The 1970s saw the release of two important indigenous Caribbean films: Jamaica’s iconic The Harder They Come, starring musician Jimmy Cliff, which still takes some measure of credit for introducing reggae music to the world, and Bim, which explores race, politics and working class challenges in colonial Trinidad.
If you’ve never heard of Bim, far less seen it, that’s all about to change, thanks to the power of social media.
Pat Ganase, who has had a long career in journalism, publishing and communications in Trinidad and Tobago, has started a Facebook page called “BIM the movie” in an attempt to ignite online discussion about the film and the issues it deals with.
“I decided it was time for the first all-Trinidad film to have a Facebook fan page,” Ganase says. “It was the first film that didn’t just use our environment as a location and our people as exotic natives or extras. It is a film with a story that is authentic…and ours.”
Fellow journalist and writer Raoul Pantin collaborated on the script. The actors were all local. So was the majority of the film crew. The early fusion soundtrack was composed by Andre Tanker and performed by some of the country’s most outstanding musicians, including Mungal Patasar. But most importantly, it was a Trinidadian story.
Ganase is friends with Suzanne Robertson (who co-produced the film with her late husband Hugh, an American who edited the Oscar-winning film Midnight Cowboy) and says that even back then, the couple saw a bright future for the film industry in Trinidad and Tobago.
“The first Trinidadian film company was SHARC,” she explains, “named for Suzanne, Hugh and their children (Antonio and Anna) Robertson. Bim—and SHARC—probably failed then, for the same reasons that film, as a viable industry, is not succeeding today. There is a failure to appreciate it as a productive industry that can employ many, many people and bring returns on investment through distribution.”
As Ganase notes, the challenges for young filmmakers today are the same: “Funding, institutional support, distribution and marketing. The film industry is not a solitary art, which is why it is an Industry with a Capital I.” But the sense of déjà vu does not stop there—it extends itself to societal challenges as well. While the film marked a particular time in Trinidad and Tobago's history, addressing attitudes towards issues such as racial identity, Ganase believes its lessons are still relevant. “Maybe it can tell us something about ‘crime’ in our society,” she offers. “It certainly has something to say about young men who grow themselves up, without father or family.”
The plot follows the main character Bhim (initially pronounced Beem) Singh, whose father, a union leader for workers in the sugar cane fields, is killed on the day of his sister’s wedding. Bhim leaves the only life he knows in rural Trinidad to live with his aunt and her ne’er-do-well husband in Port of Spain, Trinidad's capital city. From the get-go he's an outcast, and is soon drawn into a life of petty crime, working for an underworld type who re-christens him Bim. Meanwhile, the winds of political change are blowing. Bim seizes the opportunity, crushes the son of the man who killed his father and gets himself elected as head of the sugar cane workers’ union. His victory is short-lived, however, and his demise comes rather quickly, as a result of alcoholism.
Upon its release, the film was not panned by critics, but it didn’t quite get rave reviews either. The New York Times critique in 1974, for instance, opened by saying, “By no conventional standards is ‘Bim’ very good, but it’s still vastly more interesting than lots of other movies you’re likely to stumble on.” ‘Interesting’ may have been an understatement; it certainly struck a note with local audiences, presumably even before anyone had even seen it. Trinidad and Tobago had an active Censors Board at the time and the film’s planned debut in December 1974 never happened thanks to a ban. A month later, after legal action was taken against the Censors Board, the film was finally screened—uncut—at the landmark Roxy cinema in St. James.
“The language is harsh; it had plenty cusswords [obscene language],” Ganase recalls, “but not unwarranted. People who have seen the film are the ones who perceive it as seminal and important. There is a ring of truth in Bim the movie.”
There's certainly a timeless quality to Bim. Ganase says that “viewers of all ages and in every decade respond [to the film] the same way…as if it is something that they were deprived of.” She thinks this is because the story is as relevant now as it was then. “It’s not that I want people to know the film,” she says. “It is that people have a hunger for it.”
In just three days, the Facebook page has received over 130 “Likes” and a substantial amount of commentary, both from people who have already seen the film and from those who would like to. Ganase says the page will develop according to the discussion it generates: “It will point us in a direction that comes from the collective.”
One idea that came out of user comments was the suggestion by Trinidadian visual artist Christopher Cozier to work towards having Bim listed in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, which restores and distributes films from countries that are underrepresented in global film culture. “It is a worthwhile idea that might be an avenue for new distribution,” Ganase explains. “There will be a showing in the future. But that will happen when the time is right.”