Man, it feels so good to be back!
Quick thank-yous to everyone who read and shared (online) my almost-infamous “Escape from Babylon” review, and made it my most talked-about post thus far on my blog. Apologies for not posting any updates during the past month. My personal life continues to surprise me with changes and developments – most of them positive in case you were wondering, As such, I had to re-structure my blogging time, which was no easy task. So while I can’t guarantee the “regular update”, I am fighting back, bit by bit, to add some new, much-needed content to this blog of mine. Case in point: today’s post, which touches on one of the Official Selections in the 2013 Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival – “God Loves the Fighter”.
Months before its official release in the Movie Towne entertainment complex on Friday 20th September, this film had been gaining some SERIOUS buzz. Perhaps it had something to do with the popularity of the teasers and trailer on YouTube. Probably it’s the film’s title – which is REALLY BAD-ASS by the way! Or maybe it had to do with the film’s director Damian Marcano who has become a household name thanks to his 2013 Carnival music videos and short film/music video respectively for soca music icon Machel Montano (“The Fog”, “Float” and “Represent REMIX” featuring the poetry/lyricist group Freetown Collective). “God Loves the Fighter” marks Damian Marcano’s first foray into feature filmmaking.
Now I wasn’t there at the world premiere of Marcano’s film at Movie Towne, but I was made aware through the social media grapevine that it was sold-out (SHOCKING, I know) and well-received (not that shocking, but still amazing). Since I always put great value over my time and money …. and because I can be a cheap bastard when necessary, I attended the free (FREE, BITCHES!!) screening of the film on Tuesday (Republic Day) at my alma mater, the University of the West Indies. While waiting outside the Film Building where “God Loves the Fighter” was about to be screened, I noticed a large gathering of patrons increasing in size by the minute. I can only imagine that this was also the case at Movie Towne last Friday. I will admit – I’ve only attended a few screenings at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival throughout the years. Not because the movies are “boring” and “too artsy”, but because I put great value over my time and money….and because I can be a cheap bastard when necessary. But this was the FIRST time I ever saw a huge crowd for a Trinbagonian film. And then it dawned on me that “God Loves the Fighter” was much more than a teaser trailer, bad-ass title and a director’s name.
This movie was meant to be something special.
“God Loves the Fighter” opens with a cinema verite-like sequence with its subject being a vagrant named King Curtis (played by Freetown Collective member Lou Lyons). He’s shown walking the streets of East Port-of-Spain, spitting bitter and painfully truthful social commentary on the state of affairs of Trinidad. He opens and closes the film in this fashion, and also serves as the film’s narrator. Charlie (played by Muhammad Muwakil, another Freetown Collective member) is introduced first in the story. A resident “East of the lighthouse”, Charlie tries to stay on the proverbial “straight and narrow path”, despite the lack of employment opportunities that he faces daily, and the allure of crime and easy money that he notices in his neighbourhood. But like the Brazilian crime-drama “City of God” (one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life – in case you were wondering), “God Loves the Fighter” does not center itself solely on one main character. We’re also introduced to Stone (Abdi Waithe), Charlie’s gun-toting childhood friend and former partner-in-crime who’s currently involved in an elaborate drug smuggling operation; Dinah (Jamie Lee Phillips), a prostitute (Get it? Dinah? “Jean and Dinah”? Mighty Sparrow? Anyone? Anyone?!) is looking for a way out of her dreadful occupation; Putao (played by graphic artist/ tattooist Darren Cheewah), an outrageously profane and fearsome pimp/drug dealer who owns the sports bar/brothel where Dinah works; Moses (Simon Junior John), a taxi driver and courier of Putao’s drugs; and ‘Chicken’ (Zion Henry), a kid, who like Charlie, faces the daily temptation of choosing easy money over empty pockets and an empty stomach.
King Curtis describes the day-by-day lives of these characters with detail, humour and sarcasm. Stone encourages Charlie to work in Putao’s operation by assisting Moses in his drug deliveries. When Dinah isn’t working in the brothel, she attends a Roman Catholic church seeking divine redemption. And when Chicken isn’t suffering through insult after verbal insult from his mother (Penelope Spencer) who’s constantly pissed off following the absence of her husband in her life, he spends time with his classmate Dirk (Jaleel Waithe – yes, you guessed it. Abdi’s son), a “badman”-in-training. Dirk, like Stone, is enamored by the “thug lifestyle”, and similar to Stone persuading Charlie to use a gun, Dirk persuades Chicken to steal. In one memorable sequence, Dirk and Chicken sneak their way into a supermarket (after waiting outside by the playground facing the building), grab a shopping cart and begin sourcing various edibles. The beauty and irony of this sequence lies on the convincing performances by Zion and Jaleel. The duo are literally in a new world – a new reality – and not the one provided by the typical “shop by the corner”. Wide-eyed and full of joy, they grab snacks and cereal boxes from the shelves as they roam the supermarket aisles. The harsh reality is that their parents – and many others who live in the ghetto – can’t afford these items in the first place. Reality itself steps in at the end of this sequence when a security guard gives chase after Chicken and Dirk.
