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A Spat Over a Spit

Times Staff Writer

Sabers rattled and epithets rang across this lush tropical island long before the first crew arrived this month to film the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel.

Somewhere in the middle of the movie, natives are supposed to capture Johnny Depp’s character, Captain Jack Sparrow, and spit-roast the swashbuckling pirate with fruits and vegetables “like a shish kebab,” said Bruce Hendricks, the Walt Disney Pictures executive in charge of production.

“It’s a funny, almost campy sequence,” he said of a film also populated by ghost pirates and zombies. “There are a lot of silly moments in it.”

But some of Dominica’s Carib inhabitants are offended by what they consider an insinuation that their forebears were cannibals. They’ve called on the 3,500-strong population that is the last surviving indigenous group in the Caribbean to choose between fleeting fame and tribal honor. Chief Charles Williams asked his community to boycott the project, but most have welcomed the financial infusion.

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To those Dominicans who see the economic benefits of the film shoot, it is a frivolous spat over a fantasy story. To others such as Williams, it is a blot on the image of the Caribs. The group is a minority on Dominica, whose 70,000 people are mostly of African descent.

Disney argues that the film is fiction, but Williams says it draws on history.

“Pirates did come to the Caribbean in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries,” he said. “Our ancestors were labeled cannibals. This is being filmed in the Caribbean.”

History books still cast the Caribs as cannibals during the time of the European settlement of the Caribbean that began in the 15th century but didn’t reach Dominica, a tiny island in the eastern Caribbean, until 200 years later. But the indigenous people, the chief argues, were simply defending themselves.

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“Today, that myth, that stigma is still alive,” Williams said, denying that the Caribs ever ate those they vanquished. “Today, Disney wants to popularize that stigma one more time, this time through film, and film is a powerful tool of propaganda.”

He recalls watching Western films as a boy in the 1960s and cheering for the embattled white settlers rather than the displaced indigenous people. “They were the stars of the film,” Williams said. “They were the ones being attacked.”

As newly elected chief of the Carib Territorial Council, Williams was approached by a delegation of Disney executives in October to discuss Carib collaboration on the film, for which about 400 locals have been hired as grips, caterers, drivers and extras. When the chief learned of the scene depicting Depp’s character on the barbecue spit, he said the Caribs would boycott the production.

“For me, a good name is better than riches,” Williams said. “Shame on us that for a few dollars we are betraying our flesh and blood.”

Other Caribs say the chief is taking offense where none was intended.

“He didn’t have the right to make that decision for the entire community,” said Christabelle Auguiste, the only woman on the seven-member tribal council. She regards the filming of a potential blockbuster in her homeland as an opportunity to show off the island’s stunning natural attractions and to raise international consciousness about the Caribs and their traditions. The first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie grossed more than $650 million worldwide.

“Throughout the years, there’s been this picture painted of us as cannibals. The fact that some people might have had an arm or a leg in their homes didn’t mean they ate people. They were kept as tokens of war,” Auguiste said of her ancestors and their clashes with European invaders.

Like the majority of Dominica’s Caribs, Auguiste is of mixed heritage, her family having intermarried with the island’s Afro-Caribbeans. The Caribs migrated from South America a millennium ago and share the mahogany skin and facial features of the indigenous peoples of that continent.

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The six-week filming will not only provide short-term employment for Caribs and a boost in service-industry revenue, but it “will also clear the air,” said Auguiste, a tour guide who has been offered a minor role in the sequel.

“It took 250 years for Dominica to be colonized after the arrival of Christopher Columbus,” she said. “Dominica is the only country Columbus would recognize now if he revisited. This is something the Carib people should be proud of.”

The Carib Territory in the northeast of the country is an enclave of poverty belied by the bounty of banana, breadfruit and guava trees along the road. Lush fern groves are abloom with ginger lilies, birds of paradise and orchids. The thickly forested parks and mountains rustle with monkeys, iguanas and brightly plumed parrots.

From thatched huts that have changed little over centuries, Carib women weave mats and baskets from reeds and men carve canoes from tree trunks. Those crafts, along with fishing and farming, are their main source of income.

