by Bert Hogenkamp
Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 34-35
Shortly after the notorious Jonestown massacre in 1978, there was a brief time when the world realized the existence of a country named Guyana. Some journalists even reported on the political situation of the country, albeit very superficially. Today the world seems to have forgotten Guyana even though the political situation has deteriorated dramatically since 1978. THE TERROR AND THE TIME, the title the Victor Jara Collective chose for their film on the Guyanese struggle against British imperialism in 1953, is just as appropriate for the situation in Guyana now. THE TERROR AND THE TIME is a first step towards a real Guyanese cinema and it deserves further attention. In the following article, I would like to analyze the place of this film within the Guyanese cinema situation.
Before its independence, Guyana's news and entertainment media were effectively controlled by the British colonists and the major landowners. The people who comprised a major portion of the film-going audience had no say in what was shown. In 1947, Motion Pictures — British Guiana was published by the Industrial Reference Service, which is an organ of the U.S. Department of Commerce. This report was compiled by the U.S. consulate in Georgetown:
The report continues, providing detailed information about film censorship, number and geographic distribution of cinemas, taxes, attendances, showings, prices, film distribution, and advertising media.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this report is that with a few changes, it holds true today. Although Guyana became independent in 1966 and has since proclaimed itself a socialist country, U.S. film companies continue to control most of the Guyanese cinema market. The Co-operative Republic, as Prime Minister F. Burnham's government is called, exerts strict censorship in film circulation. As a member of the Victor Jara Collective put it: "I'm afraid that socialist -Guyana, for the most part, still feeds on BLACULA and GAAI AUR GORI."
With Guyana's rising unemployment in the 1970s and 1980s, a visit to the cinema is becoming a much more popular pastime, especially in the capital of Georgetown. There is no TV in Guyana. The film diet consists entirely of Hollywood blockbusters, black exploitation movies, and Bombay spectaculars. Cuban films are shown occasionally at private screenings. Films from other third world countries cannot be seen at all. Since the cinematic infrastructure in Guyana is completely oriented to 35mm film, a 16mm projector is an extremely rare object. Ironically, anyone wanting to show a 16m film can get help from the U.S. or from West European embassies.
The need for a Guyanese cinema made for the people, about the people, and by the people exists. Unfortunately, the political and economic situation in Guyana prevents independent filmmakers from producing their own films. They are completely dependent on financial support from the government. After its independence, Guyana opened its own Film Center, which was financed with West European and U.S. money. This Film Center is fully equipped to produce all sorts of films. However, the Minestry for Information and Culture has complete control of the Center. Their jurisdiction has killed the ambitions of many young Guyanese filmmakers and technicians, who may have been inspired by their media training abroad. Currently, the Film Center produces the obligatory news films for and about the ruling Burnham government and some standard industrial documentaries.
The Victor Jara Collective — named for the Chilean singer/composer who was murdered by Pinochet's henchmen — has taken the first step toward a new Guyanese cinema. Prior to 1976, the collective had been working on videotape and super 8 productions on the history of imperialism. When Prof. Rupert Roopnaraine returned to Guyana after a teaching tour in the USA, the collective seized this opportunity to make a film in and on Guyana. They researched their subject and presented a draft of the script to the Guyanese Ministry for Information and Culture. They wrote the following introduction to this script:
"The film will draw heavily on the music, painting, and literature of Guyana. The active participation of Guyanese scholars, technicians, and theatrical workers will be" indispensable to any adequate realization of the project.
The Guyanese Ministry for Information and Culture reacted favorably to this ambitious proposal, but given the meager budget of the Film Center, it could not finance the project (estimated production costs between $150,000 and $200,000). The members of the collective who had traveled with Roopnariane to Guyana decided to change the original idea. They proposed to the ministry the production of a less costly film based on one part of the original script: the anti-imperialist struggle of 1953. This project was approved and the collective received government help, which included film stock, equipment, laboratory, and editing facilities of the Film Center.
During the shooting, the collective interviewed those who had been involved in the 1953 struggle. Two of them are the current opposition leaders Eusi Kwayana (Working Peoples Alliance) and Cheddi Jagan (People's Progressive Party). Forbes Burnhan, Guyana's current prime minister, was in the forefront of the struggle in 1953, but he refused the interview. The collective combined the interviews with news clippings, newsreel footage of Guyana, and the poetry and music of Guyanese artists and presented the rough cut to the Ministry for Information and Culture. The ministry asked the collective to eliminate the interviews with Kwayana and Jagan from the film. They refused, arguing that it would be ridiculous to deny the part played by Kwayana and Jagan in 1953 events for the sake of later political disagreements. With the threat of government censorship, the collective had no other option but to finish the film abroad. This meant financial difficulties, and it was under considerable strain that Part One of the three-part film THE TERROR AND THE TIME was finished in New York.
