IFF Panama: Maria Govan on Understanding Violence, Trinidad’s Jab Devil Dance and ‘Thriving’ Film Scene (EXCLUSIVE)

‘Play the Devil’s’ director talks about the 2016 Panama Fest Primera Mirada title

Four pix-in-post showcase aims to boost

A powerful businessman, James, seduces a dirt-poor 18-year-old student, Greg, who dreams of becoming a photographer, but is being pushed by his mother to apply for a medical scholarship which would take him to Europe and into a moneyed career. In another time, another place, their relationship could have been an idyll. In Gregory’s world, however, the mixture of religious conservatism, macho patriarchy and desperate economic need is a perfect storm. As James inveigles himself into Gregory’s life, he pushes the lad – who refuses to accept his homosexuality let alone reveal it – into a desperate corner where he has only one kind power left to him.  Set in a singular Trinidad and Tobagan world, in its humble hills and beaches – whose vistas and customs, caught in a Jab devil dance carnival will be a revelation for many audiences who have never seen Trinidad or Tobago – “Play the Devil” director Maria Govan fielded questions from Variety after her film screened at Panama Fest’s 2016 Primera Mirada showcase.

Play the Devil” begins and ends in violence. You’ve said, when we interviewed you for Variety at Ventana Sur, that you wanted to explain the context for violence…

Yes. The film begins and ends with violence. And as you say the context for this violence is religious conservatism, macho patriarchy, poverty, along with the dysfunctional family dynamics born of these things.  I am interested in investigating the greater context in which, not only violence occurs, but those things that we generally deem “bad.”  I guess I want to deconstruct simplistic judgements and superficial morality.

The two contexts –religious conservatism, macho patriarchy – when combined with Greg’s dirt poverty is a powder keg which allows James to exert enormous pressures on Greg by paying his way into his family life. In the end, the only power left to a 18 year-old who has nothing is a physical one…

I’m not sure that the only power that Greg has is physical. I believe he does have agency because he is bright but rather, the many things pushing at him, combined with his own denial and repression of himself, is an explosive combination. Sure he feels cornered and there is some truth to the fact that James is exploiting the situation, but even that is complicated: When we give, how often is it entirely altruistic?  Even the best of us give with some “strings” attached.  James wants something and also genuinely wants to help. These two realities live in the same gesture and had Greg been accepting of himself, there would have been a very different exchange between them.

Part of the fascination of the film is its location. Many people who see it might not have ever seen a film from Trinidad or seen Trinidad. Why did you shoot there, and what does it bring to the film in your opinion…

It was my visit to Trinidad and my seeing the “Jab” devil dance inspired the film. I was working on two other films both of which had good traction, but this story came knocking and was relentless. The actual Jab is so vital, raw and cinematic and Paramin so exquisite.  It felt as though the spirit of the place spun a storm of inspiration that demanded expression.  Film is an amazing way to travel — culturally, geographically and of course emotionally, and so experiencing a world unseen is undoubtedly an enriching experience for an audience.  The Caribbean, in general, is so misunderstood and clichéd, and yet there is so much history, diversity and complexity to our region. I hope to continue making work here.  That said, cinema from the English-speaking Caribbean is really underfunded. Sadly, there is a perception that we are wealthy.  That is false. We have many wealthy people as residents but our governments are poor.  What happens then is people from outside come in to make films set against our “pretty” backdrop. Indigenous filmmaking is underdeveloped and stereotypes are perpetuated.  Our governments then focus on big films coming to us rather than developing something that might be desirable to them. We tend to look outside for affirmation and that is a deep problem. Trinidad took a huge risk with this level of support and I really commend them for this!

The film climaxes with the Jab, a devil dance, in which locals daub themselves with blue grease, put on horns, or wings and act the devil. What does the dance signify?

The Jab or Devil Dance is an old ritual that was born out of the Afro-Caribbean population living in the mountains of Paramin.  It happens days before Lent begins as part of Traditional Carnival. When I asked the villagers what it means to them, they explained that they give the devil his/her “dance.” They pay the devil his/her due on this one night, expecting then that the devil leaves the village alone for the year.  It really struck me, because in so many incarnations of religion we avoid and fear the devil – there is no space wherein the devil is witnessed as sacred, as a part of the whole. My feeling is that we transcend the shadow by being with it, rather than fearing and denying it. I think that is the wisdom of the ancestors who gave us the Jab.

How did you manage to finance the film?

Abigail Hadeed, my producer, was encouraged by Carla Foderingham who was the Trinidadian film commissioner at the time, to apply for a significant grant that her office was championing.  I had not even finished the first draft of the script.  The application was incredibly demanding and due in two days. We gave it our everything and sure enough, we were one of three films to be granted the support, which was $100,000. We then applied to Brot Fur De Welt in Germany, and received a grant from them.  We also received some development money from the Charitable Arts Foundation in the Bahamas and the Ministry of Tourism in Trinidad. All of my investors from my first film “Rain” came in with some of their returns, and Abigail raised private equity and begged favors locally.  Though our budget was small, we were on our way!

How many feature films are made in Trinidad and Tobago. Is there a building production scene, or still challenges?

There is a newly thriving film scene in Trinidad and the Caribbean at large that is really dynamic.  In recent years, there have been significantly more films made and, in my humble opinion, the quality is visibly improving.  There are some good technicians and very good production personnel.  There are certainly challenges with a lack of some technical skills and also a limited acting pool, but all in all filming in Trinidad was an absolute pleasure and I would be thrilled to do it again with our incredible team!