Banyan News Archive
Banyan's Christopher Laird Honoured
In June this year (2009) Banyan's Christopher Laird, CEO of Gayelle the channel was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Caribbean Tales Film festival in Toronto and the University of the West Indies has awarded him an Honorary Doctorate (DLit).
Following is an interview with Christopher Laird by Anna Walcott-Hardy:
AWH. How old were you when you decided to become a film-maker? Who were your mentors?
CL. I guess all youngsters want to make movies but I first seriously expressed the aim of becoming a filmmaker at 19. Film schools were just starting up in London, Poland and a few other places but the way to a career in film still meant getting a job and working your way up in the industry. My parents were adamant that I get my degree first.
My mentors at that time were not necessarily filmmakers but the many Caribbean artists especially the writers whom I had the privilege of knowing in my parent's circle growing up and those whom I met in the Caribbean Artists Movement in London in the 60s. John La Rose, Andrew Salkey, Edward (now Kamau) Braithwaite and I remember Wilson Harris being very supportive of my exploring things visually when he saw an illustrated poem I had constructed at the time.
I knew that I had a strong visual sense and a strong sense of mission in terms of expressing the Caribbean reality. Film seemed to be the way but I didn't know how to achieve it. Remember, the time was the late 60s, and we were all caught up in the revolutionary nationalism of the time. Video was just beginning and that really was the way I entered filmmaking.
AWH. Do you have any projects you look back on and think – how were we able to accomplish this on such a limited budget, little resources and time?
CL. In the early days I guess almost all the projects seemed like that but as time went on one could not avoid a certain dissatisfaction or frustration that the work had to be so compromised by the lack of time, resources etc. It is an empty boast to say I had achieved X with nothing if X wasn't up to standard. Eventually I chose just those projects which seemed to promise a balance between resources and the quality of the outcome by accepting a degree of modesty in its design. Needless to say, when you get down to it, that promise is seldom if ever kept. You always want better. The growth of digital technology, however, has helped a great deal to achieve a semblance of quality with slim resources.
AWH. Do you have a pet project?
CL. Gayelle was a pet project decades in the making and I have to count my blessings that I have had a chance in my lifetime to be able to confront the dream in reality. It is still a pet project yet to be fully realised.
My other pet project has been to make a film of Sonny Ladoo's NO PAIN LIKE THIS BODY. I've been working on that for 35 years, ever since I read the book 1974. Tony Hall, Errol Sitahal and I have a great screenplay but that is as far as we have got. Meanwhile I have been working on a documentary on Ladoo and have filmed about half of it. Work on that stopped with the coming of Gayelle the channel.
AWH. Who or what inspires you?
CL. There are so many names I shy away from naming them for fear of those whom I will necessarily omit.
I have always been inspired by the giants of our Caribbean civilisation, James, Walcott, Naipaul, McBurnie, Chang, those who I was privileged to come to know as people as a young person growing up. I grew up in a house that was often filled with such presences inspired by the dream of Federation and I saw a whole generation crash and burn with its demise. That conviction of our unique and shared Caribbean genius lived on with the Caribbean Artists Movement and I like to feel that I act still in that tradition along with those who continue to share a vision of what we have to offer the world as a region.
While I would count my parents and people like John La Rose as significant guides, I would also admit the influence of those two generous and anarchic iconoclasts Ken Corsbie and Marc Matthews with whom I have been close over the years. If I have an ounce of their talent and spirit I would consider myself well endowed indeed. The recording genius Emory Cook is still someone I would consider a model for all my work with Banyan and Gayelle.
I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to work intimately with rewarding creative results with great talents like Tony Hall and his brother Dennis, Bruce Paddington, Errol Sitahal and Niala Maharaj and for the past five years I have had the incredible experience of working side by side with one of the most extraordinary human beings I know, Errol Fabien. Talk about inspiration!
AWH. For the past 30 years your productions have helped us to see ourselves, to better understand who we are as a people. With the challenges Banyan and then Gayelle have faced over the years what do you think is the future of film in T&T and of local programming in T&T?
CL. The conditions for Caribbean motion picture production are still difficult, but that is the nature of the business. Making films is never easy, anywhere. But as Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando says, 'you can't stop artists dreaming', even though for nearly half a century of television in the Caribbean we have had to dream other people's dreams.
Nevertheless there are hopeful signs: The Trinidad & Tobago Film Company is a huge step forward despite the fact that the government has slashed its already inadequate budget 50% this year; there are film courses at UWI and students are coming out of them with some promise. There are many young people out there now who fancy themselves as filmmakers. The technology is doing for film what it did for audio recording twenty years ago, putting it within the reach of everyone. When Gayelle started five years ago people came to us with ideas, now they come with DVDs.
AWH. Do you think that subsidizing industry would help the progression of film or video productions and raise the standard and does this come hand-in-hand with censorship and regulations that may deter creativity?
