'HappySad' makes history in Tobago; has NY premiere at Riverside's ADFF (39962)

Talk about an enchanting Caribbean Diaspora story. It’s “HappySad” (2008, Trinidad & Tobago, 105 mins.). And it could only happen in Tobago, the serene sister island of Trinidad, which together comprises The Republic of Trinidad & Tobago (T&T). Located northeast of Venezuela between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Tobago is the ideal location to shoot a film.

Well, that’s what happened when the Trinidadian screenwriter Horace Wilson; the Emmy Award-nominated director Dianah Roneyah Wynter, who was born and raised in Brooklyn to Jamaican parents; and Tobagonian producer Rudill Clarke of the Caribbean American Film Production Co. Ltd., got together. And it was magic!

Adding to the mix was the Hon. Tracey Davidson-Celestine, secretary of community, development and culture for the Tobago House of Assembly, whose mission, in part, is “preserving, promoting and appreciating our unique cultural traditions in the global environment.” This collaborative group joined forces to make “Happy/Sad,” the first feature-length film made on the 116-square-mile island.

They continued to make history when the film, which Wynter shot in two weeks at a cost of $1 million (T&T), premiered on May 10 at the newly constructed Movie Towne, the first cinema house in Tobago.

On Friday, August 20, “HappySad” had its New York premiere as the opening night film of the fifth annual African Diaspora Film Festival (ADFF) Summer Film Series. Helmed by AFFF’s Reinaldo Barroso-Spech, president/co-director, and Diarah N’Daw-Spech, general manager/co-director, the theme of the two-week series is “Films by and about Women.” This mini-cycle, which runs through two weekends, ending on Sunday, August 29, is a co-production with the Riverside Theatre, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Prior to the ADFF screening, “Happy/Sad” made its world and U.S. premiere at the 17th annual Pan-African Film and Arts Festival, where it won Special Jury Honorable Mention for “Best Narrative Feature.” Bill Duke, the distinguished Hollywood producer-director, said of Wynter’s direction, “She allowed the audience to care about the characters. It was touching, painful and intelligent. I would recommend ‘HappySad’ to anyone who has a chance to view it.”

Throughout the ADFF screening, the audience was totally engaged and visibly moved as the story unfolded innocently during the first few seconds before being brusquely disrupted and replaced with a new configuration in the life of Mandy Graham (Angel Ross), a 17-year-old high school soccer player who narrates of the story. After her mother is sent to prison, Mandy has no choice but to leave the familiar city life in Trinidad and live with her heretofore unknown father on the slower-paced island of Tobago. However, upon her initial meeting with her father, she is dropped off at his uncle’s home.

Cephas (Bill Cobbs), the great-uncle who has lived in America, owns a lovely house that he shares with his sister (Eastlyn McKenzie), who is called Grandma by his teenage son and daughter. They have little in common with their father because of the vast age divide. In addition, Cephas has a thing for young women and feels he can have and fulfill them. Of course, something’s got to give. And it does.

The much-beloved, internationally acclaimed actor Bill Cobbs is well cast in the role of Cephas. He kept the women at the ADFF screening sucking their teeth, giving him advice as well as laughing. Yes, this well-written, brilliantly directed and acted character is a piece of work–one who many of us will recognize. Yet, as we get to know him, we find out why he behaves the way he does. Like so many men who have been hurt, they mask their pain with women and alcohol, never getting to the root of the problem to work through and exorcise it. Wynter and Cobbs do a superb job in working through to the metamorphosis of this character.

Cobbs, the sole American actor, is joined by a strong group of veteran Trinidadian actors as well as newcomers from the Tobago Theatre School. In addition to McKenzie in the role of role of Grandma, the other characters in this tight ensemble are: Roma (Eunice Alleyne), Ray (Nigel Auguste), Dean (Duane Dixon), Lisa (Samara Lallo), Irene (Lourie Leesing) and the security guard (Wayne Leesing). Both Mckenzie and Alleyne are seasoned, top actresses in T&T who are widely known and respected throughout the Caribbean.

The leading role of Mandy is a break-out role for Ross, who does an outstanding job as an angry, distrustful teen who finds it challenging to get too close to people, especially the opposite sex. Having seen the challenges of life that have landed her mother in prison, Mandy is determined to procure a scholarship to college. To do so, she’s chosen her talent as an athlete to propel her toward her goal, first playing soccer in Trinidad, then running track in Tobago.

Again, Wilson’s writing richly comes to fore. His choice of using racing as a metaphor for Mandy is on point for, in fact, this young woman is racing for her life. The character of the female track and field coach is also on point. With Mandy’s mother incarcerated, the astute screenwriter has surrounded her with two strong women–grandma and her coach–who, without verbalizing it, has become her mentor.

Another form of support that the writer created is multi-generational, extended family that which Mandy finds herself in for the first time. It’s a situation that is somewhat challenging to the only child/loner. In addition to her father and great-uncle, her life now includes a musician/wannabe boyfriend and her male and female cousins.

One of the underlying themes of this film is that of secrets. Everyone in this story is haunted by a secret, which as Wynter pointed out the post-screening discussion, is very Caribbean in nature. The interesting thing is that these secrets are universal things that have happened to many people. Yet, part of the Caribbean upbringing is to not discuss them. Amongst the disturbing secrets of the film are child abuse, incest, rape , abuse, teen-age pregnancy, sexism and honor. On the other hand, what is considered cool to discuss is being macho and a womanizer. And this, too, is a real-life part of the Caribbean culture.

However, in the hands of Wilson, the scriptwriter, who like Wynter attended the America Film Institute (AFI), all these topics are intruded upon, demystified and, in most cases, exorcised. The writing is tight. There are no loose strings hanging, giving Wynter the opportunity as a director to get her actors to honor the work. The gentle, yet firm and loving hands of Wynter, who in addition to attending AFI also attended Yale, is written all over this important and timely work. These are the hands that understand both the Caribbean and American nuances and sensibilities, and through her directing, she deftly guides this film that provides the opportunity to open the doors for major discourse that will help to bring about disclosures and healing. “Happy/Sad” offers all of this while enjoying the lush and serene beauty of Tobago onscreen.

Be sure to catch the ADFF at The Riverside Theater, 91 Claremont Avenue, between 120th and 122nd streets (in Morningside Heights). Tickets, which are $8, can be purchased online at www.theriversidetheatre.org, by phone at (212) 870-6784 or in person at the theater box office (Thursday-Saturday, 4-8 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m.).

To contact the “Caribbean Lingo!” series, which pays tribute to Caribbean Diaspora artists and art forms of the highest caliber, please e-mail our team at Caribbeanlingo@gmail.com