Thinking about the Story: A Conversation with Kareem Mortimer

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In the opening shots of Kareem Mortimer’s 2013 short film, Passage, aquamarine waters lap the toes of two bodies sprawled supine on a white sand beach. The pair might be mistaken for sunbathers, if not for the police officers squatting beside them. The bodies belong to Haitian refugees who had sought to travel from the Bahamas to North America, hidden in the hold of a smuggling vessel. Most of the film takes place in that crowded hold, focusing on the experience of Sandrine, a seventeen-year-old girl who attempts to hide her brother’s illness, lest he be thrown overboard. The film brings to light the complicated moral stakes of human smuggling—asking, centrally, what risks one is willing to take in pursuit of a better life.

Mortimer’s third narrative feature, 2017’s Cargo, expands upon that premise, this time turning the lens toward the experience of a human smuggler. (Mortimer also expanded 2007’s Float into his 2010 breakout film, Children of God.) The film follows Kevin, a Bahamian fisherman who gets caught up in human trafficking to pay off his gambling debts and send his son to school.

In film, the Bahamas has traditionally served as the backdrop for the adventures of white foreigners: a frolicking Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, a glowering James Bond, or the inebriated buccaneers of Pirates of the Caribbean. Mortimer’s characters, in contrast, are multi-ethnic, multi-faceted, and face complicated moral challenges.

In October, as Cargo premiered in Nassau, I interviewed Mortimer over Skype.

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The Rumpus: Why did you take on the subject of human smuggling in a narrative feature, rather than as a documentary?

Kareem Mortimer: Documentaries were necessary for my growth as a person. I grew up very sheltered and it was a form of expressing myself. My goal is to work in both mediums, but I’ve been focused on feature films for the last seven or eight years of my career, solely. It broadens your market a little bit. We would like the widest audience, right, because there’s also the financial thing behind what we do. We have to raise money. There’s no infrastructure that gives grants to Bahamian filmmakers. It’s all equity.

Rumpus: Could talk about the process of making Cargo?

Mortimer: Oh god, it was a long process. But it wasn’t a long continuous process. An executive producer of one of my previous films had said if I did a film about human smuggling, he would finance it. I’d just done something heavy—Children of God—but I was like, okay.

It took a very long time to write. I went to a lab in Trinidad, and one of my instructors was Fina Torres—one of the first women to win the Caméra d’Or at Cannes—and she asked a very important question: why is this story important to you? I couldn’t give her an answer. I thought about it and was like, why would I do this if it’s not important to me? Everything I’ve done has been important to me. And so I thought back to a childhood memory: the first dead body I’d ever seen was the body of an immigrant washed up on shore. I went back to that memory. As a child, you can’t process these types of images in a healthy way. I don’t think anyone can, really. So I explored that. These people were buried in mass graves. I don’t know if their families ever heard from them again.

That got things rolling. I started doing research and going into communities and talking to people. I became a part of the world, so to speak—like a documentary filmmaker but I didn’t have a camera. I redid the script and made it really personal. The producer who had wanted to invest was no longer interested in that particular story. What happened next was I got an opportunity from the Commonwealth Foundation to make a shortened version of the feature: Passage. The film did okay at film festivals and had broadcasts on television in a couple countries. I used that as leverage. I had screenings all over the Bahamas. In 2013, with one of my good friends—Alexander Younis—we came up with the concept of Best Ever Film, a production company and a vehicle for people who want to support the arts. Four years later, we were financed for Cargo and we made Cargo.

Rumpus: Could you speak more on your decision to use a lot of Bahamian actors and crew in Cargo?

Mortimer: I worked in production services for a very long time after I came back to the Bahamas. I know where the people are and I know how talented people are. Sometimes they aren’t given opportunities because people come with their own biases about what Bahamians can do, especially if they’re foreign productions.

We thought it was important that this film was authentic. As much as possible, we had Bahamians in key positions, like art director, costumes, makeup and hair, locations and producing. And we did offline post-production completely in the Bahamas.

Rumpus: The National Black Programming Consortium described Passage as “a modern day middle passage.” Does your work deliberately seek to draw parallels across history to show patterns of exploitation? I’m thinking also of that line in Cargo: “smuggling liquor to the States in the Twenties, drugs in the Eighties, now it’s people.”

Mortimer: It’s there in Passage. It’s very clear, the imagery. Blacks being complicit in the exploitation of other black people. People being packed in the ships. The only thing is, they aren’t forced. That’s the huge difference. Definitely some of the imagery is inspired by it. I wouldn’t go as far to say that they are linked somehow.

That line from Cargo is that the Bahamas has always profited from its location. The Bahamas’ nearest island is fifty miles off the coast of the US. During the Civil War, they did blockade running. In the 1920s, fortunes were made off of liquor. In the 1980s, it was drugs. That sea, it’s difficult to police. You can’t. In that character’s mind, that’s how he was justifying what he was doing.

Rumpus: Speaking of what’s in character’s minds, at the beginning of Passage, there’s this voiceover: “They lied when they told me that everybody deserves a chance to succeed. In life, we don’t get what we deserve. We get what we negotiate.” Do you share this worldview?

