Tue | Jun 19, 2018

UWI premieres film on Walter Rodney

Published:Sunday | June 3, 2018 | 12:00 AMPaul H. Williams
From left: Professor Matthew Smith, producer and director; medical student Kapel Dowe (who plays young Walter Rodney); and filmmaker Michelle Serrieux, at the world premiere of The Past is not our Future at the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre on the Mona campus of The University of the West Indies

The Department of History and Archaeology at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, hosted the world premiere of the documentary film The Past is Not Our Future: Walter Rodney's Student Years in the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre.

Guyana-born Rodney a brilliant student, scholar, black power advocate, historian, author, activist, and politician, attended the Mona campus of The University of the West Indies (UWI) where he was an intellectual standout. From the UWI, he graduated with a first-class degree in history.

He was killed in 1980 in a car bombing in Guyana.

It was an interesting and the colourful life that Dr Rodney led, but the film focuses on his life as a student at the UWI and what it was that catapulted him on to the path of revolutionary activism. "How was he able to do that and against whatever odds he may have faced? He was able to rise above them and created this personality that he wanted to become," Professor Matthew Smith, head of the Department of History and Archaeology, co-scriptwriter, producer, and director, said.

The film explores Rodney's relationship with the university, which itself is a "character" in the film, which also looks at the politics of the day, Indepen-dence and Federation, which helped to shape Rodney's intellectual development. It also takes students back to the time when Rodney was like them, "full of ideas of what life could be, full of ideas of what the Caribbean could be".

So, what were the sentiments and attitudes of young people in the postcolonial Caribbean? Why were Rodney and many others like him so proactive? Professor Smith said that the young people at the time did not want to build on the structures left by the colonialists. They wanted to lay their own foundation and chart their own course.

It was a rejection of the system of governance that was bequeathed from the colonisers. They wanted their voices to be heard, and there was a sense of hope for the future but not hope based on colonial vestiges. The colonial past should not guide their future, thus the name of the film.

 

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It actually is a line from a Mervin Morris poem, which resonated with Professor Smith. "I was attracted to that line because it spoke very clearly and explicitly to the generation of Caribbean people that came about in the Independence era, and it really speaks to their sense that the colonial past is not their future," Professor Smith explained.

But that was more than 50 years ago and 38 years since Dr Rodney was killed. And the fire and passion among young people to create their own structures and systems seem all but dead. There is a sense of detachment from postcolonial sensibilities perhaps because of "the tragedies that followed Independence" Professor Smith said.

That was the motivation for the 2016 idea for this film. "I felt that the students I teach, the young people I see and interact with don't understand their past, that they are the dust that they stand on and other people's dust," Professor Smith recalled.

He and some colleagues thought about what to do to reach the younger generation, and Walter Rodney came to mind. He has been an inspiration to Professor Smith because of his iconic status, and they had followed the same academic path. "His trajectory was always aspirational to me and my generation, and I think that it is a timeless achievement," he said.

Rodney "was uneasy with the context of postcolonial Caribbean" and that uneasiness "led him on the path to revolutionary politics". Thus, Professor Smith wanted to project on screen the context that shaped Dr Rodney, whom he called "a revolutionary made in revolutionary times", which is the tagline for the film.

"Rodney was reacting against colonialism," and Dr Smith wanted Rodney's voice to be the loudest in the film, so he got a student, Yohan Waldron, to voice some of Rodney's own words over archival footage.

The message to young people that the film seeks to convey is "that they can also chart the path that will not only improve their own personal life and career", but that "they are part of a larger legacy, that they have an obligation to our region", Dr Smith told Arts and Education.