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In Trinidad, a director takes on sacred cows (and his government)

July 13, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik
  • A scene from Shaun Escayg's "Fish."
A scene from Shaun Escayg's "Fish." (Shaun Escayg )

With a recent increase in violent crime, Port of Spain, Trinidad, isn’t one of the easier places to direct a movie. You might be in the middle of filming a scene and from out of nowhere overly vigilant cops draw their guns and chase one of your actors.

Shaun Escayg knows these perils firsthand. When the Trinidadian-born filmmaker was shooting a scene in Port of Spain for his new short, “Fish,” he was startled to see his actor pursued by law enforcement officials, who had mistaken a scripted robbery for the real thing.

“I was two stories up with my camera shooting an overheard shot, and as one of the actors runs out of the gate of a fish market [during a robbery scene] I see two armed police officers come running out of the police depot with their guns out,” Escayg said. “I ran up to the officers and told them we were shooting a scene and had permissions. They knew about the permissions but they were so convinced they were seeing a real robbery that it took me five or 10 minutes to convince them they weren’t.”

A gritty drama that features a mix of non-actors and pros (including Escayg’s brother) as well as a colorful local patois, “Fish” tells of a pair of Port of Spain street kids whose lives of petty crime take a dangerous turn when they steal from gangsters. (You can watch the film here.)

The movie is one of the more interesting of the 50 semifinalists in Your Film Festival, a competition sponsored by YouTube with the support of A-listers such as Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender. The contest's 10 finalists, chosen by online viewers in a vote that’s currently under way,  will be shown at the Venice Film Festival. (The winner will be awarded a $500,000 development deal with Scott’s and Fassbender's production companies; the actor also has promoted the contest and will serve with Scott on a jury to determine the winner.)

No one would accuse Escayg of taking the easy way out with his directorial debut. There are movies made within the Hollywood system every day that come with far bigger budgets, effects and names. But few productions require as much moxie.

The director, who currently lives in Los Angeles and has worked on effects for such blockbusters as “Transformers,” wanted to imbue his movie with a dose of authenticity. So he eschewed sets -- and the warnings of his mother -- in favor of shooting on the streets of Port of Spain. On some days, while filming in tougher parts of town, he couldn’t even set up his equipment without armed guards.

It hasn’t been easy for Escayg since he completed his movie The filmmaker has found himself criticized by tourism and government officials in Trinidad. “They say I’m showing the country in not so good of a light,” he said. “And my answer is that I’m speaking for the people who probably don’t have the opportunity to speak for themselves.

"Crime and poverty is something we don’t like to talk about in the Caribbean; it’s swept under the rug with talk of parties and beaches. But I wanted to show what for many people is the real world.”

Though it sports exotic tropical scenery and a mélange of cultures, Port of Spain has also struggled in recent years with violent crime, as drug cartels have used the city as a transit point for their illegal business. Escayg, 37, grew up in a middle-class household at a time when crime levels were still low, and has been in North America for more than 15 years. (He has also lived in Canada and Northern California, and worked for years at George Lucas’ film company.)

But he makes frequent visits to Trinidad, where his mother still lives, and has watched as parts of it have transformed, both for  better and for worse. He based the story, he said, on recent observations and stories from childhood friends who were not as well off.

Escayg said that the country boasts a film commission and a growing filmmaking community -- a surprisingly robust one for such a small place. (The combined population of Trinidad and Tobago, one nation that occupies two islands, is barely 1.3 million.) The film efforts are evidence of a culture that wants to develop its own cinema instead of just importing product from Hollywood.

From a movie-industry perspective, Escayg’s story also illustrates something else: how in an age of inexpensive production and YouTube exposure, a filmmaker with a unique story to tell can get his work made and seen.

The director said he hopes to develop "Fish" into a feature.  He’s written a treatment and, if he doesn’t win the YouTube prize, will seek independent financing. Would he return to Trinidad to shoot it?  “Definitely,” he said. “But I’ll probably try to talk to the cops first next time.”


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