The dilemma of local content

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Above: Michelle Nadia Abraham and Pauline Mark on the set of The Apartment. Photo by Kyeon Constantine, PWTM Productions.

BitDepth#1018 for December 08, 2015

Trinidad and Tobago’s culture has had a long and complicated relationship with mass media broadcasting.

On the positive side, what we have seen and heard has been remarkably honest and true, which is not always the case when a nation’s creative expressions migrate into the tightly controlled environments of radio stations and television.

From Rikki Tikki in the 1960’s to the dance shows filmed on location at Westmall in the 1980’s, there was a ruthless, sometime embarrassing truth to it all, an unquestionable sense that this is not only who we aspire to be, this is also who we are.

Unfortunately, all of these productions were driven by simple accounting and the scale of funding required in the increasingly high-risk, high-cost world of modern production values and expectations have taken us to a strange place.

Once it was easier and cheaper to build a simple set and arrange some chairs for a local talent to transform into an engaging production than it was to contract for programming and have it shipped in.

So we got Scouting for Talent and Teen Talent, which put local people in front of hot lights and merciless cameras to either shine or flame out spectacularly, either of which made for interesting television.

On radio, serials that took their cue from long running foreign dramas found some purchase, most notably Freddie Kissoon’s Calabash Alley and the on-air theatrics of Raffie Knowles offered their own special type of special effects.

Tragically, most of that early blush of broadcast talent is now lost. There will be no DVD collections of 12 and Under and no audio packages of Alley.

Even more recent works like Sugar Cane Arrows and No Boundaries have disappeared into an analog swamp.

In some ways, the whole history of Gayelle TV, which I should note in the interest of full disclosure, I have been a tangible supporter of, is an effort to recapture that early lightning in a bottle.

But the scrappy sets and adamantly local flavour of the channel struggled to find a robust audience in this country and still does, sandwiched between the slick offerings of foreign cable television.

This year, two productions really brought home to me how completely things have changed.

But it was after I saw the enormously energetic and driven Pauline Mark provide a coda for the pilot episode of her planned television series, The Apartment, that I began to understand the enormity of the challenges that young producers face.

Mark did a direct-to-camera, impassioned appeal for support for the project that was heartbreaking to watch.

At least she was upfront about the challenges. Consider the long strange journey of A Story about Wendy, which is still to get around to telling an actual story.

The two installments together aren’t quite a pilot and despite a total of 103 minutes of dramatic teasers and plot building about the odd world in which the titular character lives, Wendy exists in a state of almost continuous dramatis interruptus.

But that cinematic narrative falls short of the reality surrounding the production, which has seen one actor brutally murdered and its lead mature from post-teenage angst to wife and mother over the last four years.

In 2015 the only way to produce television is as a series, preferably one with at least 70 episodes, the minimum that most television stations will consider buying in the open market for programming.

Add into this volatile mix the following elements.

A growing number of ambitious, well-trained and increasingly experienced practitioners in the film industry.

A growing international market for original programming of acceptable quality produced in required volume, as evidenced by the success of Nigerian television.

The growing programming challenge offered by cable television to traditional television stations.

The only sensible approach to these intersecting and competing interests is a local television industry that commits to working with the growing film industry to create locally rooted, well-produced content for local and ultimately, global consumption.

All of the elements are in place.

What’s needed now is the fire of financing and gutsy investors willing to wield that torch.