From its inception in 2005, the University of the West Indies’ (St. Augustine) Film Programme has contributed greatly to the still-evolving film industry of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean as a whole. Over the years, many of the Programme’s students and lecturers have written, produced, directed, edited and appeared in a number of documentaries (2010’s “Caribbean Skin, African Identity”, directed by Mandisa Pantin), short films (2012’s “Buck, the Man Spirit”, by Steven Taylor) and feature films (2014’s “Haiti Bride” from veteran filmmaker Yao Ramesar). This year, a new film has emerged from the Film Programme and made its way to the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (also celebrating their 10th anniversary). What started off as a 50-minute (approximate) film made during the Programme’s third-year Capstone thesis course has evolved into a 72-minute feature in competition for Best Trinidad and Tobago Feature at the Festival.
This movie is “Pendulum”, the debut feature from 23-year-old Michael Rochford. Written by Rochford, Anastasia Alexis and Joshua Paul, the movie revolves around the character of Ryan Williams (played by Jovon Browne), a former soldier turned journalist who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD for short) after a traumatic wartime incident left him mentally scarred. A former war comrade turned tech mogul named Luther Bharath (Stephen Hadeed Jr.) hires Ryan to track down the individual responsible for hacking into the databases of Luther’s company, Luther Technologies. Ryan is the only person Luther can trust to get the job done. Luther’s secretary Alana Lewis (Frances De Lancey) informs Ryan in an earlier scene that he “is the closest thing Luther has to a brother, after his father” (who, as stated in the film’s intro, was murdered). After an assassination attempt on Luther by an unknown assailant leads to the revealed identity of said assailant by Ryan (after a well-shot and well-edited shootout/chase scene) and the framing of Ryan for Luther’s subsequent death, Ryan is forced to question his own sanity while he desperately tries to find out the truth behind Luther’s death and clear his name.
Perception of reality – or in this case, the “reality” presented to the audience – permeates throughout “Pendulum”. Shot on location in Port-of-Spain, Tunapuna, Arima and the UWI St. Augustine campus, the film was shot, edited and designed in such a way that it all feels part of the same place – this place being the fictional Urio City. Though I knew most of the locations first-hand (like the Larry Gomes Stadium in Arima, the interiors of which were creatively utilized in the film’s excellent climax, and the Port-of-Spain International Waterfront Centre, beautifully visualized in a few drone-filmed nighttime scenes reminiscent of the 2014 Hollywood action film – and my personal “guilty pleasure” movie of that year – “John Wick”), at no point in time did I find myself taken out of the movie simply because one location was further away from another. In other words, Urio City is the world of “Pendulum”, and I, as a viewer, had to accept the world presented to me in this movie.
There’s also the film’s comic relief – a former soldier turned Ryan’s unofficial accomplice – named Harold (Scott Evans) who subtly represents the perception of reality presented in “Pendulum”, albeit in a hilariously clever manner. Established in his introductory scene (filmed in Trevor’s Edge – a popular pub/restaurant in St. Augustine) as a man who chose alcohol as a means of moving on from his wartime past, Harold regularly uses colloquial slang in his dialogue despite his blatantly foreign accent. Oddly enough, and I do believe this was intentional, he uses more colloquial slang than anyone else in the movie. Perhaps I’m reading into this character too much, but to me, Harold represented a level of self-awareness in “Pendulum” where the use of colloquial slang to help authenticate the nationality of Trinbagonian film characters (not actors, mind you) is challenged – or should I say, poked fun at – by having a “foreign” character say them.
But it’s the character of Ryan Williams that truly embodies the film’s theme. Ryan questions, and is questioned about, his own sanity as he is regularly bombarded by brief, intense panic attacks and flashes of broken memories. There’s a memorable scene where we see the first of Ryan’s panic attacks, which begins with him staggering through a street and ends with him on the muddy ground of a playground – heart racing, losing his breath. I wish the film took some more time to delve into the fractured mindset of Browne’s character, to really make the audience understand how powerful a grip his PTSD has onto his psyche, and make us question his sanity even more. We do get an idea how Ryan’s condition affected his relationship with his sister Jenise (played by Ruby Parris) through a couple of conversational scenes, but this idea would have been more effective if we were informed earlier in the story that Ryan suffers from PTSD instead of having Ruby’s character say it later in the film.
Fortunately, the narrative and technical missteps (sound design, for example, for the version that I saw needed some polishing) are few and far between, as “Pendulum” is still an amazingly entertaining movie from start to finish. Michael Rochford’s direction is focused, economical and assured. The action scenes are thrilling, whether it’s a shootout, chase or (spoiler alert) fight scene. The cinematography, with its cool colour palette of greys, browns, blues and greens, helps in creating a contemporary yet neo-noirish version of Trinidad for the film’s characters to inhabit. Speaking of characters, the cast of “Pendulum” turn in impressive performances, especially from Jovon Browne, Stephen Hadeed Jr. and Scott Evans. There’s also the talented Anokha Baptiste, who plays Luther’s receptionist Sarah Darding, who easily rivals Browne, Evans and Hadeed Jr. in terms of standout performance.
Michael Rochford started off his film career with a 2012 short film (which he made before entering the UWI Film Programme) entitled “The Man in the Woods” (you can find it on YouTube), which starred himself and Jovon Browne as the two lead characters. Three years later, they’ve worked together on their own feature film. Having known Michael since the challenging production of “The Man in the Woods”, and having heard from Michael himself of the trials and tribulations that went into making “Pendulum”, I am truly amazed at the success his debut feature turned out to be. For what it’s worth, this movie represents the potential and possibilities of Trinbagonian cinema. We can continue to make films that are ambitious, provocative, unique, tell great stories, entertain instead of solely inform, present great on-screen characters good and bad, takes us on emotional journeys, whether it’s a thriller, comedy, drama or horror, and most importantly, make us want to revisit them again. The paths, however, to making films such as those are indeed difficult to navigate, but the end result – like “Pendulum” – could be worth it in the long run. I’m reminded by a statement by the late, great French New Wave icon Francois Truffaut – which just so happens to be the late, great film critic Roger Ebert’s (my primary inspiration for doing movie reviews, in case you were wondering) favourite quote from Truffaut: “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between.” “Pendulum” gets a STRONG 3 1/2 out of 5 stars and is definitely worth checking out!