CL. Subsidies for film production are absolutely essential if the state is serious about developing the industry. Our market is so small massive investment over a long period is needed to kick start the industry and establish momentum. This includes investment in developing marketing and distribution channels and infrastructure. The industry will not develop if we don't increase the size of our market and that takes real investment. It is a matter of faith in the real resource we have in the region, the creative drive of our people. This is what has filled the world with Caribbean Carnivals, it could be a world full of Caribbean media tomorrow. But the record is more than dismal when it comes to our governments having faith in the worth of our people.
AWH .Where do you see Gayelle the Channel in five years?
CL. Gayelle the Channel in five more years will have to still be at the centre of Caribbean media origination one way or the other. It has already radically changed our expectations of our media. Compare the media environment when we began to that of today: the explosion of channels, television personalities , series, shows and people employed in the industry. Yet we are still the only free to air station in the region with close to 100% Caribbean content 24 hours a day.
In the next few years you can expect a deepening and sharpening of focus as economic realities are driven home but the shape of the industry in five years will be unrecognisable compared to today. The glory days of broadcast television are way past and the new media is poised to turn established forms on their heads. I expect Gayelle to be in the midst of that. At the very least we will have been the main inspiration and model.
AWH . You've always seemed like such a even-tempered, unassuming guy -are you excited about being honored by UWI by being on stage, in front of the camera for a while?
CL. I have always been a back stage person. I guess I have appeared unassuming because I know I am no genius and it has taken 300 productions and many years of work and self-analysis of my work to find my particular talent and become secure in that.
I am not a flashy filmmaker, if you see my hand while watching a film of mine then I have failed in some respect. The people in my films are the subject of the films not me. You know, I see my films like I see my father's buildings. If you walk into a Colin Laird building, its elegance and his exquisite sense of scale will make you feel the dignity and infinite possibility of being human I like to feel you get the same feeling when you watch my best work: the joy and pain, the intelligence and enduring courage that it takes to live our lives together in this world.
I am not alone in believing that in this society the fate of the truly innovative and committed artist is vagrancy of one sort or another, literally and/or figuratively. Our history makes us so brutal with those who don't accept their station. I have seen too many of our heroes talking to themselves in the street to not take it as a caution and know that those who have escaped that fate have done so because someone SAW them, recognised them, loved them, usually a nurturing friend or family member and they were wise enough to accept that love as more important than their dreams.
Recognition and appreciation too often happens here after death. So that the UWI has seen it fit to give me this honour is wonderful. I am deeply appreciative even while I feel the accusing press of the legions of those still unrecognised and restless warriors who precede me and with whom I still walk.
AWH. Do you have a favourite director/producer actor? Too many to name? Then can you list your five favourite movies/documentaries.
CL. The game of favourites has always left me feeling even more alienated because I don't understand the absolutes implied. "What's your favourite colour?" Surely it depends on the moment, the feeling, the context. I do have many filmmakers I admire greatly for one reason or another. There are many whose films I would go out of my way to see but I can't name one or two names of those I think are perfect. Some are good for one thing others are good in other ways and I take lessons accordingly. Perfection is a dream and an illusion and while it may be something for which we strive, if you have any wisdom at all you will know that it is the accident that often allows one to approach 'perfection'. That said, however, I must pay tribute to the Cuban filmmaker the late Thomas Gutierrez Alea who has to be one of the world's great filmmakers and certainly a Caribbean giant.
AWH. What are some of the projects that you are working on currently?
CL. Gayelle is and has been a totally consuming project for the past six years almost to exclusion of everything else though I have managed to make at least one documentary a year. I would love to have the opportunity to carry my Ladoo projects forward. The other is to be able to really finish my work on the Banyan archives, over 3,000 tapes of Caribbean culture over the past 30 years that still require more detailed cataloguing and digitising to make them more accessible.
After eleven years and three attempts to put our community television station on the air we've finally made it with two years to run on our licence. Gayelle:The Channel began transmission on UHF Channel 23 and Cable channel 7 on 16th February 2004.
Gayelle has now been granted a Major Territorial concession for the next ten years, permitting it to increase its free-to-air coverage to the whole of Trinidad. It will transmit now also on UHF Channel 27 from Gran Couva in Trinidad's central Range.
If you have broadband you can see it live (for a subscription fee in some areas) at www.gayelletv.com
Visit the developing Gayelle web site at www.gayelletv.com
In September 2002 Banyan's Christopher Laird travelled to Canada to begin work on a documentary on Trinidadian/Canadian novelist, Harold Ladoo. He researched and filmed interviews with Ladoo's family and colleagues. A second trip to Canada took place in March 2003 to meet with Canadian novelist Peter Such who will be in Toronto then. Such was one of Ladoo's closest friends and was instrumental in opening doors for this young Trinidadian to carve his space in the Canadian literary world – see Such's essay The Short Life and Sudden Death of Harold Ladoo. Filming in Trinidad of Harold's primary school teacher, school friend, sister and sister in law has been done.
What has to be done now is the most creatively challenging part, selecting extracts from the writing, scripting and shooting visualisations of those extracts and composing all these parts into the documentary.
See an article, The Uncompromising Eye, associated with the trip and published in the Trinidad & Tobago Revue.
