Q & A with Horace Ové

The greatest performances came from the guys who had come off the street. I want those who have had the experiences to take me there with them, to recreate the experience.
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Horace Ové is a Trinidadian film director whose career in the industry spans almost four decades. Ové migrated to the UK in 1959 and has only recently returned to his native Trinidad. Hailed as a pioneer in Black British history by the British Film Institute, Ové has produced Over 20 film projects including feature length films, documentaries, and made–for–television series.

As such, he holds the Scarlet Ibis Medal from the government of Trinidad and Tobago in recognition of his international achievements. These achievements include recognition by the Guinness Book of Records as the first Caribbean director of a feature film in Britain – Pressure (1976). He is also the first Caribbean director of an independently produced documentary – Reggae (1969).

He was also named Best Director for Independent Film and Television by the British Film Institute in 1986 and, a decade later, was awarded Best Drama and Best Director at the Indian Academy Awards for The Equalizer, a quest for revenge born out of the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919. He has also directed several plays and has had three exhibitions of his photographic work.

Ové’s migration to Britain had initially been inspired by plans to study interior design but his attraction to film, fostered at a very young age in the cinema houses of Port–of–Spain, pushed him in another direction. Ové started his film career as an acting extra. His first significant film involvement was in 1961 when he had roles, first as a Roman soldier then as a slave, in the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra.

The production had started filming in the UK but, because of poor weather conditions, it migrated to Italy, and Ové with it. However, the filmmaker admits that an acting career was never his focus, it was access to the set, the behind–the–camera action, that he craved. Ové stayed in Italy for five years where he was exposed to the works of directors such as Felini, Passolini, and the realist and surrealist genres of cinema. On his return to England he enrolled in the London International Film School.

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Besides Pressure, his earliest works also include The Art of the Needle (1966), which was the first documentary on acupuncture in Britain; and Baldwin’s Nigger (1968), a discussion with legendary African-American writer James Baldwin and Dick Gregory on the comparison between black life in the USA and Britain. At present, Ovéis also at work on a script collaboration with Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott and another project with African–American film star and director Laurence Fishburne. Hype managed to catch up with the prolific filmmaker while he was at the University of the West Indies’ Cave Hill campus recently to present and discuss his comedy Playing Away (1986). This made for television film, written by acclaimed novelist Caryl Phillips, who was also on the campus recently as the Humanities “writer–in–residence”, presents a cricket game as a microcosm of race relations in 1980’s Britain.

Sunhead: How do you categorise yourself? Would you say that you make documentaries, straight films, dramas, comedies?
HO: I’m a filmmaker, full stop. I’ve made TV series, features, and documentaries. Documentaries are good for feature filmmakers because they bring you closer to real life and that’s what I’m mainly interested in. Sometimes people say that I can’t call this a particular type of film because I did this or that in it, but there are no rules. As long as what you are doing communicates to people, to your audience, there are no rules.

Sunhead: I notice that you don’t only focus on Caribbean issues or problems, your storylines range from Britain to India, California, is this part of some sort of world vision?
HO: Yes, I do have a world vision. I’ve been traveling about for a long time. I’m interested in people, in the world, I don’t isolate myself. I’m interested in how people deal with problems, how they survive their situations. I’m interested in human beings no matter what colour or class; I’ll make a film about anyone who interests me, any people who interest me. And I’m not only interested in what goes on around outside, but what’s in your head, your images, thoughts, that’s a whole movie in itself.

Sunhead: We here in the Caribbean don’t hear a lot about the British film industry, especially the Black British side of it, could you talk a bit about it? For example, why do you think there has been no internationally famous directors along the lines of Spike Lee?
HO: First of all, the British film industry has always been up and down, even for white filmmakers, because Britain never tried to create a “Hollywood”. Spike Lee has Hollywood behind him in terms of money and world–wide distribution. There are black filmmakers who have gotten opportunities but enough haven’t been given them. It’s time that Britain woke up and realised this. Britain is missing out on an ethnic diversity that is so talented. Look at Notting Hill Gate Carnival. It is now the biggest cultural event in the whole of Europe. That was because of the determination of West Indians to have their celebration. They came together and fought back against opposition. We need to apply that struggle to the film industry. I also believe that we here in the Caribbean, and black people in the world, need more black films and distribution. We consume but we don’t send it out.

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Sunhead: Are there any talented individuals in particular that we should look out for?
HO: Oh, there are several. I don’t want to pick anybody Ovér anyone else but there is a very young, talented group of people who have come out in England. As well as in the Caribbean, there’s a lot of talent here also. What matters is getting the opportunity. The people in charge must have the ability to see and encourage, most of the time they don’t. Sometimes we judge by class, colour, education; when we are talking about entertainment, about singing, performing, it is the people off the street who we see excel not who come out of UWI or Cambridge or Oxford. The people in charge need to recognise that.

Sunhead: What are the major constraints to finding acting talent from the Caribbean community in Britain. Is there a problem with numbers since you have to draw from the same pool as the theatre?
HO: Horace Ové can draw from the professional world but at the same time I can pick someone off the street and cast them. A director should be able to draw talent from anywhere. You develop an ability to train that person or get them to perform themselves. I did that for my first feature film Pressure. The greatest performances came from the guys who had come off the street. I want those who have had the experiences to take me there with them, to recreate the experience. A lot of other directors and producers would not do this but people are performing roles everyday. People are acting every day of their lives as soon as they get up from their bed to leave home.

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Sunhead: Do you think that we need a film school here in the Caribbean?
HO: Yes, the Caribbean needs a film school to educate Caribbean people who are interested in the medium. Education is not just watching television or Hollywood movies, we don’t have to imitate the bigger countries, there are so many countries that have major filmmakers that we need to be exposed to. Indian cinema, Chinese cinema, the Chinese are doing wonderful things with their industry.

Sunhead: What do you think of the present film industry in the Caribbean.
HO: There is no film industry in the Caribbean, I’m sorry to say. There is television but nobody is thinking cinema. People need information, education on how to invest their money. Investors in the Caribbean are not going to take a chance on something they don’t know about, even though they should. It’s quite an empty ocean that could be filled up with good television, good film, good film. We have great actors, writers, technicians, we have to know how to use them. There are those who times that we have done it: The Harder They Come, Sugar Cane Alley, Dancehall Queen, those are the ones that give you hope.

Sunhead: What part do you plan to play in this?
HO: I’ve been out of Trinidad for nearly 35 years but I’m based in Trinidad now. I’ve been back for two years now and I’ve made connections with filmmakers who I am interested in working with in the future, both there and in Jamaica. I want to make films in the Caribbean.

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