Review of A Hand Full of Dirt a Russell Watson film

Published: Friday, 27 May 2011 Written by Daria Mitchell Sorhaindo

Review of A Hand Full of Dirt a Russell Watson Picture

Produced by Lisa Harewood

Featuring: Alwin Bully, Nigel Scotland, Luther Bourne, Marcia Burrows, Suzette Mayobre and Cynthia Wilson

Presented in Dominica by The Dominica Film Office in association with Kaz Kweyol Productions and as part of the Tourism Awareness month and DOMFESTA



On Friday 20 May 2011 as part of the Tourism Awareness month and DOMFESTA, the film A Hand Full of Dirt was given its first commercial viewing in the Commonwealth of Dominica to a packed audience at the Arawak House of culture. In order to make this show a success many people had to lend their expertise as Dominica does not have a cinema. Never mind the draw backs of a small screen or the lack of the full surround sound of a real movie house, the Dominican audience appreciated every aspect of the evening as honey dripping from a honey comb. The film spanned three generations of West Indian men set against the background of a typical yet symbolic West Indian island and the American city life. It portrays life as it was and has become for West Indians.

Grandfather, Ben Redman (played by Luther Bourne from Barbados), lives on a fading old plantation house which he acquired through blood, sweat and toil, hence the hand fill of dirt. Its former owners were part of the once dominant white planter class. Being black, it is indeed an acquisition one would be willing to die for. Ironically, the descendent of slaves wishes to own exactly what his forefathers’ masters owned. Is it a double edged sword, a reminder of the pain and suffering of his slave ancestors or a trophy that he can gloat over and use as a trump card, as the descendant who is wealthy enough to own what the white planter had? As all fathers, he thus wishes to leave this handful of dirt as his legacy to his only son, Archie Redman (played by Alwin Bully from Dominica) who refuses to accept this boon and prefers to ‘paddle his own canoe’ as V.S. Naipaul so aptly describes his protagonist in his novel “A House for Mr. Biswas”. The son, Archie, leaves the plantation, buys his own house, marries a medical doctor, who eventually divorces him, and he purchases a hotel which becomes his handful of dirt. ‘Like father, like son’, both find themselves in hot water as the plantation fails as there is no one to man it,  and the hotel goes into arrears as the son becomes bankrupt. Determined like his father, Archie Redman prefers to hold on to his handful of dirt rather than sell his hotel to the bank. His young adult son, Jay Redman (played by Nigel Scotland from Antigua), on the other hand, has just finished university with top grades but cannot graduate because the last instalment of his tuition has not been paid by his father. The grandson, Jay, is in a dilemma like both his father and grandfather; he wants to be independent and needs to work but cannot because of his immigrant status which is being impeded because of the tuition that is not paid. He too, steps out on his own, refusing the hotel legacy that his father has started, and wishes to stay in the American city with his Puerto-Rican girlfriend and make a life for himself.

The drama becomes much more complicated than this as underlying all these relationships are males trying to assert their angst and manhood at the detriment of the females. The men all are part of violent relationships where they inflict pain on their spouses. It is interesting though that the two older men portray what happens in a physically and emotionally violent environment whereas the young grandson displays psychological pain inflicted upon his fiancée as he grapples with her unplanned pregnancy, his unemployment and undecided graduate status as well as the cultural gulf between his West Indian/African island culture and that of the Puerto Rican/Spanish culture. To add to this, we also have the issue of fraud in the business arena as the bank officials together with other major conglomerates corner the father, Archie Redman, into selling his hotel using his son as assurance to seal the deal.

This drama does end happily ever after, bitter sweet, as the plantation is the only handful of dirt that remains and as initially intended, the son,  Archie Redman, penniless must rely on his father’s, Ben Redman’s, dream to recreate his own. The grandson, Jay Redman, divorces himself from his West Indian heritage and continues onward with the struggle of the rootless in the big city.

Indeed this film hits very close to home with its male domination turned both inward and outward as the men try to come to terms with their inner male voices as well as their society’s voice shouting them into fixed roles. This conflict is manifested in self destruction as well as domestic violence against the women that they love. The women depict women who are strong in their actions and silences as they endure against all odds. They rise like phoenixes from the ashes and are able to kiss away the hurt of their men as well as repair the broken pieces of their relationships. They bond and support.

The actors taken from across the Caribbean embrace our unique cosmopolitan ethos as we define ourselves as ‘the people who came’. We must congratulate them as they played their roles so effortlessly, so much so, the audience were given the impression that they were peeping through a window into the lives of their neighbours as the curiosity and embarrassment felt were like a thin spider’s web gluing us all together to our seats, our eyes to the screen as our lives were exposed in the actors’ lives.

A Hand Full of Dirt also hammers loudly at our islands’ tourism sectors hit hard by the downturn in the world economies; a reality for many families in the hotel industry. Amidst that, there are the resonances of the life of West Indian youth having to go abroad to study and trying to fit into a society that most often is quite antagonistic toward the immigrant, yet this society becomes attractive to the youth as the opportunities dazzle them into blindness and amnesia as their West Indian heritage recedes into the recesses of their psyche.

Russell Watson has fashioned a film that thrives off the silences of life which is often quite deafening as we try to keep them locked up in their Pandora’s Box. He fascinates the viewer in his observation of and the use of body language in what in literature we refer to as synecdoche as mouths, faces, hands begin  to tell the entire story of the person. Mr. Watson punctuates the scenes with the sound of the kettle, the making of tea or coffee an everyday occurrence which binds all the characters in this film world. So the viewer is able to move from one set to another with just that sound to indicate this change that is not really a change at all, as we realise how similar we all are despite the distances, physical or mental, in our lives. This tea ceremony also reminds us of our colonial and African past as we hold on to certain rituals that link us to our past. The film begins and ends with the same scene of the towering, majestic palm trees; imposing reminders of our birthright. The Language used in the film was good clean language, modified West Indian and void of any one overriding West Indian dialect although, one was aware of the residual, Barbadian and Puerto Rican accents. One aspect that bothered me however, was the greeting of ‘Happy Holidays’ which vibrated with the peculiarities of the outer Western culture which can be quite opposed to our  own West Indian culture, so a ‘Merry Christmas’ for me would have been a greeting closer to home and much preferred.

A Hand Full of Dirt, claims our West Indian inheritance, this land that our forefathers were thrown into and adopted as their own, as they made it their home, that became their legacy to us as a reminder of the hardships they suffered to survive as well as our passport into the future as we continue their legacy as ’the ebony princes ... a power of black men rising from the sea.’

As Edward Baugh from his poem “Sometimes in the Middle of the Story” so succinctly states.

For those of us who were fortunate to view this masterpiece, it resonated with the nuances of a people redefined, redefined into a people of the earth, the earth that is our inheritance. Intellectually stimulating, the film applauded survival as the audience became part of the drama of life with its intrigues and adventures. For those of you, who did not get the chance to view it, add this film to your list of ‘to do things’ and make it a point of being a part of the audience upon its subsequent showing.

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