[IMG:L]The Bermuda International Film Festival may be a chance for filmmakers from around the world to gain recognition for their work, but this year, for the 10th Annual BIFF, the festival honored their own. Day two of the festival featured a screening of Bermudan actor Earl Cameron's first film, Pool of London, with Cameron speaking in a Q&A afterwards. The locals were so moved by his struggles and contributions to the island that one, Walia Ming, was inspired to address him.
"I just want to say Mr. Cameron that all my life I’ve heard about you," Ming began. "I grew up on Victoria Street and I knew your sister Rosie. I went to school with your nieces and your nephews. I was always proud of you and I want to say… you’ve encouraged Bermudians to know that they can go wherever they want to go. We thank you and I’m not going to let you leave without saying thank you very much.”
A theater full of Bermudians applauded their agreement with Ming. The screening of Pool had made Cameron a bit self-conscious. In the film, he plays a black seaman whose fellow sailors conspire to use him in their smuggling operation.
"I say [it was] frightening because that was my very first picture and some of the things when I watch myself, I feel very embarrassed for," he said. "Some things I’m very proud of. Certain takes I would have done it different now. I like the drunk scene. I thought I was pretty good."
From there, Cameron's career lasted nearly 60 years, including recent work in films like The Interpreter and The Queen. Things weren't always so solid for Cameron though. He spent many years exiled from his home, stuck in London from a tour in the merchant navy.
"I didn’t have a passport even but that wasn’t the only reason. The fact is, you couldn’t even buy a pass back to Bermuda in those days, even if I had the money. And I didn’t have a passport, it’s true. So I got a job on a ship going to India. Anyway, I arrive in London in 1939. I had a chance to come back on the same ship but I got involved with a young lady and you know the rest. So the ship left without me and I got stuck in London. The girl walked out too, so here I was and at that time in England, it was almost impossible for a black person to get a job. This was the very beginning of the war, 1939. So I couldn’t get a job anywhere as anything. I spent three days one time without food. I even contemplated committing suicide. Really, London hit me hard but it’s good because that’s growing up."
Paying the bills as a dishwasher or kitchen porter ran Cameron so ragged that he nearly died of pneumonia. "I didn’t know I had pneumonia. I had a temperature of 104. With 104 temperature, you have to get in the hospital straight away. After four or five days, they were feeding me on amantadine tablets. Before penicillin, it was the early 1940s, and it’s a long way around of curing pneumonia, and it also meant that the tablets make you very depressed. So I wouldn’t eat my food, I had no appetite."
Cameron deteriorated so badly that they moved him to the bottom ward of the hospital. Only a borderline religious experience encouraged Cameron to fight for his life. "After about two days at the bottom of the ward, the nurse came along and looked at my chart. I was awake, feeling very sorry for myself. She says, ‘How are you feeling? It says you’re very sick. You know, you’re not trying to get better.’ I said, ‘They’re trying to make me better.’ [She said,] ‘No, you have to make yourself better. You’re not eating your food. If you don’t eat your food, you’re going to die. If you die, they’ll send a telegram to your family saying, “Your son passed away in the hospital” and that’s about all.’ When she said that, I thought of my mother reading this telegram and I thought, ‘No, I’m going to get better.’ By then, tears were running in my eye."
Despite the lousy hospital meals, Cameron ate and got his strength back. But he never saw that nurse again. "A big nurse came in, I said, ‘Where was the nurse that was on last night?’ She said, ‘I was on last night.’ I said, ‘No, another nurse was here last night.’ ‘No.’ Now, this story has happened to many people. If somebody said she was an angel sent to save me, that could be the case because I know the nurse that I remembered was a younger person, about 22 or 23. This other nurse was about 30-something."
Once recovered, Cameron found another job on a ship but still ended up back in London. He was given a ticket to a West End musical and asked on a lark if he could participate in future productions. "I went back stage and said, ‘Can you get me in the show?’ [My friend] said, ‘Come on Earl, there’s no way you can get in. The show’s cast.’ I was joking around. But as it happened, three weeks later, he came up and he said, ‘Earl, you’ve been cast. Russell didn’t come up and the director said we had to get somebody else.’"
Cameron's first performance was a bit rocky, but he was a quick study. "The curtain rises and there’s a big [gong] and a guy named Abdullah comes down singing. In the middle of Abdullah singing, two guys on this side and two guys back here, I’m on the left side here and out there I can see a bunch of faces and my knees are buckling, the sweat is pouring down. We come to the chorus, my mouth is coming open but no sound is coming out. And I’m sweating… However, eventually, I changed, I went back on stage with the group and so on."
1946 finally brought Cameron back to Bermuda, but by now London was where all the jobs were. He was offered Pool of London while trying out for another film. He continued to work out of London or Bermuda, never moving to Hollywood.
"To be very honest, I can't say I had any offers to go to Hollywood, that's true, but I never had a great desire to go to Hollywood. I got married, I had five children, my wife was Jewish and I recall Sidney Poitier saying that when he first went to Hollywood, the only black person he saw in the studio was a shoeshine boy. Well, I was not going to expose my children or my wife to that kind of prejudice that existed at that time. Now, I would hope that all of that has changed now, but because of that, I never ever wanted to go to L.A. I wouldn't go without my family."
London may be repaying Cameron for its harsh treatment in his youth. His latest role in The Queen was among his highest profile ones, and one of his best experiences.
"Helen Mirren I got on extremely well with. She's a lovely, lovely person. She's very down to earth, no big deal with her at all, and a charming lady. In fact, she said, 'Earl, have we worked together before?' I said, 'No, I don't think so.' But she's like that. It's no big deal. She's a talented lady too, I would say. I mean, her performance speaks for itself. Brilliant. In fact, I think she plays the part of Elizabeth better than the real Elizabeth."
At 89 years old, this is quite a legacy for someone who never imagined he would join the people he used to see on the town's movie screen. "I think most people have a burning desire when they see all the great actors on screen, say, 'I’d like to be a part of that.' It never occurred to me I would get involved in it. In fact, I was a very shy kid. I was very shy as a boy. My sister used to appear in concerts. So when I got my first job in London, it was a means to an end that I got on stage. I was doing lousy jobs like dishwashing and other kitchen porter jobs in London."
In addition to Pool of London, the BIFF also screened The Interpreter and Flame in the Streets.