There is probably no better place for the world premiere of Bahamian filmmaker Kareem J. Mortimer’s latest movie than the Miami Film Festival. With a cast and crew representing an array of islands in the Caribbean, Cargo focuses on an American exile with a gambling addiction in Nassau who takes a job smuggling Haitians to Florida in a desperate act to support his family.
“It felt like the perfect place to premiere the film on so many levels,” Mortimer says. “Miami is like a melting pot for all of us from the Latin American Caribbean... We have like a pan-Caribbean film. We’re Jamaicans and Haitians and Bahamians.”
Mortimer had tackled the subject of smuggling Haitian immigrants in the 2013 award-winning short Passage. During the process of preparing and shooting the film, he learned much about the illegal industry of smuggling. He read all kinds of material, from books to news articles, with subjects in locations from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, and even stories of smuggling in Australia. He says he learned about the psychology of it and was taken by anecdotes such as smugglers forcing people out of their boats at gunpoint.
But key to his research was his personal experience of observing the effects of smuggling when he was a child growing up in the Bahamas. “When I was 9 years old, I remember watching the news with my mother, and it was a news item of these bodies that were washed up on shore,” he says, “and these were Haitian migrants who were trying to get to Florida. They washed up on shore in the Bahamas. During the news, at that time, they just showed everything, and I can remember seeing these dead individuals just bleached on the shore. I've never been able to forget that image, but they were just put in mass graves like they never existed.”
It’s a picture that haunted him so much that he re-created it for the opening scene of his new movie. “That's such a formative image for me, so I wanted to know how they got there and what decision they had to make. Also, I'm interested in the role Bahamian people have in that,” he says.
In a more private sense, Mortimer drew from his life to flesh out his characters, especially that of Kevin (played by Warren Brown), a father hiding from a dark past in the States while struggling to provide a good life for his son, wife, and mother, who has dementia. "There's a lot that's personal there,” the filmmaker admits. “There's a story of a father and a son... There's a story of my own father wanting to make the right decisions sometimes but it not all adding up. That's the heart of it. I love the character Kevin. I don't judge him at all. I don't think he's a terrible guy. I think he's someone who wants to do better but doesn't know how."
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He says Kevin was key in adding another dimension to the story of human smuggling. For Mortimer, focusing on the victims became didactic, but once he invested in a character who could be easily vilified, the film took on another dimension. “I wrote this story in like four or five iterations,” he says, “and it just wasn't ringing true and balanced, and I thought there was a certain balance I could bring to it if I portray this guy as human as possible.”
Presented in collaboration with Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival. 6 p.m. Sunday, March 5, at Regal South Beach Stadium 18, 1120 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 844-462-7342; regmovies.com. Tickets cost $13 via miamifilmfest.com. A showing of the short Sugar precedes the film, and Cargo's Sky Nicole Grey, Michelle Serieux, Gessica Généus, Omar Dorsey, Alexander I. Younis, Kareem Mortimer, and Jimmy Jean-Louis will appear at the screening.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter: @HansMorgenstern.