Old Providence is a tiny fleck of volcanic rock in the Caribbean, once settled by Puritans, pirates and African slaves and now home to just 5,000 peoples.
Since an international court put an end to a long-running territorial dispute with Nicaragua, the sleepy island community rarely features in the news, but a new feature film is casting a rare spotlight on this tiny corner of Colombia where English is the mother tongue.
Bad Lucky Goat is the first film ever written and produced in San Andres-Providencia creole, the distinct variant of Caribbean English spoken on Providence and its larger sister island, San Andres.
The movie – which tells the story of a brother and sister who accidentally kill a goat with their parents’ car on the eve of tourist season – is the first feature project by the Colombian director Samir Oliveros, who hopes the film can serve as a testament to the island’s language and culture.
“We knew from the beginning it was going to be 100% in creole, and in [mainland] Colombia, people don’t even know that they speak creole in Old Providence,” said Oliveros. “We wanted to showcase the island as it is – that’s never been done before.”
The creole spoken in Old Providence shares most of its vocabulary with English, and sounds close to typical Caribbean English, though it borrows certain phrases and grammatical tics from Spanish and a host of African languages.
The island’s history is as intriguing as the language spoken there. Once the site of an English Puritan colony in the 17th century, the island was briefly captured by the Spanish empire before becoming a base for English pirates.
The postcard-perfect island now belongs to Colombia, and is known officially as Providencia, but residents are fiercely protective of their own distinctive identity.
Kiara Howard, the film’s 17-year-old co-star, said Bad Lucky Goat had given the islanders a chance to show their way of life to what she calls “continental Colombia”.
“Of course my nationality is Colombian, but more than that I am an islander. Everyone here is 100% islander, no matter what,” said Howard.
Decades of tourism and migration have brought an influx of mainlanders to San Andres, prompting fears that the island’s distinctive culture could be stamped out. On Old Providence, many islanders also speak Spanish, but creole is regarded as intrinsic to the island’s culture.
“We have our own traditional dances, our own food – which is lots of crab and lots of fish – and of course our own language,” said Howard. “We have our own way of life that most people know nothing about.”
The new film – which was cast with non-professional actors from the island – could serve as a means of preserving the creole language, said Nadya Gonzalez-Romero, a professor of linguistics at Bogota’s Javeriana university.
“Seeing a film made in their own language could make people in Old Providence value it more, or even to revitalise it,” she said.
Tom Feiling, author of a recent book on the island, said that any light shed on Old Providence was positive. “Anything that raises the island’s profile in the wider world, the UK and the English-speaking Caribbean, can only be a good thing,” he said.
“Until relatively recently, Providence enjoyed good connections with the rest of the region, but these days it has become really isolated. It’s a great shame, as without those connections to other English speakers, island creole will grow weaker.”
Howard hopes that the national release of the film on 9 November will promote tourism and encourage the Colombian government to support further artistic projects on the island.
Oliveros said that another goal of Bad Lucky Goat was to correct the image established by Hollywood – and perpetuated by Colombia’s own cinema – that portrays the country as riddled with violence.
“Colombia may have conflict but in general Colombians are a happy people,” he said, locating some blame on the Netflix series Narcos, which dramatises the notorious cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. “We want our film to be the anti-Narcos.”
Some useful phrases in San Andres-Providencia creole
Dat da dat – That’s it
How yu de? – How are you?
Say di word? - Tell me about it
Gimme a hap - Give me a lift