“Cargo,” written and directed by Kareem Mortimer, had its world premiere at the Miami International Film Festival this past weekend. This compelling Bahamian drama opens with bodies washed ashore, portending the tragedies involved in human smuggling. Kevin (an excellent Warren Brown) is a down-on-his-luck and deeply-in-debt white Bahamian fisherman who needs to improve his life. He has an ailing mother and angry wife at home, and his son is about to be thrown out of boarding school for unpaid tuition.
When he gains an opportunity to smuggle immigrants for large sums of cash, Kevin reluctantly accepts the job because he needs the money. After paying off some bills, he starts to breathe a little easier. He also begins an affair with Celianne (Gessica Genues), a Haitian woman who has her own struggles. But as easily as Kevin’s situation improves, it becomes much more precarious.
Mortimer captures the anxiety of class and race issues in the Bahamas by portraying the parallel situations of Kevin and Celianne. Their relationship is the spine of the film, and a sequence when he teaches her to swim is a tender moment as compared with the intense drama that develops around their characters.
A native Bahamian, Mortimer spoke with Salon about race, class, morality and making “Cargo.”
Knowing your earlier work, the short “Float” which begat your feature “Children of God,” I was pleased and surprised you made a jump to such an ambitious topic for “Cargo.” What led you to make this film?
I started writing this project almost immediately after “Children of God.” When it started, it was a series of vignettes — three stories of immigration — but what I was writing felt a bit didactic, so I had to enter the story personally. Immigration is very important to me. There’s also a big immigrant community here.
It’s a big topic in the Bahamas. We grew up with people not making it to Florida dying on our beaches. I remembered as a kid, seeing dead bodies washed up on shore on the news and I wondered, What is this story? Who are these people, and how did this happen? They were my countrymen and these people who risk everything for a better life.
What research did you do on how human smuggling operates?
I found that people did fucked-up things to immigrants, like pushing them off boats to their death if they were sick. I don’t condone human smuggling — and human smuggling is different from human trafficking — but I don’t judge the choices people make to go on these journeys. They are looking for a better life. It’s a human right to go where resources are. I am lefty in terms of immigration.
What observations do you have about race and class in the Bahamas? Most folks think of it as paradise, but the reality is much harsher, surely.
It’s not pronounced in the film. In the Bahamas it’s a different context than in the States. We have a black majority in this country. I think class is a much larger issue than race in the Bahamas. That can be felt especially in migrant communities, where access is limited. It’s a small country, and family connections are important here. I do talk about race in the film, but the difference between Kevin and Celianne is class. He is from an old established Bahamian family. He could have been from an old black Bahamian family.
Why did you make Kevin white?
I wondered why, too! I did a short film called “Passage” that “Cargo” is loosely based on. In “Passage,” the Kevin character is black. When I decided to make this character white for this film, I thought it was interesting to have a white protagonist make bad choices and not be a savior. His character in this environment, that identity was interesting to me. How does a white Bahamian in a black environment feel especially when he’s spiraling down? The expectations and treatment of him [are] different than if he were black.
Kevin explains that he wants to give his son an equal or better life to the one he had. Celianne also makes sacrifices in an effort to improve her son’s life. Why did you create the parallels you did between these characters who have an affair?
We connect to Celianne as the moral compass in the film. She’s a woman who has a physical need, and maybe she has an underlying need to procure a better life for her[self] and her child [through Kevin]. If we’re honest with ourselves, there are reasons for why we do what we do. They have these very romantic moments, and Kevin speaks a lot and very elegantly, but it’s all sort of bullshit. The choices he makes are animalistic in nature and he doesn’t realize it until the end of the movie.
What I like about both Kevin and Celianne is how they act when they are confident. You see the change that takes place in them. Can you talk about working with the actors on their roles? Kevin admits he has become the devil but he justifies this by saying, “There’s no wrong when it comes to family.”
Kevin’s self-worth is measured by his ability to have things, a kid in private school, to be attractive and have another woman interested in him or to show off to others. He’s humble when we first see him, but his confidence is based in superficial things. I don’t mean to judge him — because I really love Kevin — but the moral lesson is that when you have these superficial things, what do they mean in the end?
His confidence is based on his ability to perform financially to feel empowered even though he’s doing the wrong thing. In contrast, Celianne gains confidence the more things are taken away from her. She realizes that when we strip down to our basics, you sink or swim, and she rises to the occasion.
What can you say about making films in the Bahamas?
It’s a very nascent film industry in the Bahamas, and it’s harder. Everything we do we have to bring in from Florida. I’ve been making films here for a few years, and I know the ropes. It’s not an easy place but it’s a great location. “Cargo” shows things in our country that are rarely photographed from this angle. It’s rare to see our culture in cinema. Making films here and telling stories from our perspective is nice. There are not many films by Bahamian filmmakers [that] are done on this budget level.
Can you talk about how you conceived of the film visually and emotionally? There are symbols of life and death in the fish Kevin guts, as well as the image of being afloat, both physically, with Celianne in the water, and symbolically with Kevin being out of debt.
On an emotional level, let’s talk about the fish. That image was born on that same dock when I was a kid. My sister was horrified seeing a man chopping up a fish. He gave her a live fish, and it soon died. To see Kevin gutting this fish seems so barbaric to me, but there’s also a softer side to it: He gives the little girl who watches him a gift. But it’s about the duality of life in general.
The floating scene, well, that is a motif of mine. It has a different feeling here than it did in “Float.” It means something different here. [It would be a spoiler to reveal more.]
Do you think your film will continue the conversation about the situations it depicts?
I hope so. I hope it sparks conversations. I don’t think the film takes a position. We live with this and have been living with this for the better part of 30 years. It’s time to address it. Bodies wash up on shore a couple times a year. It’s still very shocking when it happens.