SARGASSO!

Director: Michael Gilkes
Year: 1991
Country: Dominica

The Commonwealth of Dominica is a tiny island nation of 70,000 in the Caribbean, not to be confused with the nearby Dominican Republic which is much larger. Predictably, there was very little choice when it came to feature films made in Dominica. The island has been used extensively as a filming location by the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but that hardly counts. After a significant amount of searching, I managed to find a film that properly represented Dominica, and showcased the talents and culture it had to offer.

Sargasso! A Caribbean Love Story is an adaptation of the 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea by Dominican author Jean Rhys. Funded by the University of the West Indies and directed by Caribbean academic and dramatist Michel Gilkes, Sargasso was shot entirely on location in Dominica with a local cast. As far as I can tell, this makes it the only feature film made in Dominica with a Caribbean cast and crew. It was also the first cinematic adaptation of Rhys’s novel, which has been brought to the screen several times since by overseas filmmakers.

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Sargasso! uses many Dominican historical sites as filming locations.

The film opens with a short documentary sequence about the life of Jean Rhys herself, narrated by the director. This feels somewhat tacked on and unnecessary for the story that follows, but since the film was produced as a non-commercial, educational resource for a university its existence is perhaps justified. After this prologue, a feature fiction adaptation of the novel begins.

Sargasso!, like its source novel, serves as a prequel and response to Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. It chronicles the backstory of the Creole woman Antoinette Cosway – who in Bronte’s novel is referred to only as “the madwoman in the attic”. Sargasso! follows Antoinette through childhood, adolescence, and into her unhappy marriage with an upper class Englishman who views her Caribbean heritage with disdain. It’s a compelling story with heavy themes – touching on racism, classism, colonialism, gender inequality, and mental illness. As such, it demands a well written screenplay and talented actors for any screen adaptation.

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Antoinette’s husband has little patience for the Dominican way of life.

Sargasso! suffers from what must have been a crushingly low budget. The visuals and music are dated and can even seem, at times, somewhat amateurish. But for the most part it’s shot, written and edited with respectability and competence, while boasting a similar homespun authenticity to other independent Caribbean features I’ve blogged about, from Antigua & Barbuda’s The Skin to Aruba’s Only You. The film’s greatest strengths include its set design and costuming, which manage to convincingly depict the story’s historical setting.

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Costuming and set design are among Sargasso!’s strongest aspects.

As an adaptation of Rhys’s novel, Sargasso! is best described as functional. It tells the story in a way that is impressive given the circumstances of its production, but unexciting when judging it on its own merits as a piece of cinema. It’s a worthwhile watch as a curiosity for fans of the novel, or of independent Caribbean cinema, but perhaps unsurprisingly it has little wider appeal. There’s enough here to suggest, though, that Dominica has plenty to offer in terms of storytelling, and that given more time and resources these stories could find a worthwhile place onscreen.

 

UPDATE: In the aftermath of 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria, which killed 31 people in Dominica and destroyed 90% of the nation’s buildings, Sargasso! is now a showcase for many Dominican heritage sites and historical buildings which no longer exist. This gives the film an additional, poignant layer of significance.

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