An elliptical love story wrapped up in a narrative about culture, class and politics, Moko Jumbie, filmmaker Vashti Anderson’s debut feature, offers a beautifully shot Trinidadian landscape as background to the roiling emotions and events on display. Set in 1990 during the country’s failed coup attempt, the film explores lingering dissatisfactions of the colonial era even while it celebrates the romantic dalliance of its protagonist. Young Asha (Vanna Girod) has just returned from her current home in England to her native island for what should be a brief visit, but soon grapples with questions of identity as she pushes back against familial expectations to forge a self of her own. With great local specificity of detail, Anderson – also a native of Trinidad and Tobago – weaves a tangled web of cinematic intrigue that is gripping and satisfying in equal measure.
“Long ago, the spirit Moko left Africa … following his people to the Land of Sugar. The Moko Jumbie will return.” So begins the movie with an opening title card. “Moko” comes from a West African term for “God,” while “jumbie” is a Trinidadian colloquialism meaning “spirit.” This spirit inhabits the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago, neither protecting nor cursing the residents, but giving them a sense of place, and pride of heritage. They know where they’ve come from, and what they’ve become. Theirs is a hybrid identity, however, just as moko + jumbie is a hybrid expression, and Asha, pursuing a a relationship with Roger (Jeremy Thomas), a local boy from a lower social class and of a different race (she is Indian, and he African), represents both the hopes and challenges for a harmonious future. She wants it to work out, but folks on both sides are set in their ways.
Filled with the telling of tales – from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to ghost stories – the movie is above all interested in how humans create traditions and mythologies that both unite and separate, depending on the beholder. “Never talk to spirits,” says one character. Fine, but do not the spirits of the past possess us all? Do we not need to acknowledge their presence before we can move forward into a new future? Asha and Roger, the would-be lovers, must first learn to navigate these fraught cultural waters before their budding relationship has a chance. Fortunately for them, and for us, their fate lies in the hands of a talented director. No need to exorcise any demons, then. Instead, embrace Moko Jumbie‘s haunted, profoundly cinematic musings on life, and be transformed.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I note that Vashti Anderson and I went to the same film school, though we were in different classes. We did not know each other that well, however, and I have not seen her in over 15 years.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)