderful vision for the Bahamas International Film Festival.

It is now left only for a whole "Christian" Bahamas to buy into that healing vision which truly captures a Spirit of Freedom . . . for what it's worth.

by P. Anthony White
For The Punch - Issue 16 December 2004 

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