'Children of God' tackles homophobia in the Bahamas

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NASSAU, THE BAHAMAS -- The sand is whiter than white, the sea such an astonishing blue it almost looks dyed. This truly is paradise, as the Bahamians will happily remind you.

But not even paradise is perfect. And that's the theme of Kareem Mortimer's "Children of God," a full-length feature that opened the sixth annual Bahamas International Film Festival (Dec. 10-17).

Mortimer's film tackles the subject of homophobia, which he argues is widespread here. While he initially conceived his movie in purely romantic terms, it turned darker following the murders of five gay men over a few months in 2007-08.

"Two of them I knew personally," he says. "One was the subject of a documentary I produced -- he had AIDS and was killed very violently near where I live. He was almost decapitated. Another guy, a fashion designer, was stabbed multiple times in his house."

As a gay Bahamian, Mortimer adds, "I felt really afraid. I can't even express how I felt, and one politician said things like 'the only good homosexual is a dead homosexual' that went unchallenged in the country. Bahamians are very generous, loving people, but it was an act of great shame."

To show Bahamians another side of the issue, Mortimer focused his story on three very different characters: the wife of a secretly gay pastor, a homophobic firebrand; a young black man who is trying to hide his sexuality from his family; and the conflicted white man he becomes involved with.

Despite its controversial subject, "Children of God" had no trouble finding backers. "I raised the money locally from supporters of my work," says Mortimer, who has been making docs here for six years. "I called in favors from individuals who have supported my work."

The director wasn't able to tap a much-anticipated government subsidy that aims to give 17% of local spend back to filmmakers and which has been frozen in Parliament; by contrast, the government waived taxes on imported equipment and paid for the crew's hotel rooms.

With a cast made up largely of Bahamians and a crew that mixed both locals and outsiders, the movie was shot over 24 days across the country, benefiting from some of the most glorious locales in the world.

Besides these locales, Mortimer notes, "There is an abundance of talent here," evident in performers like his stars, Stephen Tyrone Williams and Margaret Kemp. But given that only one indigenous narrative film was shot in the past year, much of this talent has had to seek work elsewhere, either by taking second jobs or by relocating to New York and Los Angeles. With a population of only 335,000, much work needs to be done if the Bahamas is to develop the needed technicians to lure filmmakers here.

The festival itself, under executive director Leslie Vanderpool, is doing its best to further that.

In addition to its program of Caribbean and international movies (this year's lineup included Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience," Anthony Fabian's "Skin" and Lee Daniels' "Precious," along with tributes to Johnny Depp and Sophie Okonedo), it has created a residency program designed to pair local filmmakers with more experienced ones from abroad -- a program Mortimer himself took part in.

"It is the only film program of its kind in a region that is sometimes underfunded," Mortimer says.

Vanderpool is proud the program played a role in bringing "Children of God" to the screen. And she's even prouder of the response it got on opening night.

"There was no negative reaction at all, and that's because people were ready for it," she says. "I really want Bahamians to be exposed to these types of stories -- and then move on."
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