The Midas Touch: An interview of filmmaker Kareem Mortimer

Photos courtesy of Kareem Mortimer

Bahamian filmmaker Kareem Mortimer has a goal to produce five to seven films over the next five years.  He’s open to collaborating with other filmmakers to produce their work and not just his.  For some it may seem like an ambitious task, but Mortimer is up for the challenge. The 33 year old filmmaker has been making movies ever since he was seventeen. He has produced several documentaries and two features films including I Am Not A Dummy,   Float, WindJammers and mega hit Children of God.  His films have earned him kudos from audiences and critics winning over 25 awards at film festivals around the world.

Mortimer has scored again with his latest short film.  Passage is about immigration and human smuggling.  A Haitian woman, Sandrine, and her younger brother Etienne are being transported from Haiti to the Bahamas in the hold of a dilapidated wooden vessel filled with several other immigrants in search of a better life. When her brother takes ill, she must use her smarts and strength to avoid him being thrown off the boat and save his life.

The film debuted in 2013 at the Commonwealth Shorts Program in New Zealand. Since then it has been shown at the Aruba International Film Festival, and Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, where it won Best Short Film. The first public screening of Passage played to a standing room only crowd in his native Nassau. Mortimer talked with PrideIndex just as he was headed to show his film in Havana, Cuba.  He talked about the filmmaking process and why he made another short with plans to adapt into a feature.

PRIDEINDEX (PI): It is great with you this afternoon Kareem the last time I spoke with you we were talking about your movie Children of God. What have you been up to since then?

KAREEM MORTIMER (KM):  Since then, I worked on a family movie called WindJammers and then I did a documentary about transgendered individuals living in the Bahamas.  Next, I completed Passage, so that’s what I have been up to since Children of God. Now I am embarking on a feature version of Passage called Cargo, which is about a fisherman who becomes a human smuggler to pay off a gambling debt.

PI:   I know that I have not spoken with you in three or more years, but now I find out that you have completed at least three films and did not tell me. I feel like you have cheated me!

KM:  (Laughs) I’m sorry.

PI:  I am glad that I did catch up with you.

KM:  Yeah, thank you for inviting me.

PI:  I had a chance to review the trailer for Passage, and I see that Stephen Tyrone Williams is in this film as well. What was like?

KM:  Stephen and I are friends and he is such a talented actor that we worked together on Children of God and the short version of Children of God called Float.  When I wrote the script for Passage, there was nobody else that I could really think of to play the part other than Stephen.    We are a family there is always a part in any of my films for him.

PI:   That’s great and very important as a filmmaker/director to make a connection with the actors for future projects.

KM:  I agree.

PI:  Tell me a little about your muse for Passage.

KM:  After Children of God, there was a lot going on.  I finished WindJammers shortly afterwards, and there was pressure on me to do a film about immigration and about human smuggling which is a hot topic in the world.  It took me a long time to figure out what the story was because I did not want to do a film just because it was a popular thing or it’s the in vogue thing to do.  I always want to create work that has integrity to it. I really struggled with the script for a while, and I had to dig into what was personal.  The first time I viewed a dead body was when I was nine years old. I was watching the news with my mother I remember seeing dead bodies of immigrants that had floated on the shore.  I was never able to forget that image.  I’d always wondered who those people were and where did they come from and what made them take the risks.

PI:  Why did you choose to make this as a short film and then do a feature afterwards? What was logic behind those decisions?

KM: I got a grant to do the short version so that was the logic. (Laughs) The short (Passage) is its own story different than the feature (tentatively titled Cargo).  The short tells the story of the immigrants from their point of view.  The feature will tell the story of the smuggler, so there you have the differences between the two stories.  I applied and got a grant from the Commonwealth Foundation who financed the film. I did Passage as a way to keep my name out there, so there wouldn’t be too much time in between when people did not hear from me. I also did it because it was an opportunity to make work without the pressure of having the work perform financially and still be seen as many people as possible to start discussions.  I wanted everyone to know that I am still here producing work that’s challenging and that’s interesting.  With a short, a filmmaker can get to try out an idea and see what works and what doesn’t. With a short I feel, there is a lot less pressure for your film to perform.  Passage is doing well; we’ve won three awards already , programmed in over a dozen festivals and so we’re gearing up for the feature. It’s going to be exciting.

PI:  Which festivals and what awards have you won?

KM:  We premiered at New Zealand in the Commonwealth Shorts Program.  We’ve also showed in Aruba this year at the Aruba International Film Festival.  We also went on to Bristol, UK (United Kingdom), for the Encounters Short Film & Animation Festival and then we went to the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, where we won Best Short Film. Then we screened the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival and the Film Festival in Grand Bahamas, where we won Best Film.  From there, we went to Portland, Maine, where we won the Best Directors award for Best Film. We have a screening in Havana, Cuba, in two weeks.

