“Jeffrey’s Calypso” (2005) is a short film written and directed by Vashti Anderson (whose mother is Trinidadian), in fulfillment of her graduate film course requirements at New York University. It also enjoys the distinction of receiving a total of eight awards, including “Director’s Choice Award” at the Angelus Student Film Festival and the “Best Cinematography Award” at the Fusion Film Festival.
This undoubtedly excellent film, which easily allows for interpretations at the personal and representative levels, explores the dynamics of a love between two young Trinidadians against the backdrops of race, different social backgrounds, and culture. On both of these levels, the film may be viewed as the assertion of selfhood, both in terms of the individual and the nation as a whole, especially since the calypso as an art form was evolving in the decade of the 1960s, the same decade in which four colonial territories including Trinidad and Tobago, took the lead in asserting their independence from Great Britain. Equally significant is the fact that at that time, there were very few East Indian Calypsonians in Trinidad and Tobago (the birthplace of this art form as well as of the only musical instrument of the twentieth century – the steel pan), and the interaction among people of different social classes, races and cultural traditions left much to be desired.
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In her screenplay, Vashti’s use of the term “calypso” in the title is very significant because it is definitely one of the best forms of social commentary in Caribbean societies, and this is exactly what the story is. This choice is similar to that made by Earl Lovelace, a Trinidadian playwright, in his play, “Jestina’s Calypso” (1984), in which he explored the issues of love, race, social differences, and beauty against the backdrop of the Black and European conceptualizations of such issues. Like Vashti’s film, Lovelace’s play examines these sensitive issues and may also be interpreted at the personal and representative levels.
In an interview with the Caribbean Film Academy (CaFA), Vashti noted that casting the film was difficult. However, as the plot unfolds, we appreciate how appropriate the choice of Dinesh Maharaj, for the role of Jeffrey, was. He skillfully demonstrated his understanding of his character in the process leading to his assertion of selfhood. He is also convincing as a blue collar, middle class accountant living in the upscale suburb of St. Augustine. Jeffrey evolves from passive resistance to the confident assertion of selfhood by ultimately rejecting his father’s continuous belittling of him, finding a girl who, contrary to his father’s view, does not fit in with his supposed social status, and humbly apologizing to her for not standing up for her when she was faced with his father’s disrespect and snobbery.
In casting the other strong character- Kala, Vashti subtly continues her exploration of these sensitive issues by having Princess Donelan, cast in this role. She is excellent in her interpretation of her role as the person with whom Jeffrey falls in love – a self-confident performer who, as a young Trinidadian of mixed heritage fully embraces the multicultural heritage of her country as a performer of chutney and old calypso among other art forms, and observes her East Indian religious practices. Furthermore, she is not ashamed of her social status nor cowered by Jeffrey’s, especially since they share a love for performance and they are two of the few young Trinidadians who know about his grandfather’s contribution to the evolution of the calypso.
Skillful casting is further evident in how well David Sammy, captures and enacts the pretentious behavior of members of the “uppity” middle class, who generally live in upscale areas such as St. Augustine, deny their humble beginnings as well as their love for the popular culture and seek upper class social acceptance while looking down on others with humble beginnings.
Equally interesting, is how well Vashti captures the perception of the dress code of the calypsonians of the 1960s as well as the calypso form that has now evolved into the more popular “soca” by older and younger Trinidadians. Even though Jeffrey’s father is always dressed in a suit, he sees his own father’s suit (suits were worn by most calypsonians at that time) as a clown’s outfit when Jeffrey wears it. These sentiments are also shared by the young lady Jeffrey should have taken to the party and she may be seen as representing young Trinidadians who are not interested in the old art form. The ridicule he suffers at the hands of many of the young people at the party further attests to such perception. However, it is significant that while the young people soon forget about his suit when he captivates them all in his dancing to the beat of the great musical synthesis of East Indian and African cultures in the drumming session, his father who insists on denying his cultural heritage and maintaining his cultivated middle class “persona,” does not relent.
Along with such casting, the film richly deserves an award for the cinematography that beautifully and clearly captured the natural beauty of the country, and prominent evidence of Hindu religious practices as in the colourful Hindu flags used during religious ceremonies along the river bank, the oil refineries that show the country’s natural reserves, the people, and the local picturesque scenery. Equally worthy of much praise is the original score, which includes calypsos composed by a Musician from New Orleans, who most definitely successfully captured and transmitted the pulse of the old time calypso. There can be little doubt that Vashti has successfully communicated through film, her desire to explore the sensitive issues of race and class, family values and to preserve one of the important cultural legacies of Trinidad and Tobago – the calypso.
Roslin Khan, Ph D
Post-Colonial Literary Scholar &
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