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Reel Life: a screen of their own

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Filmmaker Andrea Leland was vacationing on the island of Saint Vincent 20 years ago when she first heard about the reclusive, fiercely independent people who would become her major collaborators. Then a painter, Leland was eager to see what kind of art was being produced in the island's intense little stew pot of Amerindian, African, and European cultures. What she found were cocker spaniel portraits and snowy landscapes--subjects that had been glimpsed in magazines but never seen on Saint Vincent. Then she heard about the Caribs--"troublesome" people who lived on the far end of the island and kept to themselves. The Caribs are descended from the union of two indomitable groups: the island's Kalinaku-Arawak Indians, who resisted colonialism, and Africans, many of whom came to Saint Vincent after escaping from slave ships. The Caribs have been there since at least the mid-1600s, repelling imperialists and slavers alike, but in 1796 the British defeated them. Convinced they would not be able to subdue these fighters permanently, the Brits separated them by skin color and exiled the darkest--nearly 5,000 "Black Caribs"--to another island, off the coast of Honduras. Half of them died on the trip, but a handful of survivors resettled and thrived in a part of Honduras that's now Belize. They maintained their distinctive language and traditions, calling themselves Garinagu and their culture Garifuna.

The Caribs of Saint Vincent refused to speak to Leland when she came around asking about their art, but 14 years later she was in Belize making a documentary, The Garifuna Journey, about their exiled cousins. Her own journey had taken her from painting to writing to filmmaking. She had teamed up with Chicago photographer Bob Richards for a movie, Voodoo and the Church in Haiti, and had produced, directed, and shot a video about Guatemalan refugees, The Long Road Home. She arrived in Belize just as the Garinagu were trying to decide what to do about the latest threat to their identity: assimilation. Leland offered to work in collaboration with them, telling their story as they wanted it told, recording their rituals and traditions, turning copies of all her material over for their archives when she was through. A few months into the project she met Kathy Berger, an Evanston resident like herself, who had left a public-interest law career for public-interest filmmaking. They formed a partnership, Leland/Berger Productions, and spent the next four years on the Garifuna project. Berger says two and a half of those years were consumed by the really tough part of documentary work, the hunt for financing.

The Garifuna Journey premiered at the Field Museum last year and eventually bagged a half dozen awards. Leland and Berger were on the road with it when they started thinking there would be an audience for a year-round independent-film forum close to home. "We decided to try to find a venue in our own community where we could present small independent films--not usually available in theaters or on television--and have the filmmakers discuss them," Leland says. Last spring they brought the idea, by then dubbed Reeltime, to the Evanston Public Library and Northwestern University's Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. The library provided the venue, Block came up with funding, and Reeltime was launched as a monthly event. The kickoff show, in September, was The Jack Bull, a two-hour western written by Evanston resident Dick Cusack and starring his famous son, John. Reeltime has packed the house every month since, in part because of the films (selected by a committee headed by Northwestern University film professor Scott Curtis) and in part due to Leland/Berger's policy of total collaboration, which in this case means pulling relevant community groups in for postshow raps, eats, art, and anything else that brings the subject to life. Three spin-offs are in the works: an evening "coffeehouse" programmed by and for teenagers, a film-criticism group, and a filmmakers' roundtable. As soon as there's money for a staff administrator, though, Leland and Berger are planning to bolt. Their next project is a documentary about a Garinagu midwife and healer. They hope to be in Belize in the spring.

Reeltime will screen A Place Called Chiapas, a 60-minute documentary by Nettie Wild about Mexico's Zapatista uprising, at 7:30 PM Wednesday, December 1, in the Community Room at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington (847-866-0300). Wild will not be present, but members of the Chicago Metropolitan Sanctuary Alliance and the Mexico Solidarity Network will be there, along with refreshments from That Little Mexican Cafe. It's free. Call 847-864-7752 for more information about Leland/Berger. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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