Auguiste said her community would only lose by being uncooperative because Disney executives had made clear that they would film the sequel on St. Vincent, the location for the original, if they were thwarted on Dominica. Some scenes of the sequel were shot on St. Vincent in early April.

At the urging of Caribs who wanted to work with the moviemakers, the council convened in January to debate the Disney project and voted 6-0 to overrule Williams’ unilateral decision. The chief abstained from the vote but has continued to denounce the project. He won’t allow any of the production crew that began arriving in mid-April to stay at the seven-room hotel he operates in the territory.

Tourism Minister Charles Savarin said the film, due in cinemas in summer 2006, could put Dominica on the international map.

“We’ve been seeking to create tourism to diversify our economy from its total dependence on agriculture,” Savarin said, noting that the market for Dominican bananas has been shrinking drastically. “This film provides us with an opportunity to showcase the island in a film that millions of people around the world will see. The island is not well known now. It’s often confused with the Dominican Republic. This will expose us to the international community in a way we have long been pursuing.”

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The immediate economic benefits are obvious, he said, with construction workers deployed to build sets, taxi drivers shuttling camera crews to remote filming sites and hundreds of others from both the African and Carib communities getting work as grips and extras. In the longer term, he said, other moviemakers could be sold on Dominica’s natural backdrop of mountains, rain forest and waterfalls, and moviegoers could be enticed to book vacations.

Savarin has no qualms about the human barbecue scene -- a peril from which Sparrow apparently escapes, because production has already begun on a third “Pirates” movie. “The Caribs are not being portrayed as cannibals, because it’s not a story about the Caribs,” the tourism minister said. “To my mind, this is as much a mythical story as ‘Batman’ or ‘Superman’ or ‘Dracula.’ ”

Carib historian Prosper Paris applauds the council’s decision to let people decide whether they want to take part in the film, saying that is the democratic approach -- and a pragmatic one for a community that suffers as much as 70% unemployment. But he worries about long-term implications for harmony among the Caribs.

“This is creating animosity inside. When people live in a deprived society, they need employment and will turn a deaf ear to the negative image the work might involve,” he said. “I worry that there will always remain a stigma” toward those who work on the film.

“This is a way to make money, but you have to think about your principles, pride and culture,” said Kathleen Jno-Lewis, school principal for the 94 students in this village that serves as the seat of the Carib Territory, the self-governing reservation on which most of the community lives. “No ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ can pay us for this legacy.”

Lorna Dalsan, curator of the Dominica Museum, said the distorted accounts of the Carib population in school history classes here as recently as the 1980s kept the Caribs isolated and feared by the majority of Dominicans.

“When I was a child, they were not so integrated. They had a more warlike image and we were told they were fierce,” recalled Dalsan, who is of African descent. “I know the Caribs were not happy with this portrayal, but it’s what we were taught. It was in the history books, which came from England.”

European settlers who brought in African slaves to work coffee and fruit plantations in the late 17th century may have cast the indigenous people as savage cannibals to scare their captives out of trying to escape, Dalsan speculates.

For the locals being paid almost $100 a day to give the film a more authentic backdrop, there is tolerance for literary license.

“It’s just a movie,” said Annmarie Valmond, a 45-year-old fruit farmer who has been hired as an extra. “It’s the kind of picture you look at and say, ‘Well, that’s obviously not real!’ ”

Aaron Aubigny makes his living as a drummer in the Karifauna cultural group that puts on shows of native dance and music for tour groups shuttled in from the cruise ship pier in Roseau, a 90-minute drive west. He has been hired to appear in the film and brushes off suggestions that the spit-roasting scene will besmirch his people.

“I don’t remember ever eating flesh,” the 32-year-old musician said. “If it was true that our people did that, I would be feeling it in my blood.”

Disney’s Hendricks argued that the controversial scene, which he said will be less than five minutes in a two-hour movie, should be taken in the context of the movie’s other bouts of surrealism and camp.

“This is a big fantasy. There is no sense of reality or any idea that this is how the Caribs’ life was in the 17th century,” Hendricks said. “I think when people see the movie and its fantasy and comedic elements, I’m optimistic no one is going to be offended by it.”


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