Pulitzer Center Update

Guyana: The Terror and the Time

August 04, 2015|

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Slide provided by a volunteer to the CIA who traveled to Guyana in 1966, the year of its independence. Pictures a statue of Queen Victoria in front of the Supreme Court. Photo by Chester Burger. Courtesy of the Burger Family. Guyana, 1966.

"This is the dark time, my love,
It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears.
It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery."

—Martin Carter, 1953

The symbolist documentary The Terror and the Time chronicles the events of 1953 in British Guiana: Anti-colonial leaders, elected to govern the dependency in the first exercise of universal suffrage there, were judged too subversive by Winston Churchill, who suspended the constitution and jailed many of the leaders. Directed and scripted by Rupert Roopnaraine, now minister of education after elections in May 2015 resulted in a new government, it’s a fugue-like procession of images (cane fields burnt in protest and sun-and-leaf longingly glimpsed through prison bars), music (insistent drumbeats evoking parallel global turmoil: the Mau-Mau rebels in Kenya crushed and U.S. troops landed in Guatemala) and word (recitations of the confiscated and banned poetry of Martin Carter, one of the jailed leaders).

The film was made in 1976, when another of the subversives, Forbes Burnham, ruled over the republic, an increasingly repressive one. There’s a subtle layering here of the two eras: the dark times which the film depicts and the dark times during which it was made. Initially, the government funded the film but withdrew support on seeing a preview. The president objected that the documentary featured his rival, the Marxist Cheddi Jagan, the man the CIA wished to sideline when they propped up Burnham. The filmmakers wanted the latter’s thoughts on the suppression of civil liberties in 1953, but Burnham declined to be interviewed.

A few years after the film was made, Roopnaraine was jailed, charged with arson, and accused of attempting to overthrow the government with his colleagues in the Working People’s Alliance, a revolutionary third party. Four years ago, Roopnaraine allied his party with the one Burnham founded to unseat the one Jagan founded, then in power. This year, in a coalition with other opposition parties, that alliance won.

“The Terror and the Time”—made when Roopnaraine, in his early thirties, had just given up a post as a comparative literature professor at Cornell to return home to Guyana and fight the dictatorship—was meant to be the first in a series. The second, chronicling the racial strife of the 1960s, never got made. Roopnaraine has said that the period was too heart-breaking to wrestle with. The ironies and the reversals of history which bring him to this moment, finally in power, in a government formed with old foes, is perhaps worthy of its own dream-like evocation in irradiated celluloid.