Festival Daily

By Sam Toman

When Maria Govan, writer and director of the film Rain, told her friends that she was leaving the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles to return to her native Bahamas, they had one thing to say: “You’ll never make films in the Bahamas.”

What they probably meant was that Govan would never make the film she wanted to in the Bahamas.

Every year, big-budget Hollywood studio productions set up shop in the archipelago nation. Recently Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Casino Royale shot there. Sprawling beaches, clear water and a proximity to the United States make the country an appealing filming location, but these movies offer little or no clues as to the realities of everyday Bahamian life.

“I fortunately didn’t listen to that noise, and I trusted my own instincts,” Govan says over the phone from her home in the Caribbean nation as she busily prepares for the film’s Toronto and world debut. “I’m excited and nervous; there are just so many emotions.”

Not only is the Toronto International Film Festival a chance to premiere her first feature-length film, it is also an opportunity to show the world a rarely seen side of this tiny Caribbean country. Rain is one of only a handful of domestic pictures to have come out of the Bahamas, and in some ways the director’s journey reflects that of the young protagonist Rain, for whom the film is named.

Govan, a native Bahamian, grew up on the bustling city of Nassau and then left for Los Angeles at the age of 18 to pursue her dream of becoming a filmmaker – an uncommon goal in a part of the world where careers run more in the vein of offshore banking, catering to sun-kissed tourists and fishing. It wasn’t until she returned home after four years, however, that she found the inspiration and material she needed to make her first feature.

In Rain, Govan strives to create a story true to the everyday life of Bahamians. It is a life of disconnection. Families are distanced from each other by stretches of ocean separating the country’s 700 islands, children are cut off from their parents by the trauma of teen pregnancy, and residents dissociate from their past due to the tourism-fuelled hustle of modernization. But despite these detachments, it is also a tale of connection. The narrative focuses predominantly on the black population, descendants of African slaves who were disconnected from their own history after being deposited in the Caribbean during Britain’s colonial rule.

The film tells the story of Rain, a young girl forced to leave the bucolic ease of the tiny Ragged Island in search of her birth mother in Nassau. What she finds is a community ravaged by drugs and prostitution, and a mother drawn into a dangerous lifestyle. She also finds a collection of local characters, some helpful and some hurtful, who educate her on the realities of urban life. Ultimately, Rain finds redemption through track and field, a national obsession that unites nearly everyone in the country.

What truly sets the story apart is the setting. Shots that linger on simple things such as frying fresh fish, buying a soda from a roadside kiosk or a Sunday morning at church reveal more about the island nation than the postcard-perfect backdrop we are used to seeing on film.

“The story is fairly common,” says Govan. “But the Bahamas is such a beautiful place. The colour palate and settings we had to work with make it unique.”

Her debut is especially distinctive because the troubling and often lonely tale doesn’t quite mesh with the sun, sand and surf most of us attribute to the tropical island experience.

“It’s about losing our innocence,” says Govan. “It’s facing the reality that we are alone, and trying to figure out who we can count on in this life.”
Before embarking on Rain, Govan had very little experience in narrative filmmaking. But through her own connections, she knew exactly who she could count on.

“I’d done several documentaries. People knew me from that, and to be honest, the initial financing was fairly easy,” Govan admits. “There is a wealthy contingent here that you can tap into. Plus it’s a small community and everybody knows everybody. We had a handful of core investors who put up a lot of money, believed in the project, and were willing to role the dice. They had faith that I wouldn’t fall flat on my face.”

Ultimately that faith paid off. And with Rain’s acceptance into the Festival lineup, Govan has given the Bahamas something they can be truly proud of. In celebration of her success, Govan and much of the film’s cast and crew – including its 16-year-old star Renel Brown – will travel to Toronto for the premiere. “We’re bringing a real Bahamian posse.” 

“It’s going to be great to share this experience with everyone,” she adds. “And Renel’s travel experience has been so limited that I don’t think she has any real sense of what to expect.”

Surely what they can anticipate is a rare celebration of Caribbean film on a stage that rarely showcases work from that part of the world. “I don’t think there is another film out of the Bahamas to come to the Festival. Caribbean films in general are really sparse,” she says, adding, “there is a large Caribbean population in Toronto, and I really hope the word gets out and they get a chance to see the film.”

Sept. 8, 6:15pm, AMC 10      
Sept. 13, 12:15pm, AMC 9