FROM MS MALAPROP

Kareem J Mortimers' Cargo: A Review

By Patricia Glinton-Meicholas © December 2017

I had longed for some time to see the Kareem Mortimer film Cargo. Just recently an opportunity presented and I seized it eagerly. A single opening credit would have justified the price of the ticket and the nearly two hours spent in viewing—the words “A film by Kareem J Mortimer”. What held me in the cinema, however, was the great sensitivity with which writer/director Kareem addresses a tragic and often controversial subject. He has invested the whole with a deep empathy, which should leave no conscious soul untouched by this quiet screening of humans’ age-old, and continuing inhumanity to other humans.

I am acquainted with Kareem. I met him some years ago, a shy, introspective, smiling, but seemingly nervous young Bahamian, who tended to avoid looking directly at you. When this evasion was itself circumvented, and our eyes met, what I saw was an internal fire and a determination that would push him up the steep, slippery, crevasse-pitted slopes of the Everest he had set as his professional goal—filmmaking. What I saw for myself of Cargo, not the hype surrounding it, told me that the obsession I caught sight of years ago was not illusory, but very real, and was powering a sure and steady climb to the apex of the target mountain.

If this seems overly enthusiastic, let me attempt to say why Cargo impressed a person who has read thousands of books, and seen many, many films, both genres in three languages running the gamut from the execrable to the ethereal. Cargo is successfully an omnibus of a film. It has faint lines of a docudrama, giving rise in my thoughts of the not-sufficiently-acknowledged aftermath of the predation of slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean and Latin America, which has left the inheritors of the region, a legacy of economic instability, political unrest and poverty. This tainted heritage drives many to flee northward to some envisioned Eldorado that often proves to be fool’s gold for many who arrive in The Bahamas, the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom.

Kareem’s work also has traces of a sociological treatise on culture clash, and on wounds opened by bigotry and egoism. It can be viewed as a restrained eschatology; that is, a religious piece, replete with the symbol of a rosary-like necklace, examining the soul of human beings—especially one. It is a story of things falling apart. What has been counted upon as a centre or anchor, i.e. the dreams of Kevin the central character, cannot hold.

Cargo is equally a story of sin, its painful wages, judgement and eventual death in various ways—death of hope, death of virtue, physical death. I’ll say at the outset that, despite some content slippages, this is a powerful exposé every adult Bahamian, as well as counterparts in other countries dealing with illegal migration of refugees seeking safe harbour from some form of persecution or want. Moreover, there is plenty here to stimulate people who enjoy looking beyond the surface, when seeking entertainment.

The first tranche of this multi-layered presentation opens on Kevin, a white Bahamian, who is attempting to make a living as a fisherman. Here to is where the art, which began with the rosary in the opening, continues. There is everything to suggest that Kevin’s venture rests on a shaky foundation. We are shown the decrepit nature of his boat. It is laughable to a Bahamian that he hauls up a lobster condo, especially as its catch is just a few, pitiful snappers. We discover that Kevin harbours an outsize dream that dwarfs his means. His pockets are near empty, he is lacking in skills, but ominously saddled with a vice—gambling.

Kevin has our sympathy in the beginning. It seems he can’t catch a break. We are shown that several nemeses, the inescapable agents of Kevin’s downfall, are hot on his trail. His son is in danger of losing his place at a $30,000 a year boarding school because his fees are deeply in arrears. Kevin is behind in his payments to the Development Bank, and he is as indebted to his bookie. Kevin’s wife, Berneice, is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, no less spectacular then that of the women of Almodóvar’s film of similar name. And, she has every right to be on the edge. He husband has let her down in many ways—even to causing her imprisonment for a crime he committed. When we meet her, she is suffering other forms of imprisonment. She is agoraphobic, won’t leave her house, and has the sole care of Kevin’s mother, who is lives deep in fetid waters of dementia, with habits that call for bleach, scrubbing and fortitude on the part of the caregiver, whose own hold on sanity is tenuous.

Along comes a proposal to Kevin that seems to be just the excavator to dig him out of the landfill of waste in which his bad decisions have buried him. Like a drowning man, he grabs for it. He becomes a human trafficker ferrying Haitians from New Providence to the Berry Islands, where his new employer says they will be picked up by a speedboat and taken to Florida, the paradise sought by these eternal refugees. Kevin quickly finds that the “solution” does not bring light but adds to the Stygian darkness of Kevin’s home front and life in general. I will say no more on the plot, so as not to spoil it for those who have not yet seen the Mortimer film.

