These Two Takes on Human Trafficking in the Caribbean Prove Why a Filmmaker’s POV Matters

Cargo, directed by Bahamian Kareem J. Mortimer and Live Cargo, directed by American Logan Sandler, are more than just similarly-titled films set in the Bahamas. They exemplify the differences between homegrown filmmakers grappling with local issues in their work and foreign-born directors using a seemingly exotic backdrop for their ambitious personal projects. Both, as their titles suggest, deal head on with human trafficking in the Caribbean island.

In fact, the image of bodies washed-up ashore open both films. But where Mortimer’s brightly-colored images give them the feel of on-the-ground photographs capturing the devastating effects of a human smuggling operation gone wrong, Sandler’s choice to shoot his film in black and white leave them instead looking like glossy portraits much too pretty to announce anything more than their own beautiful construction. That difference in style very much dictates how each approaches the issue at hand. Where Mortimer’s film, the largest Bahamian film project to date which recently screened at the Miami International Film Festival, attempts to track how pervasive and damaging the trafficking epidemic is in the islands with its sprawling and wildly diverse ensemble, Sandler’s film is much more interested in using the gorgeous Caribbean landscape as a naturally threatening background for what amounts to a small-scale personal drama.

Mortimer’s first film, Children of God carries with it the distinction of being one of the first Caribbean films to tackle homosexuality head on. It established the Nassau-born director as a keen and attentive filmmaker. Cargo is ostensibly about Kevin (played by Brit actor Warren Brown). He’s a man at his wit’s end. With a boy in boarding school, a sick mother, a wife who’s long lost respect for him, and a flailing business, he turns to human smuggling to make some quick cash.

But the more Mortimer examines the world around Kevin—including the young Jamaican woman he employs at home and the pretty Haitian waitress he begins seeing on the side—you’re made privy to the way immigration is central to many in the island. Whether those looking for a better world up North in the United States, or those wishing to make a better life for themselves in the Bahamas in comparison to where they came from, many of the characters in Cargo live daily with the brunt of a changing economy that forces legal (and, at times, illegal) migration.

Cargo is also intent on exposing the racism that pervades the lives of many of its characters. Kevin’s girlfriend Celianne (Gessica Geneus), for example, has to suffer the indignity of being disrespected by her son’s principal who’s keen on kicking him out since she’s yet to pay for his tuition. “How many toilets do you have to scrub before you come up with the funds?” she’s asked. And while Kevin depends on his whiteness to keep his boat trips from being investigated (“Look at me, do I look like I would do something crazy?”), his wife Berneice is quick to talk freely about how Jamaicans are thieves and criminals. Played by Puerto Rican, African-American and Irish actress Persia White (of Girlfriends and The Vampire Diaries fame), Berneice is one of the more interesting characters the film develops.

Often cooped up at home out of shame of what happened to her before the film began, we later learn she herself was an immigrant in the United States who got deported. The memory of the life that she and Kevin could’ve had haunts her every day, leading her to lash out at her husband. She thinks he has ruined both of their lives and confined them to living in the Bahamas beyond their means. That she surely faced discrimination herself while living abroad just adds to the various ways Cargo doesn’t want to see things in black and white, never content with letting anyone off the hook for the rampant social problems that these characters live with on a daily basis.

There’s no reason why Sandler’s dreamy black-and-white marital drama should be held to the same standards. After all, it’s merely intent on telling the story of Nadine and Lewis (Dree Hemingway and Atlanta‘s Keith Stanfield), a young couple who head to the Bahamas to try and rekindle a relationship damaged by the loss of their infant child. The crashing waves, the imposing clouds, and the stark landscapes around them merely help reinforce how adrift they are from one another. In fact, there’s such beauty in Sandler’s melancholy images that it makes the Bahamas feel like some otherworldly paradise—especially in scenes where Nadine scuba dives and expertly skewers fish in her wake.

Of course, one keeps waiting for this mostly dialogue-free arthouse yarn to reach outside of this small-scale drama to deal with the social issues its title suggests. But when the grief-stricken couple’s story finally collides with the more violent goings on around them, the film cannot help but frame a capsized boat tragedy as a tidy deus ex machina plot device which brings the gorgeous couple ever closer together. Sandler, who spent part of his formative years in the Bahamas, clearly has an eye for the area—you really haven’t seen Bimini quite like this on screen—but it’s rather dispiriting to see such a harrowing socioeconomic ill as human trafficking be reduced to a subplot, let alone made into a marital metaphor.

Taken together, Cargo and Live Cargo give us two complementary narratives about the human trafficking epidemic in the Caribbean. They’re also a reminder of the ever growing film industry in the area which is getting more and more varied with every new film released. But given their respective focuses, it’s not hard to tell which one was made by and for a Bahamian audience, even as the other cannot help but offer you a stunning look at the natural beauty of the island—the better to tempt you to go visit, perhaps.

Cargo premiered at the Miami Film Festival while Live Cargo opens in theaters and VOD on March 31, 2017.