Mirror to the Soul

Stuart Baker’s new documentary ‘Mirror to the Soul – British Pathé Films in the Caribbean 1922-1970’was screened at the BFI last week followed by a Q and A with the director and Paul Gilroy, who also introduced the event. Founder of Soul Jazz Records, Baker is from a music background and the clips he has brought together from the Pathé archives were spun together in a mixtape mashup of images, depicting various aspects of Caribbean culture on the islands as well as in Britain during the post-Windrush era. I felt very privileged to view some of these news reels, despite most of them being pre-edited contained sequences from Pathé, and overlaid with ridiculous colonial-sounding British commentary, but which nicely incited unifying, knowing laughter amongst those present.

The Pathé bias was noticeable, particularly during depictions of Royal visits to the islands (as one audience member pointed out there was no footage of them holidaying in the region, which many of them regularly did during this period), and representation immediately following the Cuban revolution, which hauntingly intersected the film, as if of another time and space. Despite this many of the shuffled sequences were very special, spanning the linguistic zones of the region. Rare recordings of Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe performing traditional Martinican dances in London lead me to wonder if there is more like this just sat in the archives. Early images of Vodou pilgrimages to the Saut-d’eau festival in Haiti recalled filmic patterns of bathing Vodouisants I am looking at in my own research, only on a fantastically larger scale, suggesting the extent and continued importance of the belief system in the country. These images are a reminder at a time when Martelly’s government has revoked the anti-superstition decree of 1935 in Haiti in an attempt to suppress this cultural and religious tradition. Black and white images of bathers hurtling down natural river slides in Guadeloupe, took me back to my own recent trip to Gwada and the healing work a good river bath can do. A camera static on a busy shopping street of Port-of-Spain in the sixties, overlaid with Baker’s supposedly (as he claims) unorchestrated music choices, narrates this wonderful everyday scape of moving cultures and ethnicities, so unique to Trinidad. And of course the elaborately crafted carnival costumes of the sixties and seventies, juxtaposed with a British accent informing us that all this, “a year’s work for two days of festivities”, will be demolished once the event has reached its climax.

Later that night I end up sat in a takeaway with a good friend from Russia.  This friend has never been to the Caribbean and claims that it’s a culture she knows very little of, but still feels its history to be an important part of her reality. Paul Gilroy in his introductory speech stressed the necessity for such diffusions to an understanding of Britian’s history, which has become so detached from the day to day realities of youth today (he put this in a far less moany Grandad kind of way). “It’s ok for the French, they can go to Martinique and spend their Euros . . . “ he argued, …mmm I’m not sure this makes the French any more aware of a shared history of slavery and colonialism, but I do see his point in that I think hearing the aspirations and determination from those Jamaicans disembarking from the Windrush boat, is indeed very moving and really makes you think about where society today is up to, as sympathies for multiculturalism fade into a forgone era and, as Gilroy points out, we enter a post-banana age (apparently a lethal fungus will soon wipe out Banana production for good).

My Russian friend did pose one question. What is it about the Caribbean and men dressed as women then? She was referring to an image repeated in the film of a cross-dresser on stilts balancing a bicycle around his head during a carnival parade in British (at the time) Guyana. As I weighed up the universality vs specificity of such carnivalesque inversions, it seems important still today, and evidently in connection with my own research into expressions of transvestism in the region, to examine how the news-like, “educational” stories of Pathé diffused throughout Britain depicted such bodies as spectacle, continuing pervasive representation of the Caribbean as sexually exotic. The spectator (both then and now), like the visiting tourist is allowed temporary access to these corporeal displays, a parallel which becomes remarkable as the chirpy voiceover confirms, “You don’t need to go to the circus, just come to Guiana for your holidays!”

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