It wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t enough for Phillip Pike to be a lawyer fighting for human rights.
It wasn’t enough to be a black gay man living in Canada. It wasn’t enough.
There was personal journey to be embarked on. Stories to find. And a connection with an ancestry that started on a Jamaican plantation, where his great-grandfather worked as a slave.
So Phillip Pike put down the law books and took up the video camera. In five years of traveling to and from Jamaica, Pike found himself capturing the stories of gays and lesbians who live in a society that is known for its extreme homophobia. Most of the participants in Songs of Freedom, the resulting 75-minute documentary opt to keep their identities concealed — their faces blurred beyond recognition.
But the stories they tell have a familiar ring — a ring that is sometimes unsettling, a ring that is sometimes triumphant.
Though scrappy around the edges, Songs of Freedom remains a stark and, at times, brutally honest experience. As it moves from tales of coming out to stories of abuse arising from one of the most virulently homophobic in the world, it draws you into a gay existence that, in Washington, you cannot begin to imagine.
Songs of Freedom film will have its Washington premiere at Visions Cinema next Thursday, at a one-night-only event at 8 p.m. Pike, who lives in Toronto, Canada, took time to discuss the genesis of the project, as well as his own personal journey as a filmmaker who found a society of gays ready to have their voices heard.
METRO WEEKLY: What prompted you to go into documentary filmmaking?
PHILLIP PIKE: I actually started my professional career as a lawyer, and in 1998 I was sort of at a crossroads in my life, thinking about what’s coming up next. I was visiting a friend in Arizona and mentioned to him that I had applied to go to grad school with the aim of teaching law, and he sort of very gently suggested to me that I may want to think about doing something creative. I thought about that for a little while, and I got up one morning shortly after that and just decided that, yes, I was going to make a film. So after that I began to think about what I needed to do to make it happen. So I took some courses in video production.
MW: How did Jamaica enter the picture?
PIKE: I was born there, but migrated to Canada with my family in 1971 or thereabouts, I was about nine years old. By 1998 I was 36 and wanted to go back to Jamaica. I felt there was something missing in my life — here was this country where I was born and where I spent the first nine years of my life but I really didn’t know a lot about it beyond what everybody else knew from music or newspapers.
The two things sort of coincided in December of ’98. I bought a plane ticket and I bought a video camera and I set out to Jamaica. And I really didn’t know what I was going to do or how I was going to do it, I just knew I had my plane ticket and a camera.
[While in Jamaica], I read that an organization called JFLAG — the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, had just launched itself publicly. I made contact with them, and decided that my film was going to be about the life experience of gays and lesbians. I wanted to know how gay people were living their lives on a day-to-day basis in this country that has this reputation of a very virulent strain of homophobia. And I wanted to know like, what do you do? How do you get up in the morning, how do you live your life, how do you go to school? Just sort of basic human day to day sorts of things. When I began to talk to people about that, I was surprised at the range of experiences. I was surprised that some people were able to come out to their family and then survive long enough to sit down and talk to me about it in interview.
MW: Most of the people interviewed had their identities concealed. But there were several who chose to speak very openly and frankly on camera. Larry Chang, for instanceÂ…
PIKE: Well, I think Larry, through a combination of different circumstances, just got to a point in his life where he really didn’t care anymore. He just decided that he needed to live his life out in the open. He has actually left Jamaica, but even while he was there, my understanding is that he was living his life quite openly.
MW: What about “Bobby,” who speaks of the atrocities performed on gays who are arrested and sent to prison? I was a little surprised that he chose to show himself fully.
PIKE: That’s an interesting story, because I was quite concerned about his safety. The segment was shot in June of 2000. I ran into him on about two or three other occasions when I went back to film, and I kept on asking him, “Do you still want to do this without your face not concealed?” And he said, “Yes.” He was a very street smart kind of person, so I thought, okay, and went ahead with using him in the film.
When we had the premiere in Toronto back in January, someone who was sitting next to me leaned over and said, did you know that Bobby has died? As it turns out, he died of AIDS in October of 2002. And so, since that time, the thought has occurred to me that perhaps he knew at the time we were filming, back in 2000, that he was ill, and perhaps in a way this was his gift to the community. Because he says a lot of things which are very crucial and important, especially for it to be said by someone who doesn’t have their face camouflaged.
MW: Bobby’s is without doubt the most disturbing and upsetting passage in the film, just the horrors that he recounts. And yet, he recalls them in such a placid, gentle manner, it kind of throws you.
PIKE: I think that is part of life in those circumstances. When you live in that environment for so long, you actually become detached from the reality around you in order to survive psychologically. I think that’s what we’re seeing in him.
MW: Do the police go out of their way to arrest known homosexuals without probable cause?
PIKE: It’s hard for me to say. All I can share is the experiences I’ve heard about. I think what happens is if word gets out that you’re gay, chances are you’re going to be harassed. So they’re going to pick you up, they’re going to try to pin stuff on you that under normal circumstances they may have looked the other way on. A lot of the police officers themselves, in order to cover up their own sexual orientation identity, are actually some of the most brutal harassers, just because it’s a way of masking their own sexual identity.
MW: How did you choose your subjects?
