Suzanne Wasserman’s documentary Thunder in Guyana, which airs on PBS’s Independent Lens series at 10 pm on February 22, is the first in-depth look at Janet Jagan, former president of Guyana. Attribute that to the subject’s obscurity: Guyana is roughly the size of Britain, but as an economically strapped country whose population grazes 800,000, it’s a blip on America’s radar.
Or attribute it to the subject’s enormity: Jagan’s life story is so much larger than life, it’s almost too cinematic for cinema. That story delivers dramatic narrative tropes–rebellion, revolution, racial tension–in operatic proportions. It begins in 1943, when Janet Rosenberg, a pretty Jewish girl from Chicago, immigrates to the land of her new husband, Cheddi Jagan, the son of East Indian sugar workers in what was then the colony of British Guiana. It ends in 1997, when 77-year-old Janet Jagan takes the helm of what is now Guyana–to become the only American-born woman elected president of any country.
Guyana’s story, like Jagan’s, is familiar yet fantastic, at once a typical postcolonial ordeal of independence and creolization, and a grotesque hyperbole of these things, punctuated by crises–race riots, rigged elections, political paranoia–that make our 2000 election woes feel like, well, a blip on the radar.
Considering the grand scale of her subject, first-time filmmaker Wasserman–a cousin of Janet Jagan’s and associate director of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Gotham Center for New York City History–had her work cut out for her. Recounting the life of a politician is itself a challenge, because it means striking a compelling balance between two narratives that threaten to overwhelm each other: history and (in Jagan’s case) her story, public and private. When these two halves of the saga are as sensational as they are here, achieving this balance is more than a challenge; it’s an all-out battle between competing narratives. Thunder in Guyana navigates that battle, but just barely. Its goal is lofty, particularly for a fifty-minute documentary: to give us public and private–not just Janet Jagan but Janet Rosenberg.
Set during Guyana’s 1997 election, Thunder in Guyana is a deftly edited fusion of newssreel footage, photos and interviews with Janet Jagan, her two children and her political allies. The film is narrated by Wasserman, who embarks on an odyssey to flesh out the cousin she knows via weathered photographs and family gossip. It lands her in Georgetown, Guyana, where Jagan pilots her campaign headquarters with grandmotherly repose. Wasserman voices the skepticism that her cousin clearly lacks: “I wondered if the Guyanese people would really elect a 77-year-old American-born Jewish woman for president.” The film is thus framed as a question: How did Rosenberg become Jagan, and how did Guiana become Guyana?
It began, we learn, as a love story. Beautiful, athletic, fiercely intellectual Janet Rosenberg met dental student Cheddi Jagan during her college years in Chicago. Both were fervently committed to Marxist politics and, soon, to each other. To Janet’s family, Cheddi was a triple blow–“a foreigner, a person who wasn’t white, a person who wasn’t Jewish,” Jagan says–but by 1943, an undeterred Janet (“nothing much frightens me,” she shrugs) had married Cheddi and was off to rural British Guiana, where she found her rightful place: not in the kitchen with the women but in political trade unions with the men. In 1950 Janet, Cheddi and London-educated lawyer Forbes Burnham launched the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), which propounded ardent socialism in a newsletter titled Thunder.