The film starts with a quote from Frantz Fanon:
Colonialism, form and content, destroys: these are the key words the Victor Jara Collective singled out from Fanon's quote. The film continues with the verbal and visual imagery of Martin Carter's poetry. Carter recited his poem "Cartman of Dayclean" as the film shows a cartman in the countryside, very early in the morning, on his way to the city market. Both the images and the poetry stand for the problematic relationship between the countryside and the city. The cartman is a familiar theme in pre-Industrial Revolution West European painting, and it is a theme that many Guyanese will recognize. Whereas in European painting the cartman is a symbol of the romantic past, with Carter the theme is contemporary.
As opposition politician Eusi Kwayana explains in the following sequence of the film:
Kwayana then points out how he sees the role of the poet:
We are next introduced to Cheddi Jagan (PPP), who gives detailed information about the situation of the Guyanese population in the late forties and early fifties. His conclusion is worth quoting:
In a third interview with a woman worker, Halliman, she recalls what happened on the sugar plantation where she lived during the savagely suppressed strike in 1948. Combined with these three interviews are other elements of the film including newsreel footage of the period, headlines from Guyana's leading newspaper, the Daily Argosy, ads for fashion and cinema of the period (clearly aimed at the white upper-middle class), and songs of the period such as "Doggie in the Window." The filmmakers pit contrasting images against one another.
Colonialism, form and content, destroys: how are these key words elaborated in the rest of the film? First of all, the 1953 struggle in Guyana is not presented as a struggle typical of Guyana alone but is used as a paradigm for the struggle against (British) colonialism. Also, the content of the film is a retelling of the suppressed history of Guyana. To give a part of Guyana's history back is to return to other countries, which have also suffered under colonialism a part of their history. Those who were directly involved knew that their struggle was an international one.
There is not only a continuous reference to (British) colonialism but also a continuous parallel drawn to the present situation in Guyana. During the Martin Carter poem "Nigger Yard," documentary images are shown that were taken of the Georgetown slums in 1976. One of these images is of a man dying on the streets as cars and human beings pass him by. One of the members of the Victor Jars Collective told me that while he was filming this dying man, he remembered vividly what the documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens had written on filming the Belgian mining area in Borinage; Ivens said:
Colonialism, form and content, destroys. THE TERROR AND THE TIME devotes much attention to the part the media played during the 1953 events. The same company owned the major radio station, Demerara, and the leading newspaper, the Daily Argosy. Consequently, the newsreels of the period — U.S. newsreels — presented any anticolonial struggle in the same way: stupid natives who are seduced by communists and have to be "saved" by interventions of the US and its allies. The film tells how the "media" of the People's Progressive Party — pamphlets, press, and, above all, the poetry of Martin Carter — were suppressed by the British. In his interview, Eusi Kwayana said:
"But I laugh at them," wrote Martin Carter in one of his Poems of Resistance. And this is what THE TERROR AND THE TIME does at the right moments. First there are the newspaper ads on fashion and the cinema, and then the songs of the period are used at certain moments to break the tension. Even some of the newsreel footage with its Cold War commentary helps to bring a laugh, albeit a wry smile.
After the Victor Jara Collective finished the film under difficult circumstances, they had to find out through intensive distribution and exhibition practice if the film could provide the same kind of "ideological nourishment" as Martin Carter's poetry did in the fifties. THE TERROR AND THE TIME has to be seen. If the film can create a sense of liberation in the spectators, help them speak freely about their experiences, it will serve its purpose. Of course, the film was made first for the Guyanese, but due to the repression in that country, it is very difficult to know if the film had an impact. Both Eusi Kwayana and Bill Carr (professor at the University of Georgetown) wrote enthusiastic reviews, but it would be interesting to see the film distributed to the working class in Guyana on a large scale.
In Great Britain and the Netherlands, the Victor Jara Collective initiated intensive distribution campaigns. The results were not only of interest to the collective itself but to any anti-imperialist campaign group using film in these two countries. I was present at a couple of screenings in the Netherlands and one in London. What struck me forcefully was that these West European intellectuals, who normally do their utmost to understand the work of bourgeois avant-garde filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Marguerite Duras, Chantal Akerman, and Jean-Marie Straub/Danielle Huillet, made no effort to understand this film. It did not seem to create a "sense of liberation" for them. On the other hand, for the people of the Caribbean in London and for the Surinamese in the Netherlands, the film sparked off enormous debates. This may seem surprising in the case of the Surinamese, considering there is no Dutch-subtitled version available. But the history of Surinam and its struggle against Dutch colonialism show many similarities with Guyana. THE TERROR AND THE TIME has the subtitle "Notes on Repressive Violence in Guyana," and it can teach us as much about the 1980s as it can about 1953 in that respect.
Notes1. Joris Ivens, "Jottings of a Film Producer," International Theatre, no. 3-4 (1934): 32.