Micah Fink’s 2013 documentary on Jamaican homophobia, shown at the T&T Film Festival Wednesday, will be screened again next Sunday September 28 at the Little Carib Theatre. Angelique V Nixon, Bahamian scholar/activist visiting UWI’s Gender & Development Studies Institute, and I review the hourlong film together.
The film grew out of Fink’s work on a project on HIV in the Caribbean for the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, which also funded it. It has had screenings in Jamaica and Guyana, was aired on Belizean primetime television, and has a downloadable 12-page discussion guide.
Fink’s film follows three documentaries since 1994 by straight and gay filmmakers with Caribbean roots that attempt to grapple with the place Time magazine headlined “the most homophobic place on earth?” All four bring a gaze to Jamaica’s homophobia from North America and Europe through the lens of its cultural extraordinariness and the framework of human rights.
The Abominable Crime offers a compelling narrative of the everyday hardships faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Jamaica and focuses on “asylum”, a human rights mechanism, whereby people fleeing persecution because they belong to a particular social group can find a new home in another country. It explores what it means to leave one’s home because of discrimination and violence.
The film highlights two stories of courage: young lesbian mother, Simone, who along with her gay brother, Carl, survive a hate crime in which they are both shot on their doorstep; and activist and lawyer Maurice Tomlinson, perhaps the most visible gay Jamaican. “I have been the face of the LGBT movement,” he says. Also featured are Tomlinson’s Canadian husband and Jamaican activist Karlene, who moves from working with J-FLAG (a Jamaican gay rights group) to help people flee Jamaica to herself gaining asylum and continuing that work from Toronto. Fink’s film follows these two ordinary gay and lesbian Jamaicans and two activists over four years and five countries. By the end, they have all “escaped” Jamaica, and we are left with the film’s repeated message, in Karlene’s words, “Either you stay and die or you run away with your life.”
Except the majority of LGBT Jamaicans do neither.
Running away, also, is not so simple. The deep irony the film exposes is: stories of leaving are not all the same. Leaving works differently depending on one’s class status and support systems. The most vulnerable of the Jamaicans, the mother who was shot, faces the greatest difficulty and waits years to get out. Denied a US visa, she leaves her daughter Kayla behind on a trip to seek asylum in Holland. Even her brother escapes before her. Getting asylum means you can’t go home for years. The lawyer married to a Canadian, following death threats, begins commuting between Toronto and Montego Bay where he continues teaching, and his protective husband accompanies him on a return visit. The other activist describes her leaving as an overnight choice. The film exposes something else, but in a quite unethical way. It puts on the screen “secret” mechanisms people use to get out, shared with the filmmaker by the subjects. Editing choices could have been made to protect these strategies.
The film offers up rich and potentially complex perspectives on Jamaican homophobia through wide-ranging voices that include politicians, preachers, a heterosexual woman who supports gay issues and the British lord who litigated decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland. A clip of the current Prime Minister making positive statements about homosexual equality in a tight election race is followed by poll figures that 61% of Jamaicans would view negatively a government that changed the buggery law. Tomlinson makes a speech in London, recalling his mother saying everyone knew at least one gay person years ago, and attributing Jamaican homophobia to its export to the island in the ’80s and ’90s by American televangelists. But Lord Gifford insists it’s driven by the1864 buggery law (the wording from which the film draws its title), which Tomlinson says went unenforced. A past prime minister, who retorted famously “Not in my Cabinet!” about political leadership by gays, calls Jamaicans “a fervently Christian people”—but “it may not be reflected entirely in terms of how we sometimes live”.
But even in the face of this complexity, the film relies on a single story of extraordinary anti-gay violence and homophobia. Only toward the end of the film does Simone reveal that the person who shot her and Carl was someone they know—an intimate violence the film leaves unaddressed. Tomlinson in an early interview about the film also noted, “In Jamaica, we kill straight people, too. The reality is our murder rate is equivalent to some countries with civil wars.”
The Abominable Crime locates itself within a genre of humanrights filmmaking, which often plays a problematic role in firming up a troubling and essentialist imaginary in Western human rights of victims and heroes—some on account of their victimhood. Missing in a narrative of “death threats” and “hate crimes” is the nuanced nature of most real-world rights violations, and how human rights gains come through unglamorous, messy, everyday work, movements not individual activists, and institutional change. The film misses many opportunities to explore this, relying heavily on heroic storytelling devices of horror and champions.
Nevertheless, Fink is an effective filmmaker. The closing scene in which Simone and Kayla are reunited after years makes anyone weep. As the film winds up, Simone says “I have a future now. I never had a future in Jamaica.” But her brother leaves us with something more haunting: “I’ve lost more than I’ve gained.”