14 Oct 2016 The Caribbean and the right to memory
As we are discovering every day, with an increasingly elderly population succumbing to Alzheimer’s, when we lose memory we lose what makes us who we are. How many wives or husbands exclaim when their dementia suffering partner loses his or her memory, “This is not the man (or woman) I married, it is a stranger.”
The ancestors of the majority of the Caribbean population were brought to the region against their will and their traditions and culture were systematically repressed, whether it was the banning of the drum or traditional religions. These strictures were assaults on our very sense of self.
But through incredible strength of resistance, through existential need, we came up with strategies to preserve what we could by devising instruments to make music without a skin drum (the steelband), by storytelling, or by syncretising traditional African religions with Roman Catholicism (whereby Orishas were given aliases matching Catholic saints) and many other ways.
All these strategies depend on oral transmission for survival. The coming of video, however, presented an ideal opportunity to record and preserve our traditions and cultural practices. Television should have provided us with the facility to objectify our lives and so observe ourselves as people in other countries can do. 1
Television began in much of the Caribbean on Independence day, replacing the British administration with a Neo-colonial presence of the US in our bedrooms and living rooms. Now, the Caribbean is the region in the world most penetrated by foreign television images.
It is in this context that we at Banyan wanted to provide Caribbean people with access, provide an opportunity to see themselves and the world through their own eyes.
What is Banyan?
Banyan is the Southern Caribbean’s first independent television programme production unit, established 40 years ago. 2
And in those 40 years we have produced over 400 television programmes. 3
In our archive vault, one wall is just packed with those programmes. The racks? Over 2000 tapes of raw footage that fed into the making of these programmes, and other footage that has not even been made into programmes yet. Invaluable, priceless records of the cultural and social life of the region over the past 40 years. – Ever since the invention of the video cassette.
All of this is safe now because it has been digitised. Over 2500 video files, over 1000 hours of video accompanied by 14,500 records in a linked database. All accessible by a click. 4–7
Some of the highlights of our productions feature the Southern Caribbean’s first television Soap Opera, Who The Cap Fits… ; its first made for television movie, THE RIG, written and directed by Derek Walcott and the ground breaking cultural magazine, GAYELLE, that ran for six years chronicling our creative and cultural lives; the award winning documentary, And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon, on the effect of US television on Caribbean Culture shown in 150 countries; Caribbean Eye, the only television series on Caribbean culture made in and by the Caribbean, still in demand by institutions the world over. 7
Unable to convince local television to programme endogenous content, in 2004 Banyan started the Caribbean’s first free to air television station that programmed 100% Caribbean content for general audiences, GAYELLE: The Channel.
Banyan set out to show how we, as a people, had, through patience and determination, built a foundation for a Caribbean civilisation.
We assumed that, by documenting and mirroring our culture and society, a repository could be constructed, a resource would be created for a more Caribbean centred perspective.
So we did our work. Documenting, exploring, creating dramas, telling stories up and down the Caribbean for 40 years.
In the process we constantly analysed the region’s media environment which was becoming even more alienating as satellite and then cable systems came into play flooding us with even more US content.
As Errol Sitahal asks in And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon: “What happens when you dream other people’s dreams?”
As a people we’ve become adept at decoding the images in our media and reinterpreting them in terms of our own experience.
But with Banyan, with its cameras in the communities, those filters can be discarded and communication comes directly to the viewer for the first time in our history. The effect is phenomenal.
In 2004, the first year of transmission of our all Caribbean television channel, Gayelle:The Channel, there were incessant complaints from viewers that : They were late to do household chores, collect the children from school or get to appointments because they were looking at Gayelle. Some said they had to leave the house walking backwards so that they would not miss what they were watching on Gayelle. In fact when we went off air late at night people kept their sets on in case something happened on the screen. In the first few months of operation we stopped programming on weekends, put a camera pointing at the street and a crawling graphic on the screen which said: “Why don’t you turn off your television and do something with your family because that is what we at Gayelle are doing. We were not heeded. People came outside the station and held placards up to the camera for their family and friends, they enacted dramas, played cricket and football in front of the camera.
Even though we had had television for 40 years before Gayelle, the very presence of a channel which gave access to people, spoke their language, told their stories was intensely emotional and liberating.
How did we reach there?
In the Caribbean region we live in at least two parallel worlds, on the one hand, the intimate world of the family and folk traditions where we comfortably use our first language, a creole; and on the other hand, the formal, jacket-and-tie world of the European languages of the establishment, whether that be colonial or neo-colonial or the ruling elite who cynically exercises its self-contempt by attempting to edit our heritage.
If we don’t have access to the traditional, to our legacy, as living memory fades, our culture is doomed to be, at best, a mediocre pastiche. But after 40 years of work and the last four years spent digitising our archives and composing comprehensive metadata, we now have the world’s largest digitised archive of Caribbean Culture and society on video. Have a look at just an infinitely small sample of its content:
Apart from those still with us who inhabit the archive,
Think of the giants who passed in the last 40 years, captured forever in the collection:
The Inside The people TV mural is itself a document of memory and the archive gives us, as Caribbean people, for the first time in our history, the opportunity to step back from the rush of NOW and look at our culture and society ever since the invention of the video cassette and add voices – some born more than 100 years ago – to our ever present inquiry into who we are and where we’re headed.
For the first time we now have an accessible, vast and rich resource of visual/oral records of ourselves compiled by ourselves articulating our view of the world.
We no longer have to rely solely on the odd Caribbean production or the mass of material generated outside the Caribbean about us and have to decode the stories of others to arrive at our truths.
At long last the voices of the post-independence Caribbean can be heard among the video records of the world, demanding attention in their own right and inviting appreciation of the region’s richness and stunning complexity.
As media workers we are all engaged in the act of preservation every time we record and event, an interview. We need to be constantly aware of the role we are playing in building memory. But that is not enough. These records have themselves to be preserved, digitised and catalogued to create reservoirs accessible by our people, especially our youth who in the absence of access to these records latch on to ‘other people’s dreams’ and lose all grounding. Like a huge library burning in a slow fire the video records of the last 50 years are disappearing.
In 1997 through the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) we received a grant of $16,000 US which enabled us to complete the outfitting of our archive vault, thus doubling the life of the 3000 videotapes in the archive and laying the groundwork for the digitisation process which, with the assistance of York University in Toronto and the National Library Services of Trinidad & Tobago we accelerated over the past five years to construct the largest digitised archive of its kind in the world.
Television stations in the region and other bodies have repositories of videotape that are on the verge of being irrecoverable due to careless storage and the decreasing availability of legacy machines to play them or technicians to maintain what machines are available. For the past half a century we have had many conferences and meetings about digitising Caribbean archives, to no avail. It is a huge task which gets more and more daunting with each day. In order to achieve this, money is less important than commitment and will. How else could a small private facility like Banyan achieve what large corporations and government failed to do?
I leave the Mighty Spoiler (Theophilus Philip) with the last words. From his calypso LOST MEMORIES (1960) about a village that had lost its memory. In his last verse he sings of Mr. Cornelius who, like Albert Camus’ OUTSIDER, is treated like a criminal because he didn’t cry at a funeral. Mr. Cornelius had forgotten how to cry. Have we as a society become a Mr. Cornelius? Are we condemned to continue to forget how to remember?
“Just because he lost his memory
What an awful thing to stand up and see
Put yourself in his position to imagine
He forget to remember that he forget remembering.”
Lost Memories by Mighty Spoiler