Mortimer: Yeah, I mean, it’s really grim. I’m very grim. I don’t necessarily think it’s true. I think that people always get what they deserve—whether you’re around to see it or not. You know? I’m of that opinion. But I do see that character that’s gone through a lot—that the amount of loss. She arrived at that point where she would feel like you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you’re able to negotiate for yourself. But I am a little more optimistic as a person.

Rumpus: Do you have goals for Cargo, in terms of potentially changing policy?

Mortimer: If it’s a catalyst to spark policy, that would be great. The more we’re able to use it as an educational tool, the more it’s a building block in youths’ minds and peoples’ minds to enact policy.

Rumpus: You’ve called the Bahamas “a microcosm for the world.” What can an international audience learn from the archipelago?

Mortimer: The Bahamas is a small population. But it plays a lot bigger than the population suggests. You feel close to everything. Everything that happens in the wider world happens here. Like migration issues. Or refugee issues. Or homophobia, like in Children of God—which is specifically a Bahamian story but resonates everywhere. The Bahamas has a lot to say about the issues that affect it—the specific issues that also affect other communities. It offers a unique level of looking at, of entering a story. It’s just like a mini-world.

Rumpus: What informs your storytelling impulse to show the Bahamas in conflict—the messy human struggles beyond pristine beaches and palm trees?

Mortimer: Why am I drawn to these things? It would be much easier if I did something more about the backdrop of the Bahamas, as opposed to the culture. I don’t know. I think I want the best for my country. I can make work that makes us examine some truths about ourselves—that would be more of a contribution. That’s how I see it.

I made Children of God because I had to make it. And with Cargo, I also felt like I had to. The impulse comes from something deep inside. Wanting to my country to be better. Because of where we are, we don’t always have spaces to reflect. We are a tourist economy and with that comes a certain amount of not really being able to talk about things, right? You don’t want to scare people away. But I don’t think those things scare people, because they happen everywhere. And your ability to talk about it and expose it will help you find a solution.

Rumpus: Could you talk about your writing process?

Mortimer: The best part of writing is thinking about the story. And then everything else takes a lot of discipline. I workshopped Cargo quite a bit. I went to the Cine Qua Non Lab in Mexico for two weeks and I did a lot of the work there. They don’t have Internet. You are with other writers you read each other’s work and you ask questions. And then you do your own work. That was really helpful. The hard thing about writing is finding the time to do it. Because no one really pays you to write. You don’t get paid until you raise the money for the film. So it’s about finding the time and discipline to push through.

This was also a really hard one for me to write. I just had so much information in my head in terms of the research that was done. But I was also trying to not be didactic in the way the work was presented. Then it was hard to go into this really dark place with this character—because he makes some really crazy choices—while also trying to maintain some sort of humanity there. That’s just difficult emotionally, you know? When I write, I actually hear the characters speak. Almost like an actor—even though I’m not an actor at all—getting into their truth and to justify what they do.

Rumpus: So it’s almost like “method writing,” in a way?

Mortimer: Yeah!

Rumpus: I heard you like to leave room for magic on the set. How does spontaneity play a role in your filmmaking process?

Mortimer: I’m a super prepared director. I’ve got A, B, and C—and then, when I show up, I don’t use any of it. My preparation allows me to be spontaneous. Making independent films, as you know, is difficult, so I am prepared. But I’m prepared in a way where I’m able to step back and see that an actor can come up with something on his own. Or see if someone has a suggestion.

Rumpus: Were there any actors, in particular, who added a lot to the film?

Mortimer: Gessica Geneus, who plays Celianne, is the Haitian lead actress in the movie. It was very important in the film that we actually cast someone from the country. She had so much insight that I don’t have as a Bahamian male writer. We were able to create nuances in the character that wasn’t on the page. That was the real magic in the film.

Rumpus: Who are your filmmaking influences?

Mortimer: I admire the career of someone like James Ivory for having decades and decades of relevant work—well into his eighties. I would hope to be that type of person when I’m in my eighties: to always be full of questions and wonder.

Even though I don’t make movies like John Waters, I like the fact that he made movies on his own terms, in his own hometown. And that reflected the culture of the place that he came from. I also admire Ava DuVernay, a director who was able to engineer her own way of getting her films seen. I met her and she’s gracious. She’s someone who moves with intent and talent.

Rumpus: Are you able to reveal anything about your plans for the future?

Mortimer: We’re going to continue with the company. In terms of what we’re going to do, we’re focusing right now on getting Cargo in front of as many eyeballs as possible. That’s priority number one. I have [also] written a bunch of other scripts. We’ll see which one has energy going forward. Maybe we’ll shoot that going into 2019. That’s the goal. The films are still films I’m passionate about and issues I want to explore. There are films that don’t take place in the Bahamas. Maybe it’s time for me to spread my wings and tell films in a different community. That’s the direction I feel like I’m being pulled in right now.


Allegra Hyde is the author of Of This New World, which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Find her online at www.allegrahyde.com or @allegra_hyde. More from this author →