The one of strongest points of the film is the Kevin character study, and Warren Brown, in the role, is to be congratulated. He manages to make his character’s dissolution credible and gripping. Kevin descends into hell in a poor man’s version of Dante’s Divine Comedy, with his friend Eddie (Omar J Dorsey) as his Virgil. In contrast to Dante’s hero, our man Kevin dives headlong into the greed, lust and fraud he sees about him. While Eddie remains faithful to the friendship and tries to steer him right, Kevin decides to descend to the lowest circle of hell—engaging in human smuggling, but, unlike journey’s end for Dante’s pilgrim, there will be no emergence into Easter Sunday for him.

Three of the female characters provide strong anchor points for the film. Gessica Geneus makes us believe in ‘Celianne’, flirting with genius in a portrayal that escapes artifice. She becomes Celianne. Geneus evokes effortlessly, with a mixture of pathos and dignity, her character’s tenuous hold on safety in a land that, at best, tolerates her compatriots, many fearing, not unreasonably, the transference of Haiti’s implosion. At worst, the Bahamian milieu rejects any commonalities between its people and Haitians, either in brainless bigotry, as does Celianne’s employer, or in sanctimonious repudiation of any proposal for the creation of a humane immigration policy that would benefit both sides; i.e. provide well-monitored, term contracts to give hope to Haitians seeking better, and a ready labour force for industries, such as agriculture, generally rejected by Bahamians engaged in what they consider upward mobility.

Persia White, as Berneice, though having fewer on-screen performances than Geneus, absolutely nails her character’s meltdown, a magisterial outpouring of invective against a husband who has taken her and the rest of the family to a dark place, literally shit-filled where none wished to go. Sky Nicole Grey’s role, as Jamaican Mona, the new caretaker of Kevin’s mother is little more than a cameo, but Grey makes capital of it. In her response to Kevin’s criminal treatment, her terror and complete unravelling is palpable.

Jamie Donnelly is believable as the demented mother; however, one of the principal slippages of the film emerges with the attempt to put the white Bahamian story of origins in that character’s mouth. It rings false, much the same as Kevin’s contorted utterance about keeping his family together by tearing them apart. While dementia patients do slip in an out of the dark web, the old woman’s moment of clarity is itself poorly conceived. It is much like the 6th grade essay of a conscientious student—stiff and rote. Overall, overt attempts at Bahamianizing are generally the weakest elements of Cargo, especially in larding the dialogue with Bahamian Creole and proverbs to be delivered by tongues patently unused to negotiating such language forms. Brown struggles with “Hungry dog eat raw corn”, and the character Sam Major becomes cartoonish. Here, the dialogue is simply cacophony, falling far below Berneice’s passionate toxicity. Kevin and Eddie sharing a bed in philosophical exchange doesn’t compute either. For dialogue success, the words, they must be consonant with the mouths into which they are put, and with the situation in which they are uttered. My humble recommendation for Kareem is an alliance with a professional truly expert in culture and expression, with a critical ear for rhythms.

Cargo also offers food for those who care little for soul-wrenching story and cinematic art. Mortimer has included some of Hollywood’s usual, coldly calculating tricks for attracting the mindless for whom introspection is no less chilling than a water bath to a cat. I speak of Brown’s flash of a contribution to the film world’s ever-increasing romance with full-frontal nudity. No less extraneous are Geneus’ floating globes.

Now, to the delight of talking about the art of the film. As someone immersed in the arts, literary and otherwise, this is my jam. Here lies the strength of my optimism for Kareem’s eventual summiting of his mountain. The choice of the name “Cargo”, I love. Although this commodification of people is not novel, but it fits well here—monosyllabic, impersonal, but ominously weighty.

Kareem’s tour de force lies in the acute parallel he draws between Kevin and Celianne, although, ostensibly there are poles apart in gender, race, ethnicity and social mobility. Yet their creator uses these character to show us that, at the most visceral level, human beings are much the same. The writer/director very cleverly makes the woman Kevin’s alter ego. Like him, she seeks a better life for an only son.  She too has enrolled her boy in a private school, the tuition for which her $150 a week wage cannot maintain. As in Kevin’s case, the school soon shuts the door to this road to emergence from the displaced Haitian’s subaltern status in The Bahamas.  Both are confronted by a catalytic experience that drives them to panicked action with tragic consequences. For Kevin it is his son’s imminent eviction from boarding school; for Celianne, it is the immigration officers raid of the shanty town where she lives and subsequent arrest of the inhabitants. She and her son narrowly escape capture, but if she remains, there will always be the chance that their time might come with the next rounding up and deportation.

