Trinbagonian Pride Takes Centre Stage in “Ninth Floor”
A still from Ninth Floor
Caribbean people have long been a part of affecting history: Trinidadian Henry Sylvester-Williams hosted the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900; Jamaican Marcus Garvey started the Black Star Line in the US in 1919; and Trinidadian Kwame Ture was a leader of SNCC and the Black Panthers in the mid-20th century US Civil Rights movement.
One group of Caribbean people who have also made history is the West Indian students who took over the computer lab of Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1969. (The university is now part of Concordia University.)
Referred to as “The Computer Riot” or the “Sir George Williams Affair”, it changed not only the university—which would make important student-centred reforms afterwards—but also its participants, who went on to influence revolutionary events in the Caribbean, particularly the Black Power Movement in Trinidad and Tobago.
T&T-born filmmaker Selwyn Jacob has documented this historic event; a producer with the Canadian Film Board, Jacob visited Trinidad and Tobago in 2014 to shoot footage for the documentary feature, Ninth Floor, which sees its Caribbean premiere at the trinidad+tobago film festival 2016.
In an interview, Jacob said he had long wanted to make a film on the dramatic event. He said that as a young man, he promised himself, “If I ever did make it to film school… I’d like to tell this story. It was a bit of ambivalence for me. I wasn’t the aggressive type of student. I wondered if I were in that position what I would have done.”
The incident, variously referred to by historical and journalistic sources as a riot or as a protest, had its roots in 1968 when six West Indian students protested against an alleged racist grading by one of the university’s lecturers. School administration didn’t respond in a way that black students found reassuring, and on January 29, 1969, some 400 students occupied the school’s computer lab on the ninth floor of the Henry F. Hall Building to protest the school’s position. It was the largest school occupation in Canadian history, according to Concordia’s student newspaper, The Link.
During his trip home, Jacob and Canadian director Mina Shum recorded interviews with surviving protesters living in T&T. Among them were the late artist and author Valerie Belgrave, who had been one of those barricaded in the computer lab along with her late ex-husband, Ian “Teddy” Belgrave. They also interviewed protesters Lynn Murray and Terrance Ballantyne, and Mark Chang, who was then the president of the West Indian Students Society at the university.
“The event triggered the revolutionary movement in the Caribbean, in terms of when people started thinking of national pride,” Jacob said. “That nationalism sort of filtered into the Black Power movement—a sense of black pride, nationality and independence.” He said it also may have contributed to the Grenada Revolution, which began on March 13, 1979.
Ninth Floor will be screened on Friday 23rd September, 2016 at 12:00 p.m. at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus and at Movietowne Port of Spain on Monday 26th September, at 1:00 p.m.
For information on other films being screed during ttff/16 and more details on Film Festival Season 2016, visit http://blog.creative.co.tt/festival-season/