PIKE: A lot of people have said, “Why didn’t you do man in the street interviews with the average Jamaican?” And while that’s interesting, I think there will be other films to be made on the subject which will perhaps include that. But I really wanted this to be about personal stories — good, personal stories from the heart. I wanted to have a good cross section of people — Larry is a Jamaican of Chinese descent, for example — and I tried to get a cross section of class. And it was a very important thing to have gender balance. But most of all it’s the people who are good storytellers who made it into the finished film.
MW: You live in Canada, we live in Washington, and in both cities, we tend to take open gay life pretty much for granted. How did you feel, as a gay man, encountering so many people who have to live their sexual lives underground?
PIKE: It’s hard for me to see it as all bad or all good, right? It’s a real mixed bag. But I think life is full of contradictions. Certainly, at a very basic level, life is difficult in Jamaica in general. Economically it’s hard if you’re a young person to find certain opportunities, it’s hard to get a job, to retain a job. Friends of mine always jokingly say to me “When you’re in Toronto you can sort of take a holiday from homophobia, and when you go to Jamaica you can take a holiday from racism, right?” It’s like, what do I want to deal with today? Do I want to deal with homophobia? Well then, if I don’t want to I’ll stay in Toronto. Do I want to deal with racism? Not today, well I’ll go to Jamaica.
A lot of gay men and women are fleeing Jamaica in droves, seeking asylum in the United States, here in Canada, and in the U.K. And they’re being granted asylum, which is a recognition, I think, of just how bad things are. But while I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how bad things are, at the same time people get along, you know? Like Denise for example, who talks about meeting her girlfriend in Kingston, which I think is a wonderful human story. And so there’s a way in which you kind of have to make the best of the situation that you’re in.
And that’s why it was so important for me that the film convey these individual stories. For example, Miriam, the woman who talks about growing up in the ghetto and coming out to her family and being accepted — her story really blows the lid off a lot of people’s preconceptions, including my own, that if you’re from the ghetto, it’s much harder to live a gay person. That certainly was the conventional wisdom, because people said to me often that the higher up the socio-economic ladder you go in Jamaica, the less your sexual orientation is an issue. But then along comes Miriam, who came out to her family, who was born and bred in the ghetto, and was accepted. Quite a number of other men who I interviewed off camera, who lived in ghettos, said the same thing — that their family knows, and a lot of the people in their communities know, and they’re okay with it. But if someone from another community comes in to the ghetto, and is suspected of being gay, chances are that person is going to be stoned or stabbed to death.
MW: Do you think the typical Jamaican male will ever be able to put aside his own homophobia and bigotry? That’s a broad question, of course, but I’m curious as to your opinion.
PIKE: I’m an optimist. I’ve been described as a dreamer, so perhaps I’m not the best person to give you a response to that. Because my response is I do believe that it is in all of our natures to change and evolve. It may take a longer time in that particular case because of Jamaica’s history, but I think it will change nonetheless.
It’s been suggested to me that — and to a certain extent Larry alludes to this in the film when he’s talking about his theory of the homophobia — Jamaica’s experience of slavery was harsher, uglier, dirtier, use whatever word you will, than a lot of the other Caribbean islands and that’s why the homophobia in Jamaica is of a qualitatively different kind than in other Caribbean islands. I have a cousin who went to law school in Cave Hill in Barbados. Now the University of the West Indies is a regional university, so in Barbados they would have had students from all the Caribbean islands, and she said invariably when it came time to talk about the sodomy laws in the seminars, it was always the Jamaican men who had the most virulent reaction to the conversation. Sure the Grenadian men or the Trinidadian men would react, but somehow the Jamaicans were just that much more over the top. So I don’t know, maybe the Jamaican strain is more virulent, but I still think that it can change.
MW: How has making the film helped you on your own journey as a gay man?
PIKE: It brought together different parts of my identity, because I think in North America, I’m faced with this every day. Growing up in Canada, there were too many labels. I’m a black gay man. I’m an African-Canadian. Going back to Jamaica helped me to see myself as a whole person. I see myself now first and foremost as a human being. The fact that I’m black, the fact that I’m male, the fact that I’m gay, the fact that I’m all those other things that are identities in this particular society that I live in are now, for me, less important. The first and foremost are the human beings, and that’s the level at which I want to connect with other people. So when I read this stuff about class, racial identity and the intersection of gender and race and class, my eyes kind of glaze over. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to disparage it — I think the politics of identity is important, but I think it’s only one step along the way. I think what happens is a lot of us get stuck in that one place where we can only see ourselves by these labels.
You know when I walk into the bank you know, I don’t tell the teller I’m a black gay man. I’m a customer — and that’s enough to get me the services. I don’t need all that other stuff. For me now, I can’t think in those terms anymore, so when I read that stuff, it’s just like that teacher in Charlie Brown — it just becomes a lot of goobledy gawk to me.
So that was my journey, a journey of putting aside all of those labels and essentially just seeing this is who I am. I’m a human being and that’s the end of the story.
Songs of Freedom will have its Washington premiere at Vision Cinema, 1927 Florida Avenue NW, next Thursday, April 24, at 8 p.m. Tickets for this one-night-only event are $10. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Jamaican human rights activist Larry Chang. For more information, call 202-667-0090. For more information on Songs of Freedom, visit www.jahloveboyproductions.com.