More of this directorial sensitivity is evident in the atmospherics of Cargo. The entire film is wreathed in funereal shadows and foreshadowing, which appealed to me immediately. The process begins effectively at the opening—the inert bodies scattered, helter-skelter on the beach with the rosary necklace washing up towards them. There is the immediate and pithy suggestion that God has abandoned them. The overhead shots of Kevin’s boat are in the same vein. Its smallness is dominated by the vastness of a grey, cold ocean—a great foreshadowing of its inadequacy for the exploit which its owner will demand of it. In fact, nowhere is the famed, vacation-quality translucent blue waters and carefree sunlight of The Bahamas, nor is there the junkanoo scene that less-talented filmmakers consider de rigueur for evoking anything Bahamian. Thank you, Kareem.

The symbolism is subtle, but unmistakable throughout the film. Kevin’s efforts to scrub clean the walls his mother has smeared is such an element. It communicates his rude awakening to the to the oppressive reality, which he has steadfastly avoided but forced upon his wife. The messaging is reinforced when, in removing his gloves, Kevin’s hand gets dirtied—denial of the cesspool of his life is no longer an option.

The talismanic messaging of the wooden necklace is highly effective as a symbol of desertion and salvation. It is telling in the sex scene between Kevin and Celianne. He, who will become a devil to her and her people, is drawn to it, and touches it, assessing. She, enthralled by him, takes it off and tosses it aside to please him. For her, it is like a casting aside of her protective amulet and, by extension, side-lining one god to put her faith in another. Here is a strong hint to the viewer of the danger coming to Celianne, but she and her necklace will be reunited. At some point, her son also touches and questions its validity, all of which also points to the denouement of the film. Anything more about this film would be a spoiler. Overall, good job. Bravo, Kareem! Keep climbing; I’m rooting for you.


A Glorious Entry…

The Story of a Glorious Entry to Bahamian Art:
Neko Meicholas’ Grand Triptych Graces old St Francis Xavier Cathedral

 

By Patricia Glinton-Meicholas

 

Bahamian artist Neko Meicholas has created a grand triptych which adorns the older structure of the Roman Catholic St Francis Xavier Cathedral. The West Street church stands high on Nassau’s central ridge overlooking the capital’s harbour. Since the rededication, The Catholic faithful have had the opportunity to savour the work’s obvious merits.

The Meicholas canvases have joined an artistic phenomenon. The Bahamas has been volcanic in its production of art since the 1990s, a pyroclastic eruption, which has continued to flow and gain recognition and acclaim beyond our archipelago in the years 2000. Since 1992 I believe I have contributed in some small way to putting Bahamian art on the world map. I have written extensively on art for a quarter century—exhibition catalogue pieces, newspaper features and entries on Bahamian art for such major international publications as the Grove Dictionary of Art (formerly Macmillan).  I have extolled the works of many who are accorded the honorific “Master Artist”, and have written to encourage newcomers.

In contrast, I have written little about the art of my husband Neko Meicholas. I will deal with the reasons right up front. Neko has been occupied primarily with his Guanima Press, his labour of love, which is dedicated to growing a praiseworthy Bahamian literature. He designs all the books, he publishes and has done photography and wonderful covers for this output. A great example is the book on the Years of Favour: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Creation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nassau. It is true he has not publicly shown his paintings much, but has made private sales over the years.

I have done little to change that picture, feeling certain that there would be those pundits of art standing ready to cast doubt on the validity of my commentary with a “That’s her husband—What do you expect her to say?” Besides, don’t we know that the shoemaker’s family are always the last to get shoes? No matter. I will now try to correct an unfortunate omission, leaning on the history of my integrity in speaking and writing.

There is now a compelling reason to write about the art of Neko Meicholas. As evidence of a talent that deserves acknowledgement, three large, intimately related canvases now hang high on the wall at the back of the altar space in the exquisite setting of the chapel of the old St Francis Xavier. It is a fitting setting, as this structure is part of a phoenix-rising-from-ashes tale given physical reality.

The story began on 25 September 2009. Owing to an electrical fault, fire engulfed the rafters of the then 124-year-old church causing extensive damage. In what many have called a miracle (including this writer), the tabernacle was spared and the Eucharist inside was untouched. It was, perhaps, symbolic of what was to come. Archbishop Patrick Pinder, CMG, STD vowed immediately to restore that sacred space. Known to be meticulous in his dealings, Archbishop Pinder took his time assembling the builders, artisans and artists, who would contribute to the restoration and embellishment of the historic structure. Worthy of mention here is carpenter/cabinetmaker Dolph Sands of Eleuthera, whose beautiful woodwork can be seen gracing the facility.

