The Caribbean, colonialism, celluloid: Screening the films of the Victor Jara Collective
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
Reprinted with the permission of Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image
A 16mm projection of a documentary about Guyana’s anti-colonial struggles, an anecdote about footage from that film being smuggled in a cricketer’s kit bag, and the film’s score played live on the flute—these were a few of the highlights a packed Birkbeck Cinema experienced at a presentation of the films of the Victor Jara Collective on the second of November last year.
The screening of the films—the feature-length The Terror and the Time (1978) and the mid-length In the Sky’s Wild Noise (1983)—marked the first public event curated by the Twelve30 Collective, which had formed several months prior. Founded by Jonathan Ali and Lisa Harewood, the Twelve30 Collective screens films from the Caribbean and its diaspora. It aims (in the words of its mission statement) “to reframe the moving image by interrogating the ethics and aesthetics of on-screen representation, and in doing so strategically relocate Caribbean cinema within the global film landscape.”
Named in honour of the Chilean musician and dissident Victor Jara, the Victor Jara Collective formed at Cornell University in New York with the aim of making films in Guyana, and for the Guyanese people, about the country’s political, social and economic struggles. In these films archival materials, interviews and poetic sequences were combined, often via the “nervous montage” of New Latin American cinema. The result was an intervention that remains unique in the history of indigenous cinema production in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Attending the event from New York was Lewanne Jones, one of the members of the Victor Jara Collective. She spoke after the screening, in conversation with Keith Waithe, composer on the Terror and the Time (he played the flute), and Richard Drayton, professor of history (he told the anecdote). Lewanne provided invaluable recollections of the chequered production and exhibition history of The Terror and the Time. Richard contextualised these recollections within the socio-political landscape of Guyana and the wider Caribbean during the post-independence 1970s. Keith, meanwhile, testified to the spirit of experimentation that flourished among Guyana’s musicians and artists at that time—a spirit that led to the fusion of African and Indian musical traditions on The Terror and the Time’s score, a reflection of the film’s ethos of cross-racial solidarity.
Among the audience members was Patricia Rodney, widow of Guyanese historian and activist Walter Rodney, the subject of In the Sky’s Wild Noise, as well as several members of the Guyanese diaspora who spoke to the impact that the Victor Jara Collective’s films had on their political organising here in Britain. As one woman noted, the battle that the collective waged with the Guyanese government to have The Terror and the Time made gave activists the courage to openly criticise a nominally socialist, black regime, something they previously would not have dared do.
By happenstance another member of the audience was Kay Dickinson, professor of cinema at Concordia University, Canada. When the subject of professionally digitising the films was raised—the prints, some forty years old, are in delicate condition—Kay offered to broker a conversation with Concordia to have the necessary work done at its Global Emergent Media Lab. Hopefully this will lead to the preservation of the films, as well as help secure the legacy of the Victor Jara Collective and ensure that these important works are available for future audiences to see.