While I sat through the film, I knew that many people watching the film would quickly compare it to “City of God”. And they did. During the Q&A session, the title “City of God” was thrown around a lot – which is actually a compliment. “God Loves the Fighter” deserves the comparison. But I couldn’t help but compare the movie to a recent American film called “Spring Breakers” (which I enjoyed the HELL out of, in case you were wondering). No, “God Loves the Fighter” doesn’t have white girls in bikinis having sex, snorting coke and bussin’ caps in asses (although it would have been fun to see Jamie-Lee’s character bussin’ a cap or two in an ass or two in the film – just kidding), but they both present a blurred line (Get it? “Blurred Lines”? Robin Thicke? Anyone? Anyone?! COME ON!!) between reality and fabricated reality (notice I didn’t say fantasy). In “God Loves the Fighter”, this is expressed entirely in its visuals. Damian Marcano uses his music video-directing and cinematography background to create a visual palette that resembles….well, a music video. In a sense, this visual aesthetic gives the impression that you are indeed watching a feature-length hip hop video, but one in which the ghetto life isn’t glamorized for the sake of a forgettable 3 to 4-minute rap song.
“God Loves the Fighter” is filled to the brim with stylistic flourishes, from slo-mo shots and smooth dolly shots to quick cutting, hyped-up visuals (that reminded me of those used by the late director Tony Scott in films like Denzel Washington’s “Man on Fire” and “Deja Vu”) and regular changes in colour from dusty, sunny browns to yellows, reds and greens embedded in nighttime shadows. There’s even a few uses of visual FX that aid in the continual “blurring” of reality and fabricated reality. Sometimes they work in enhancing the overall visual style of the film, while other times, they make the film feel less realistic and more unnecessarily ‘larger-than-life’ than it should be. This is apparent in one particular scene where Stone is firing shots with what I believe to be an M4 (Forgive me – I’m rusty in my weapons detail of ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’) at a nearby wall.
The film is less extreme in its portrayal of violence and crime than “City of God”, but its fearlessness in showcasing Port-of-Spain’s dark, violent side, unbelievable it may seem to some and true-to-life in others, makes for an oftentimes unflinching viewing experience. Comments were made in the Q&A that there are almost no positive characters in the film. Come to think of it, there was one ‘positive’ character, which was the elderly and eccentric ex-‘badjohn’ Mr. Odrick (Albert Laveau) who provided some much-needed humour to the story. Another comment made was the lack of positive female characters. The ones presented in the film accept sexual favours for money, deny sexual favours due to lack of money or in the case of Penelope Spencer (who delivers an obviously tough performance as Chicken’s fierce, loud-mouthed mother) quarrel constantly over the non-presence of a male breadwinner. But as was mentioned during the response to these comments, “God Loves the Fighter” was intended to show non-redeemable characters who, through some situation, must “fight” (hence the title) to gain their redemption. It’s not about Hollywood heroes and comic-book villains. It’s about a reality that many Trinbagonians ignore on a daily basis , and this is what the film addresses. Accepting this reality – or portrayal of it – rests on the viewer.
The performances in the film, from Muhammad Muwakil to Zion Henry, were excellent. But it’s Darren Cheewah who takes the win. He SHINES throughout the film as the foul-mouthed, hedonistic and hilariously fucked-up Putao. Every time he appeared on-screen, I couldn’t help but be reminded of James Franco’s over-the-top gangsta rapper “Alien” character from “Spring Breakers”. And that too is a compliment, since Franco OWNED that role! The music (which ranged from authentic kaiso and parang to hip-hop to electronic dancehall) was outstanding, and the sound design (while flawed in a few scenes, like a few conversation scenes where the music sounded a bit louder than the dialogue) creatively added volume and depth to the film’s soundscape. The story itself, while imperfect, was well-written, focused and passionate.
“God Loves the Fighter” is clearly not for everyone. The language is surprisingly (for a Trinbagonian film, that is) raw and explicit (if you’re the type who cringes every time someone yells “fuck”, “shit” and that other word that rhymes with “bunt”, then you’ll be cleaning out your ears when it’s over), the subject matter is dark and heavy, and the depiction of inner-city life is gritty and grimy. However, it’s not all about gloom and doom. The film’s underlying themes of redemption and hope are powerful ones that even the most jaded and hard-headed of viewers can relate to. In the end, I truly appreciated and enjoyed this film. It’s courageous, bold, funny, ballsy, provocative, unforgettable and undoubtedly one of the most impressive films I’ve ever seen from my home country. Well worth your time and money – even if you happen to be a cheap bastard.
MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars (“See this movie”)