Forward Home: The Power of the Caribbean Diaspora

Photo of Culture Trip
24 November 2016

Directed by Lisa Wickham, the documentary Forward Home: The Power of the Caribbean Diaspora explores the way in which the Caribbean diaspora contributes to the region’s economy through ‘diasporic tourism’. Fernando Luis González Mitjáns shares his thoughts on the film, and explores what it says about Caribbean experience.

Being one of the many Caribbean people residing outside the Caribbean, I was thrilled at the opportunity of attending the London premiere of Forward Home: The Power of the Caribbean Diaspora, which took place on 5th November 2012, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in Central London. Directed and co-produced by the Trinidadian media specialist Lisa Wickham, the 50 minute documentary is based on two years academic research by economist Dr. Keith Nurse, who was also the documentary’s executive producer. After an international premier in September 2011 in Toronto, Canada, and effusive acclaim at the 7th Annual Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, the film finally made it to London.

Dr. Keith Nurse’s investigation, named ‘Strategic Opportunities in Caribbean Migration’ was developed within the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies in Barbados. Dr. Nurse and his collaborators worked with four diasporic Caribbean communities, namely Jamaicans in London, Dominicans in New York, the Guyanese community in Toronto and the Surinamese in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. Through the socio-economic analysis of these diasporic communities and their relation with their homeland, the investigation aimed to uncover the importance of ‘diasporic tourism’ to the economies and overall development of these four Caribbean countries, providing ‘excellent insight into the travel, trade, tourism, telecommunications and banking industries’, as stated by Lisa Wickham. The ambition of registering key experiences and impressions at both ends of the diasporic flow meant that the media team headed by Wickham had to work in nine different countries. The result is a rich piece of investigative film work combining academic insights with a profound portrayal of different Caribbean peoples, cultures and landscapes.

These peoples and cultures were, certainly, well represented on the premiere night at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The building embraced, momentarily, a vibrant sample of Caribbean immigrants – intellectuals, artists, students, diplomats – as well as researchers and enthusiasts from other backgrounds. The medium sized projection room was soon filled up with Spanish, French and English accents, laughter, enjoyment and impatience. Following encouraging introductory notes by representatives of the UK’s High Commissionaires for Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, both Director Lisa Wickham and Executive Producer Dr. Keith Nurse welcomed the audience and introduced the film.

Through interviews with first and second generation immigrants, as well as with local entrepreneurs, business owners and governmental authorities based in the Caribbean, the film develops around the importance of the concept of ‘diasporic tourism’: the tourism activity specifically practiced by the emigrant community of any given country.

The economic impact of diasporic tourism within the Caribbean is due to two central configurations. Firstly, it is important to bear in mind that the Caribbean diasporic communities tend to establish and develop within global cities, which offer them advantageous conditions to prosper and acquire economic and social stability. Strong diasporic communities within these scenarios are able to contribute substantially and systematically to homeland economies. All diasporic communities researched represent a significant population parcel within the global cities they reside in, with Jamaicans constituting 4% of the overall London population, and Dominicans up to 9% of New York City’s, as an example. On the other hand, the modest sizes of Caribbean countries’ economies and resident populations (the Surinamese diaspora, for example, represents 72% of Suriname’s population), determines the relevance of the participation of diasporic communities in national economies. While the estimated share of diasporic tourism within the economy of bigger Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic corresponds to 30% – 35% and 45% respectively – both in Suriname and Guyana this share surpasses 60% – 62% and 66% respectively.

Throughout the film the viewer acquires a clear idea of the magnitude of diasporic tourism as a phenomena, and how it strengthens national economies either through the boost of the travelling, tourism and telecommunication industries, or through simple dynamics of capital transfers and remittances sent by emigrants to their families back home.

Furthermore, many of the film’s interviews provide valuable reflections and testimonies on the experience of migration and the identity links that emigrants maintain to their homeland. Different diasporic stories, aspirations and dreams are shared and enabled the Caribbean or diasporic subjects in the audience to recognize him or herself through this common worldview. In fact, the most important element of the documentary might be, precisely, how it manages to dissociate the Caribbean immigrant from that traditional and pervasive image we become familiar with within global cities. By presenting the Caribbean immigrant as an empowered subject capable of contributing positively to the social and economic development of his or her country, the film brings new models and ideals not only within economic and international studies, but also to the way diasporic Caribbean communities are seen both within global cities and the Caribbean itself.

A sense of satisfaction and pride towards this way of approaching and understanding diasporic Caribbean communities could be felt during the session of questions that followed the screening. Questions regarding specific communities or demanding more academic information alternated with personal testimonies on partnerships or initiatives emphasizing the bonds between diasporic groups and national industries. Critical assessments of specific aspects of the film were also raised, contributing to the exchange of information between the producers and the audience. One of these relevant considerations addressed the ‘brain drainage’ phenomena which, deeply nurtured by diasporic migration, undermines the national capacity to develop its specialized and creative industries given the lack of qualified human resources. Although producers Lisa Wickham and Dr. Keith Nurse did their best to respond to the audience’s demands, they were the first to admit the limitations of the presented works. Both agreed, before a final round of applauses, on the imperative necessity of further inquiry and documentary work in the newly born areas of diasporic tourism and its importance to the ongoing development of Caribbean economies.

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