The local film “Play the Devil,” by writer/director Maria Govan and producer Abigail Hadeed, is simultaneously an exploration of the socio-political issues underpinning T&T and the Caribbean, a coming-of-age film, and a plea for compassion in dealing with others. That’s according to Hadeed, Govan and main actors Gareth Jenkins and Petrice Jones, who say even though the film is centred around a homosexual relationship, that isn’t the only issue addressed in the film.
Hadeed, for whom this is her first full-length narrative film, believes it will become a seminal one for the English-speaking Caribbean, due to the topics it covers, as it tackles how homosexuality crosses all the boundaries of class, race, culture and environment. She hoped it would inspire investors and film-makers to come together and make more films. Govan’s perspective was that the film tries to dig into the roots of violence, as she feels the world judges people without investigating their lives, instead of trying to understand why they arrived at that place. “We don’t look at how racism and homophobia and the church, all of these systemic things can be very oppressive to people and how that oppression then wreaks havoc in those peoples lives. Without compassion and really a more empathic look into people, it’s really hard to heal what’s actually broken in our world.”
Hadeed said the main character, Gregory, played by Jones, comes from a working class family in Paramin. “Coming of age in the Caribbean can be quite difficult, particularly if you’re LGBTQI. It is the most difficult space to navigate, and worse yet if you come from a working class Afro-Caribbean background. What this film is trying to ask is compassion for everybody, because if we cannot be who we truly are at our core, and we have to hide who we are, what happens is we get pushed into corners and we get trapped.”
Govan agreed, saying the world will not necessarily see the movie as a gay one. “It’s really showing how difficult coming into adulthood can be when there are expectations from the people who care for us. His family hopes he’s going to be that person to have a different life trajectory, and the film looks at his complicated relationships with his father, brother and best friend, so this dynamic with all these other characters is evenly mapped. It’s not then just a film about him and this man.”
Jenkins and Jones, who are both heterosexual, said working on the movie was an eye-opening experience. Jenkins, who’d never acted before, said while he was concerned about the stigma that might be attached to the role, he took it because he realized local and regional actors were reluctant to play the part and he didn’t want his children to think of him as a bigot for not taking up the offer.
“The truth is it would be very hard for a gay man to play this role in a way that as a straight man I can get away with, because I can say I’m straight and I was just acting. I felt it’s abhorrent the way we stigmatize such a significant portion of the population, essentially it’s a human rights issue that keeps getting swept under the carpet by successive governments, and if I could do something positive in one small way by taking on this role, and expose myself to some backlash perhaps, then why not?”
Jones, who is from England, said the character as he played it has a lot of shame verging on self-hatred, and the role opened his eyes to what it’s like to grow up in a society where being gay is not accepted at all and to carry that around.
“No-one deserves to have to live a lie, so it was a strange experience for me as a heterosexual male to see what it’s like living on the other side of that.” During filming, Jones was harassed by some boys on a corner because he “looked gay” and that experience brought the character home in a different way. “I would have loved to talk to them to understand their mentality towards homosexuality and how you think it’s OK to shout abuse at someone you’ve never seen in your life, just based on their appearance. I could imagine if I was gay that it would be awful, feeling like you couldn’t walk out of your house and just go somewhere without someone harassing you. I hope this film will mitigate some of the negative feelings about homosexuality by humanizing LGBTQI people.”
Jones and Jenkins both hope that the film will alter the landscape positively for LGBTQI people in T&T.
In addition to being shot entirely in Trinidad, the film used mainly local cast and crew, with very few non-local people. Hadeed and Govan congratulated the crew on their professionalism and positivity, and said the acting talent was wonderful. Hadeed paid special tribute to Avril Fisher, Leslie Ann Caton, Lesley-Ann Macfarlane, Timmia Hearn, Che Rodriguez, Penelope Spencer and Nickolai Salcedo. They also thanked the people of Paramin for being gracious during filming, particularly “Popo” Constantine, Ellis Emmanuel, Jesus from Cool Breezes Bar and the New Management Blue Devil group. Govan said they were very open with the community about the premise of the film because “we didn’t want them to feel betrayed, but they were fine with it. The culture of Jab acknowledges the Shadow in a particular way and feels rooted in a kind of inclusion that a lot of cultures don’t have, wherein they accept the things they aren’t so comfortable with, they see it all as sacred including the darkness and the “Devil,” which is why I was so fascinated by the idea of the Jab and the whole film is inspired by that really.” The Jab scene, in which I was an extra, was shot in the hills of Paramin around 1 am, was a surreal experience for the actors, who both described themselves as being in a trance-like state.
Hadeed said Government should encourage the local sector by initiatives such as mandating that international film crews shooting in T&T have people understudy and learn from them, creating a dedicated police department for permits and permissions and funding a script development department. She also called for greater investment in and consistent funding of the Arts. Govan said Government should make it a priority to cultivate a local industry where Trinidadians and other Caribbean people can tell stories about the region in their own voices.
The film has been received positively by audiences at the Los Angeles Film Festival and won Best Film at QFlicks, an LGBTQI Film Festival in Philadelphia. It is scheduled to open the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival on September 20, and all involved are curious to see how it will be received by local audiences.
Jenkins called it an amazing piece of cinema and hoped people would see it as an interesting take on what is the reality of life in T&T for a lot of people. Jones said he’s interested in what different people will take away from the film.
Hadeed said “we tried to make a film that speaks to the real issues in the region and hopefully encourages us to look at ourselves and be more compassionate and less judgemental. Govan said she hoped that Trinidadians would be proud of the film, even if they find it challenging. “The film showcases the rich colourful cultural backdrop of T&T and hopefully it represents how Trinidad is absolutely rich and beautiful and complicated as a place and space. I hope that it creates an interesting conversation in the country, if nothing else, and people reflect on it and I’m excited for the conversation.”