The Visual Culture of Curaçao

Interview with Felix De Rooy by Beti Ellerson Poulenc

Transcript of a filmed interview in 1997 by Beti Ellerson Poulenc.
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My name is Felix De Rooy. I am a filmmaker from the Dutch Antilles, from Curaçao, of Surinamese parents and I consider myself a colonial orgasm because I have African, American Indian and European blood.
I am an artist who uses various techniques to express himself. I started out my career as a painter and a graphic artist. I then went into theater and I am also still a theater director. And from the theater I went into film. On the island of Curaçao I started experimenting with Super 8, 16 and at a certain moment I went to New York University to the graduate film department and I graduated there as a filmmaker. Since then I have been working also as a filmmaker but not only as a filmmaker.
My first feature film was a film I shot in New York called Desirée about a woman in East New York who burned her baby in the oven because she thought that the child was possessed by the devil. It is a psychological analysis of her life; like a modern day Medea; and what happens to this woman and why she committed this crime. I tried to explain that she is not really a criminal but that she wanted to stop the cycle of misery, not by killing herself but by killing the child that would, according to her view become part of the same miserable cycle in which she had grown up. It is based on a real life event that happened, I think on New Year’s Eve in 1981-82. It was a very small article in the paper that inspired the film. It was my graduation film.
After that I moved to Europe, and then I was finally able, with subsidies from Holland, to do what I really came to New York film school for, which was to make films about the culture of my island, which is absolutely unknown to the rest of the world. And I made my first feature ever in the history of the Antilles in the local language, Papiamento, which is like a Creole language, it is a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish and Guinée and it is based on the mythology from the slaves. Different mythological stories from the time of slavery combined into the story of a priestess in a very small village who gets–again just like a parallel in New York–who gets a child by the devil and has to fight with the devil for survival.
This film Almacita di Desolata at FESPACO, in 1991, won the Paul Robeson award of a million CFA and an hour after I got the prize in cash it was stolen from me in Burkina, in Ouaga. But in a way I took it very philosophically because I felt that already Africa had been generous with me, giving me a hotel, giving me the food and also giving me a million CFA, and maybe it was over the top so Africa reclaimed this prize money from me and I accepted it because I thought that it was fair.
Five years afterwards–because it is very difficult to raise money for feature films, 35 mm films, from an island called Cura… what? Where they speak a language called Papia… what? I made Ava and Gabriel, a love story that takes place in 1948, just after the Second World War, in Curaçao about a painter who comes from Holland and whom everyone presumes is a Dutch painter because of his name. He turns out to be a black painter from Surinam who comes to do a mural in the Church of the Virgin Mary and he falls in love with a local girl. He paints a black Madonna; and the racism and also the homophobia on the island surrounding this event emerge.
It was very controversial in Holland because it has a very critical outlook on Dutch attitudes towards non-white Dutch people, because at that time, Surinam and the Dutch Antilles were part of the Kingdom of Holland. It got the Dutch equivalent of the Oscar, a Golden Calf, but the press absolutely condemned me for the negative image of the portrayal of the white Dutch on the island. It affected my career very much in Holland in terms of getting subsidies for films. But thank God to balance it out, the film got several international prizes. It got the Jury Prize in Havana, it got a Jury Prize in Martinique, it got a Jury Prize in Amiens among other things. So it seems that the film could not have been as terrible as the Dutch critics portrayed it.
When I made Almacita di Desolata, the Antillean government, and also the Dutch critics, were very happy about it because it was very safe, almost like an ethnographic mythology in which, for example, cultural and racial confrontations were not really the issue of the film. But with Ava and Gabriel, not only race, but also gender and homophobia within the Antillean community, within the black community, was an issue. For example in Curaçao they were very unhappy about it because they felt I was exposing their dirty laundry. Also explicitly gay men in the Antilles are very marginalized because they do not fit the very macho image that the Antillean male wants to have portrayed of himself. And so this gay aspect has very often been marginalized in the film and everybody has very often focused on the heterosexual love story between the painter and his model without putting very much attention on the gay love story which is also part of the film. Also during the shooting of the film in the Antilles I have been censored very much in relation to this aspect of the story. Which meant that I also had to really adapt certain scenes; otherwise I would have not been able to use locations on the island.
Marival, which is the carnival of the Maricous, is a three-part documentary. Maricou is the curse word for gay men like « faggot » and it deals with transvestites and transsexuals from Curaçao who have fled the island to come to live in the relative tolerance of Holland where they have much more possibilities to be their female self and explore their female selves. But I have not gotten any support from the Antillean governmental institutions and cultural institutions in Holland because they felt that I am dealing too much with a marginalized, also very often criminal aspect of these people.
Marival is really a film on the minority of minorities. The Antillean culture and the Antillean people in Holland are already very marginalized but within this Antillean society « faggots » and especially men who identify very strong with the female psyche are the marginalized of the marginalized, the minority of the minorities.
I know some black gay and lesbian filmmakers over the world because we meet each other in film festivals and we are very supportive of each other. So I hope that this network will enable me to get the film shown in different parts outside of the Netherlands but we will have to see what the future brings. I think it is very important because also within the black community I have realized that there is a lot of homophobia and there is a lot of denial. For example, the film documentary Marival, is a documentary around staging a play in which these transsexuals and transvestites bring their criticism on the Antillean society in the form of a beauty pageant in drag in which they really express and ventilate all their anger and oppression at abuse that they have had to suffer from this, especially from the Antillean community.
After the play I was approached by gays and lesbians from the Antillean community who said that I was stereotyping them by only showing the excesses of the gay community, but I told them listen if you look for example how the gay liberation started with Stonewall in New York, it was the transvestites, and transsexuals who started this revolt because they had nothing to lose and a lot of the gay men can still pass within the Antillean community as « normal » men but they didn’t dare come out and speak out. So again as a parallel to what happened in New York, I needed the courage and the strength of transsexuals and transvestites who had nothing to lose and who broke open this taboo so I think that they are the real heroes again. They are much stronger than the regular gays who have the safety of their masculine appearance and don’t get the flack.
The Caribbean has of course a very varied background. The Caribbean is not one cultural entity, I mean you have the French Caribbean, you have the English Caribbean, you have the Spanish Caribbean and you have the Dutch Caribbean. And the Dutch Caribbean is already one of the minorities within the Caribbean structure and before Ava and Gabriel and Almacita they did not know anything about the culture of the Dutch Antilles. So I do think that it is very important to become part of this Caribbean consciousness by making products that also focus on the Caribbean culture. That is also why I made a choice not to stay in the USA. I said they do not need another black filmmaker to make American films. They don’t need another Black Dutch filmmaker to make Dutch films because already on the map there are a lot of films that come from these countries. But the Dutch Antilles have never had a voice and so I am glad that through my films that we have at least come part of the universe of cinema and I hope to expand it in the future also.

///Article N° : 5886

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