Awards - July 2002
NDATT Vanguard Award for Banyan
The national Drama Association of Trinidad & Tobago has awarded Banyan their Vanguard Award as part of their annual Cacique Awards to the Theatre Fraternity. The award was made to Banyan in the name of its principals, Christopher Laird. Bruce Paddington and Tony Hall:
For their innovative, ground-breaking television programming, which introduced a number of directors, actors and designers to, and through, the medium of totally local film and video productions. Their brand of ingenuity has served to redefine the way we see ourselves and our region.
Banyan in the Guyanese rainforest with the Waiwai
March 2002 saw Christopher Laird of Banyan working with filmmaker and cultural activist Michel Gilkes filming a visit Michael organised to the Waiwai village of Masakeňari in Guyana with Guyanese concert pianist and music professor, Ray Luck, and piano technician Remington Ally to join the Waiwai's in a concert of music and song.
This was part of a larger project, called The Music of El Dorado, Michael is producing examining the place of the interior and its indigenous population in Guyanese society.
Two years ago a self styled British explorer, and eco-tour operator, Colonel Blashford Snell seeking to satisfy the Waiwai's desire for a keyboard, transported a grand piano (by air, canoe and dragging on a sled through the forest) to the village and had the whole gesture filmed by the BBC to produce a film called The Mission which portrayed the intrepid Colonel on his 'jolly jape'. Since then, the piano has lain relatively unused and deteriorating in a corner of the village church.
Michael hoped that by the combined efforts of Guyanese piano technician to recondition the piano and teach villagers simple maintenance and the skills of Ray Luck as player and educator that the musical talent of the Waiwai's would be augmented by the piano and in that way the piano would be 'indigenised'.
While Michael works on the larger project Christopher Laird worked with Michael to construct a 25 minute film around the rainforest experience, called Concert in the Rainforest the film explores with very few words, the questions of tradition and the passing on of tradition as well as documenting the tremendous chemistry resulting from Ray Luck's interaction with the people of Masakeňari Concert in the Rainforest has the distinction of being Banyan's first film in stereo. Sound engineer, Robin Foster, ensured the purest stereo recordings of Ray Luck's piano and the music of the Waiwai warmed by the faint breath of the gas lanterns during the concert and the magical atmosphere of the intricately thatched church.
The Children of Masakeňari join in the singing
James Isaiah Boodhoo
Front gallery is a programme of recording the lives and work of major Caribbean cultural figures. This project, in collaboration with is a major archiving project which will generate material which will not only be housed in the Caribbean Motion Picture Archive but also with the artists involved, The National Library and the Interamericas Foundation in New York which is providing funding for this exercise along with the Ford Foundation. Seventeen long interviews have already been videotaped in Trinidad. Transcriptions of the interviews are in progress - an extract of one of the interviews is posted as this month's archive extract. The project continues with other personalities in other parts of the Caribbean and resident in the diaspora.
The Cast of Gimistory
Banyan documented the Gimistory storytelling festival in the Cayman Islands in November 2000 and 2001. Hosted by the National Cayman Cultural Foundation, each night for some ten nights the cast which included tellers from Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad_ Tobago, Guyana, Ireland, US and Australia as well as the Caymans perform in an open yard in a different community in the islands. Besides documenting the performances, Banyan took the opportunity to talk in depth with the trailblazers of telling in the Caribbean, Ken Corsbie, Marc Matthews and Henry Muttoo. A two hour show based on the stories in the festival is now available and a short documentary on the festival and the art of storytelling in the region is in progress. Banyan is presently also in the process of experimenting in the production of a DVD version.
Ken Corsbie telling his Singing in the Rain
Banyan continues to work towards a document on the Dem Two/ All Ah We phenomenon of the 70s when Ken and Marc and others showed us all what was possible with our literature and our oral traditions.
After some thirty years developing this project Banyan's plans to produce a feature film based on No Pain Like This Body a novel by Trinidadian/Canadian author, the late Harold Sonny Ladoo have stalled for lack of finance. Development of the project continues as we search for partners and resources to actualise this project.
We keep at it and it will happen. The script is available online.
Some other projects still trying to attract distribution/funding whatever to get them out of the pilot stage and into production
Banyan's Uprising Series
A series of six short dramas focusing on the choices open to young people living in the Caribbean. At least one film from each of the language areas of the region directed by different directors and shot on film. The pilot film, Entry Denied, by Jamaican director, Chris Browne is now complete. Banyan will be working with the pilot film (shot on 16mm but edited on BetacamSP) and a short-list of some ten treatments for other films in the series to raise finance and interest in the production of the series.
Denied tells the tale of a young Jamaican from the ghettos of Kingston who,
having been awarded a soccer scholarship for Florida University has his US
Entry Denied tells the tale of a young Jamaican from the ghettos of Kingston who, having been awarded a soccer scholarship for Florida University has his US Visa denied.
Walk Like a Dragon
Banyan has been working with Pan Trinbago (the Steelband Association of Trinidad & Tobago) for the past three years developing the script for a full length feature drama with the history of the steelband as its background. A video pilot based on a script written by Tony Hall and directed and produced by Tony Hall and Christopher Laird is now complete along with a detailed outline screenplay and treatment. The process of raising finance and obtaining commitments from television stations and distributors continues.