A Modern Day Middle Passage

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Bodies washed ashore on white sand beaches. Immigrants’ corpses littering the shores of paradise. These are images Bahamian Filmmaker Kareem Mortimer recalls of his youth.

“I had always known about this” Mortimer said in a recent interview for NBPC’s AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange. Mortimer said he remembers hearing, night after night, the reports as a nine-year-old. Then again, from time to time, over the years, the evening news showed pictures and told yet more stories of failed immigration attempts which had resulted in fatalities. Such are the stories and images that inform two of Mortimer’s current film projects Cargo, a feature length film, and Passage, a dramatic short, featured this season on AfroPoP Caribbean Shorts.

In the short film, Passage, Mortimer takes us inside the hull of a “live-or-die” ship, a smuggler’s vessel, along with the human cargo being transported to America. Somber and rife with noise, vibration and harshness, the film offers a visceral and unflinching peek into a modern-day experience that is at once evocative of the Middle Passage. It is Mortimer’s habit of turning his lens to address polemic issues. It is the same characteristic that earned him 2013 recognition by The Bahamas Tribune as one of the 40 Bahamians under 40 creating change in his community.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 3.31.36 PMSimilarly, Mortimer’s look into the underbelly of Haitian immigration is drawing critical acclaim for Mortimer, a 2007 alumni of Berlinale Talents and a 2013 alumni of the Toronto International Film Festival Talent Lab. A prolific writer/producer/director, his credits also include: Notes from the Underground (documentary shorts); Float (winner of 5 international short film awards); I Am Not A Dummy; Children Of God (winner of 18 feature film awards), and Wind Jammers. Mortimer was named a Director to Know, and Passage, One of the 10 best films in 2013, respectively, by Cine Caribes.

And while Mortimer acknowledges that the inspiration for the film was planted in him while he was a child, the atrocities explored resound louder now than ever before. For example, in November 2013, the New York Times reported Bahamian authorities had stopped 1,330 migrants at sea. The news story “At Least 30 Haitians Die After Boat Capsizes,” followed a shipwreck incident involving Haitian migrants, who had paid smugglers to ferry them across dangerous waters to the United States. “The number of Haitians caught by the Coast Guard crossing the Mona Passage, between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, soared in 2013, rising to 2,139,” the Times reported, with many of the boats passing through the Bahamas, carrying passengers from as far away as Ecuador and Brazil.

According to the Times, The Coast Guard in South Florida and several Haitian-American organizations in Miami have deployed a series of public service announcements on Creole-language radio stations urging family members not to fund the perilous journeys. “Even though the weather conditions are not favorable, we find persons will take the journey,” a source at the Coast Guard told the Times. “We could surmise the situation in Haiti is not getting better — it may be getting worse — so they risk life and limb in search of a better life.”

“You never can stop people from taking these risks,” Mortimer said. Passage looks beyond the mechanical failings of such endeavors that would indict unstable vessels and poor sailing conditions for their failures, to explore the human costs — and risks — each of the players incur. “Some are living on $1 a day,” Mortimer said, so they are willing to make tremendous sacrifices and to take huge risks.
Desperate choices made by Caribbean coyotes, the smugglers and those being smuggled are explored, in democratic fashion. Mortimer’s short film touches the pulse of all of these issues. The filmmaker said his goal is to educate — similar to the approach taken in Florida, as reported in The Times — and to build awareness about the dangers of smuggling to perhaps illuminate, and to educate for increased understanding about the issue and those affected by it.

Mortimer is on to something, and is expanding his narrative in a feature length film, Cargo which he said will further explore issue and dynamics about which Passage only scratches the surface.

You can watch Passage now online here.