Style Observer

From Passage to Cargo

Vaughn Gray

Sunday, January 27, 2019

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In 2013, Bahamian film director Kareem Mortimer debuted a short film Passage that centred on a group of Haitian migrants being smuggled from The Bahamas to the United States in the hold of a fishing vessel. The 15-minute film was so well received that Mortimer decided to expand it into a feature-length film. Cue: Cargo . At the core, both films discuss smuggling of Haitian migrants from The Bahamas to Miami, the xenophobia and poor working conditions undocumented Haitian nationals experience in Caribbean countries, and the sheer desperation of their lives that they believe will be alleviated by living in America.

The United Nations defines migrant smuggling as “the illegal entry of a person into a state party of which the person is not a national or permanent resident” in order to obtain material or financial benefits. Due to the nature of migrant smuggling (note: trafficking is top to bottom exploitative and can occur within borders vis a vis smuggling, which is transactional and must be transnational), it's difficult to obtain data. However, it's estimated that upwards of three million irregular entries are made into the United States each year, of which more than 65,000 persons are from the Caribbean and Central America. Mortimer's Cargo examines this global refugee crisis from a Caribbean perspective.

On Wednesday, January 23 Cargo had its Jamaican première at Carib 5 Cinema in Kingston. The event was attended by members of the Caribbean film fraternity, scholars, cinephiles and members of the cast and production team. Representing Cargo were Bahamian writer/director Kareem Mortimer, Bahamian executive producer Alexander Younis, Rock-born model-cum-actress Nicole Sky Grey and Haitian actor Jimmy Jean-Louis.

Cargo is, in a word, melancholic. Even during the lighthearted scenes, a sense of dread is pervasive. The film's main character, Kevin, is a former cocaine smuggler turned failed fisherman whose son's private school tuition of US$35,000 exceeds his annual income of US$25,000. To make matters worse, Kevin suffers from a gambling addiction and is the breadwinner for a mother with Alzheimer's and a wife Berneice (portrayed by Persia White, yes, from Girlfriends) who, not only has given up on him but also suffers from mental health issues. Berneice is, too, rankled that she took the fall for him when the authorities intervened in his cocaine-smuggling operation. When faced with his son being removed from school and not having winning lottery numbers, Kevin decides to go into 'transportation'.

With his first trip, Kevin successfully smuggles undocumented Haitian migrants from The Bahamas to a pick-up point between the Caribbean and Miami. From there a speedboat would complete the second leg of the journey. The payday gives Kevin much-needed zip and he starts to act, as the kids say, brand-new. He picks up Celianne — a Haitian waitress at one of his favourite hangouts — has sex with her and then, in an offensive move, offers her money. This scene quintessentially sums up how power and racial dynamics oftentimes play out in sexual relations between the native and the coloniser.

The next few scenes are a whirlwind of haplessness. Not to worry, no spoilers here. However, the denouement reveals just how low Kevin would go to keep up appearances and the lies he tells himself about his intentions. After being kicked out by his wife and desperate for money Kevin, with Celianne's help, makes one final trip. He inveigles his best friend Eddie (portrayed by Omar J Dorsey from Queen Sugar) to assist him. Simply put, the plan fails and all of Kevin's chickens come home to roost. Kevin has anted up and instead of gambling with money, is now gambling with lives.

Besides being a pastiche of Caribbean life, Cargo expertly explores the tension shared amongst the islands. From stereotypes to viewing other Caribbean nationals as less than Cargo does not steer away from making the audience deal with their prejudices and compels viewers to engage in these painful conversations.

In the Q&A that followed the première, Jean-Louis noted that after the Haitian Revolution, the nation carried the Caribbean and that it's unacceptable how its nationals are now treated by their cousins. Indeed, Haiti has endured a series of misfortunes, yet its people persevere and live in hope. Through its grittiness and clever use of cinematography (many scenes look like artsy colour postcards), Cargo illustrates that despite the number of times 'the game' is played, sometimes you just don't win.

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