Neko Meicholas, a “cradle” Catholic, was chosen for two very special tasks: 1) create a Christ Pantocrator painting that would serve as the altarpiece, and 2) painstaking restore the 14 Stations of the Cross, which had been extensively impacted by corrosive smoke. Meicholas had wet his feet extensively with the design and production of 50-plus pieces of ceramic art, which beautify the new Holy Family Catholic Church in the Marathon area of New Providence. He knew, however, that this new commission would represent a deep submersion into Christian iconography. The Archbishop specified that the painting was to feature the traditional elements of all Christ Pantocrator imaging.

The central constituent parts of the image are specified by the Pantocrator’s long and deeply imbedded history in the Church’s iconography. Christ, his head encircled by a halo is pictured half-length from the waist up, holding the Gospels in his left hand with his right hand making a gesture of teaching or of blessing. The book, held close to his body, is prominently marked by the Cross. Often, the name of Christ is written as IC XC, divided into two blocks by the figure.

His Grace could have chosen the easy route of factory-manufactured, decorative art, which lacks the personal engagement and spirit of the artist, but to an art lover’s gratitude, he didn’t.

With great trepidation, Neko Meicholas accepted the charge. Could he deliver work that was worthy of being permanently displayed behind the altar of St Francis Xavier? Without alerting his patron, Meicholas decided that he would need to create three paintings, if the emplacement was to have a dynamic visual impact. The two additional paintings would be Neko’s gift to the Church.

The emergent paintings are each 36”x 48” acrylic on linen covering the entire wall on which they are mounted. Beyond fulfilling the mandates of tradition as regards figuration, it can be seen immediately that the artist was very much spiritually engaged, in the manner of a Jacob wrestling with the angel, recognizing the supernatural, but determined to do so on his own terms. Those who leave behind their prejudices, and truly engage the triptych will see a personal iconography emerging from a surfeit of metaphor.

The Christ who is the central figure of the Meicholas rendition is not the polished, boardroom CEO, blue-eyed with golden hair flowing and coiffed who, for so long, dominated Christian art.  Here are the rough locks of a Middle-Eastern village carpenter. Here is a brown man, browner to reflect the Bahamian majority. Christ’s face is not one that will attract Hollywood contracts, but appropriately reflects the suffering appropriate to a “man of sorrows”, acquainted with grief and existential pain.

Bordering the side canvases are faces of believers turned towards Christ in adoration. Their expressions are reflective of the suffering endured by those who would keep faith in a world that tries to rebury a revolutionary whose Gospels are subversive of joys that rest stubbornly in the secular, egocentric and immediate. And, as truthful a depiction are the male and female figures in cameo, who turn away in rejection.

Nevertheless, though deeply immersed in Catholic doctrine, the triptych is not a long-faced revival meeting, but possessing all the fullness and sensuousness of colour, line and movement required by those who would rather not spend too much time in dark reflection. Meicholas has created canvases of incredible beauty, offering a Byzantine palette of golds, ochres, umber, a mixture redolent of a rich, aged red wine, but permitting Bahamian blues to break through.

Neko’s paintings took inspiration from the likes of the Austrian Gustav Klimt, and Bahamians Brent Malone and John Beadle, of whom Meicholas is an avowed admirer. We see the arabesques of lines and the richness of geometrics. The artist’s departures begin with Christ Pantocrator. Without contravening the basics of the traditional iconography, Meicholas imposes his own stamp, especially in the left turn from Christ manicured to one whose not-quite-white robe hints of an under-wash of the blood of his ultimate sacrifice.

Klimt, the symbolist, expressed his artistic credo when he said, "Whoever wants to know something about me - as an artist which alone is significant - they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want." For Neko Meicholas, the same holds true. It is on the two bracket paintings that he plays hide and seek. Here is a cornucopia of metaphor, taking the serious viewer on an intense journey of exploration to winkle them out. His angels hover in robes that reflect the ethereality to be expected of heavenly messengers, and take on living dynamism. It is through the endless superimposed swirls and the opaque white, porcelain birds that dive across the spaces that Meicholas renders the Holy Spirit, as if he himself wishes to imbibe its hallucinogenic, addictive vigour. What more I see, I will keep to myself. I know intimately the profound depths from which this triptych springs. Just know that it is a gift of great beauty, and I praise the giver for risking self-revelation, the acclaim or disparagement of those who will see the works, in order to endow us with this spiritual experience in a world that feels safer with superficiality.