Monday, January 6, 2014

Island Fiction: The Story of the Series (Part Two)

The more I thought about it, the opportunity to create a series for young teens, was potentially something well beyond any one storyline that  a single author could conceive. My personal goals have always included contributing to creative community, and I couldn't approach this opportunity any differently.

In his brilliant essay "What the Twilight Says", (1998 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Derek Walcott expresses something that feels akin to my own creative soul movement:

We knew the literature of empires…(omission is mine); and both the patois of the street and the language of the classroom hid the elation of discovery. If there was nothing, there was everything to be made. With this prodigious ambition one began.

In the early 90s, after a 2-year apprenticeship to the late media icon Dale Kolasingh, I conceived and helped pilot the first sports and leisure television magazine, Caribbean Sports Digest, with one of our living legends in sports media, Tony Harford. By 1996, there was a media void here that I could no longer endure. I dove headlong into a living thesis that was SUN TV: the first community cable broadcast in Trinidad and Tobago.

The soul movement within that championed the vision for SUNTV, came from years of contemplating the question:

What can I  give creatively that will be of service to others?

The sincerity of my desire connected with an ineffable knowing that I could trace back to childhood; a strong desire to see the Caribbean world in which we live reflected from the pages of children's books, and television programs.  It was time to make real, in whatever ways I could; to be a conduit, to whatever capacity I had, for the solution.  The concept of SUN TV arose into my consciousness and would not let me sleep.

Working as a well paid freelance producer, script and copy writer at the time, I was fully fed up of hearing the pat excuses that  industry "leaders" (top of the food chain gang) use to quell our need. Our need, both as cultural creatives and consumers, for local content. SUN TV began, with a little  capital investment and  whatever income I was earning as a salary and supplemented  as a freelance producer, I  willingly shared with  a trio of select crew and even volunteers who shared our passion. (The pay cut was worth that era of creative renaissance and invention. How many have such an authentic  story for their grandkids?!) Tossing aside the tripod and production conventions in which we had all been schooled, the idea of something more organic, and necessary, emerged.

Hosting workshops each Monday morning we practiced hand held rhythms and in-camera editing on mere domestic grade equipment. We were handheld with a devotedly experimental purpose, because we needed to move quickly; we needed to produce a lot of content in short periods; and we needed that content to have a dynamic sense of 'movement' without benefit of editing/ post production. We were out to explore and problem solve, not prove something about production values to win commercial jobs.

I took the  mission to heart because I had to find out for myself what is possible, what can be done, when The Work is more important than feeding The Suits. Some got it, totally. Many others poked fun at our efforts.

Mark Lyndersay found a happy medium between the two positions when he quipped in the Trinidad Express that SUN TV was, "adamantly local programming…a guerrilla video version of Hogans Heroes creating roots programming behind enemy lines."

In the field, our VJs were intrepid producer-directors, doubling as on-camera reporters/interviewers all at once, and together with our camera operators they brought back for broadcast, hours of indigenous content, that captured a youthful and cult-like following. The now defunct Trinidad and Tobago Television used SUN TV programming to extend their broadcast to 24 hours and for the first time ever, could  boast that they had increased their % of local content.

At that time,  the words 'Reality TV' had not yet been coined and imported to us through mainstream media. A much better name than SUN TV's "Organic Television" and "Sun Zen" trademarks. But still, we were as avant grade as the next guy. We were working on a level playing field with any number of new specialty start-up brands in First World countries - Comedy/ TLC etc. Our local media fraternity had neither the maturity nor selfless vision to ride the wave we had stirred. We were beat back by critics who commented only on the obvious deficits we endured - poor audio (beyond our domestic grade equipment control) and queasy camera work ( a new bold style that was changing the way creatives everywhere made TV and films. The Blair Witch Project would become a box office phenom the year after SUN TV folded.) With the exception of a few cultural entrepreneurs who were themselves initiating great start up ideas, the establishment was too busy crunching the numbers for control shares on cable conglomerates and media licenses.

In only two years, over 600 hours of purely Caribbean content were broadcast by SUN TV with the assistance of pioneers like Banyan's Christopher Laird (now Gayelle, The Channel and TTFILM CO), and musical giants (Ras Shorty;   Shadow; Denyse Plummer; Crazy; Orange Sky; Joint Pop and more)- who showed up with music videos, canned content,  and many who freely offered their time in studio for interviews and on camera 'play dates'. The hallmark of SUN TV was this open door, genuine, friendly, authentically West Indian style, that in my opinion has not since been replicated.

So, what's the connection between SUN TV and ISLAND FICTION?

It's in my blood, you see, this prodigious ambition.

Nearly a  decade later, when the opportunity came for a tween series, I already  had five children's books published. Any romantic illusions of what it might mean to 'get published', or 'be on TV' had long dissipated or been resolved within me.

Here was another chance to answer my soul's question. I could do the work and be of service.

I realised I had been learning to applaud the talent of others from a stage of self respect. This was something that needed doing, and that I  could do sincerely, and well.

In Caribbean children's book publishing, here was another irresistible void that called to me….

(Tune in tomorrow for Part 3 of  Island Fiction: The Story of the Series)

Above All,
Happy Writing,
JJ



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