PI: Would you say that because of the subject matter of the film it made more sense to enter it in international film festivals before submitting it in United States based fests?

KM: Yeah, but I honestly I did not have a strategy when coming to the United States.  I have applied to a couple of festivals coming to the states in the New Year.  I really want to screen at African American Film Festivals. It’s where I want this film to live.  I also want this film to live in human rights film festivals. We are also doing a great deal of screenings in Museums around the World.  That’s the strategy moving forward with that, but what I really want people to do is to access the movie.  That’s really important to me and it is  important to our funders, so we willI probably put it up for free  on their site because it is a powerful piece.

PI: Would you recommend that aspiring filmmakers make a short then make a feature length film?

KM: It depends on your path.  Every filmmaker is different. Maybe some people don’t need to do a short. For others, maybe that’s all they do is a short.  It’s a different story structure and a successful short does not always translate into a successful feature.   We have seen that many times where feature length filmmakers cannot communicate in the short form or in a way that works for that form.  As a filmmaker, you have to figure out what works best for you.  A short may be a good way to make a film if you do not have access to funds.  You may think that you can tell the story with a smaller amount of funds and you just want to get your feet wet.  At the end of the day, it has about to be all about the story that you are telling. You have to ask yourself is this story able to fit within this time constraints of a short film or does it need to be bigger (longer). If it fits within the time constraints, then I would say go for it.  If it goes beyond that, then that’s great.

I am not sure if you saw Float, which is the short version of Children of God. People say that I used that as a feature, but I always do them as two separate movies and two different feelings behind it.  If you want to watch Float, it is free on YouTube.  Again, I say it depends on your path as a filmmaker.

PI:  Where are you with the feature length film have you begun to cast for it? Are you in pre-production?

KM: We are partially funded we plan to start shooting in 2014.  It’s a bigger film for me, and it’s a larger budget than my previous films, so therefore we’re reaching out to a couple of names to see if we can get someone attached, so we should know in about another few months. Of course Stephen is going to be a part of it because we adore him. The scripts are done and we are ready to go.

PI: I have spoken with several filmmakers who have use crowd funding such as Kickstarter or  IndieGoGo or GoFundme as avenues to raise funds to bankroll their film. What are your thoughts regarding crowd funding? Have you considered it to raise funds for your project?

KM: It’s not a part of our strategy right now.  I do realize that running a crowd funding campaign can be a job within itself. I am not sure if that is path that I want to take and do not foresee that right now, but I have never done crowd funding.

PI:  What other projects do you have coming down the pipeline?

KM: In addition to Cargo, I am building architecture with a partner  Austrian entrepreneur and producer Alexander Younis. We have established a company  that will produce and finance a slate of films over the next several years.

PI: Will this venture include works by others not just your own stuff?

KM: Yes, of course! We’re trying to build a structure that supports other talented filmmakers.  As a director, I cannot do seven films in five years, but we can help to develop those projects for other people.  In the beginning, it would be our films, but the whole goal is to expand out and produce films that are from other filmmakers.

PI: Have you considered other mediums such as television or theater to expand into or to re-purpose any of your current or past works?

KM: I would like to do something on the stage.   I like the theater and stage and the way that playwriting is king.  I see television somewhere down the line but not in my immediate plans.  If the opportunity were to come up, then I would take it.  Right now, I am focusing on just films.

PI: Do you currently reside in the United States or in the Bahamas?

KM: I’m based in the Bahamas. I love it here.  I have lived in the United States for a while, but I love my quality of life in the Bahamas. It is the place that inspires me.  I live near some of my family here and it’s a place that I connect to on a heart level. This is where I got married.  (When did I get married?)

PI: You don’t remember. (Laughs)

KM:  (Laughs) Yes, I do! I got married last year. My partner and I live here in the Bahamas.

PI: Do you need a roommate or a visitor from Chicago to drop by for a few days and stay in your spare room in Paradise?

KM: (Laughs) You can come and visit anytime. I travel a lot so I may not be home.

PI: What else would you like to share?

KM: Right now, it’s a pretty exciting time for me. I am just about ready to start my project tentatively titled Cargo. I cannot wait until it’s done for all to see.

Passage, will screening at the Pan African Film Festival on Sat, Feb 8 at 1:05pm; Thurs, Feb 13 at 9:35pm; and Mon, Feb 17 at 10:20pm

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