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Cinema Review: Balm to Grenada’s wounds

The background to the bloody disintegration of the 1983 Grenadian revolution is explored in a film which contributes to the reconciliation process, says JOHN GREEN

LAST year saw the 30th anniversary of the tragic implosion of the Grenadian revolution in 1983 and the subsequent US invasion. The New Jewel Movement’s almost bloodless revolution four years earlier on the tiny Caribbean island overthrew the corrupt and brutal Gairy regime, ushering in a new era for the impoverished country. Overnight, alongside Cuba, Grenada became a beacon of socialism in the Caribbean.

The revolution’s leader Maurice Bishop was its charismatic and widely loved leader and prime minister. Everything seemed to be going smoothly for the first few years, with poverty and unemployment significantly reduced, a new airport being built with Cuban help to encourage tourism, a radical new educational programme and investment in local industries.

When, unexpectedly, divisions in the leadership erupted publicly in 1983, followed quickly by the arrest of Maurice Bishop and other government leaders by an oppostion faction within the leadership of the NJM, friends of Grenada were surprised and shocked.

Bishop’s arrest was quickly followed by a spontaneous expression of outrage by the people, who marched on Bishop’s home where he was under house arrest, and from there to the army base at Fort Rupert.

Within a short space of time shooting broke out at the fort and Bishop, his partner and Minister for Education Jaqueline Creft — alongside three other ministers and four leading businessmen close to the government — were machine-gunned in cold blood by members of the People’s Revolutionary Army.

This terrible episode has never been fully explained but it spelt the end of the revolution and provided the US with an excuse to carry out its long cherished aim of strangling socialism on the island.

In the aftermath of the US invasion, 17 people were charged and convicted of being involved in the killings. Callistus Bernard, the soldier in charge of the firing squad at Fort Rupert, admits in Bruce Paddington’s film Forward Ever: The Killing Of A Revolution that he, with other soldiers, shot Bishop and others. But he denies that he was given any orders to do so and shows a suprising lack of remorse. He has offered no apology for his deeds.

Premiered at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival in September last year, Paddington’s documentary  is a comprehensive, gripping and revealing account of the Grenadan revolution as never seen before.

The result of five years’ research, it features extensive and previously unseen footage as well as older and newer interviews with many of the key players of the time, including those imprisoned for the killings.

An attempt to investigate what actually happened in those eventful few days, it is a very honest film. Paddington takes no sides, even though it is clear where his sympathies lie — he lets the protagonists speak for themselves. As such it is a riveting historical document.

While it does throw much light on the events, it still leaves many questions unanswered. US President Ronald Reagan had made clear that he saw Grenada and its friendship with Cuba as a threat to US interests in its own “back yard” and he was determined to exterminate it. The coup against Bishop gave the US government the alibi it needed.

How far the US was directly involved in the coup or the killing of Bishop and the others remains secret and the film provides no new light on this aspect. Maybe it was pure coincidence but from what history teaches us about US dirty tricks, this is unlikely.

Those accused and convicted of instigating the massacre refuse to be drawn on their own involvement. They  admit no culpability apart from Callistus Bernard, who carried out some of the actual killings.

With its multiple perspectives and different narratives, the film explores this key event in the history of the Caribbean. The eloquence and passion of Maurice Bishop is apparent as he defends the revolution on such critical issues as human rights and the need for a true people’s democracy.

The film also includes excerpts from a feature address by George Lamming at a memorial service for Bishop in 1983 as well as the music of calypsonian Brother Valentino.  
Paddington felt a strong compulsion to create this documentary. He was in Grenada just two months before the coup working on a UN documentary on science and technology. He met with Jacqueline Creft, Grenada’s Minister of Education, who was killed alongside Bishop at the confrontation at Fort Rupert.

“They wanted democracy,” he recalls, “there seemed to be a type of feeling of hope and the building of a new society. The minister was confident and hopeful. She wanted to promote what was happening with Grenada. There were major problems but she wasn’t discussing the government.

“There was no threat of anything in the air. Two months after my meeting with Jacqueline Creft she was machine-gunned down. I was shocked to find out what happened,” Paddington says.

Three decades later, Paddington hopes his film will be a tool for healing and education. He believes that Grenada still suffers from painful memories of this period “but the healing has begun as all the prisoners have now been released from captivity.”

The documentary will educate people who were very young at the time because a lot of the material used in the film has been unseen up to now, he says.

“It is going to be a major education tool and will help in bringing some form of reconciliation.

“Hopefully, the film will play an important role in helping the people of Grenada, and the wider Caribbean, to come to terms with this critical event in its history,” Paddington declares.

  • The documentary is being screened at the BFI in London at 2pm on May 17 and DVDs will be available from that date. Details: www.bfi.org.uk.

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