A short interview with Ray Funk
This weekend the ttff is pleased to feature Carnival historian and researcher Ray Funk presenting rare historic film clips on calypso, pan and Carnival, at two events.
These free presentations, part of the film festival’s Carnival Film Series, take place at San Fernando Hill and the NALIS Amphitheatre at the National Library in Port of Spain, this Friday and Sunday, respectively. Both events begin at 7pm.
In the following short interview Funk outlines some of the treasures audiences are in store for.
trinidad+tobago film festival: Welcome back to T&T—as ever, we’re happy you’re here. Last year was your first doing a presentation at our Carnival Film Series. How do you think it went?
Ray Funk: I had a great time and was very pleased that over three hundred people came to the presentation at NALIS. I feel privileged to bring back to Trinidad film and television clips that reflect Carnival culture, calypso, pan and mas. Part of my mission in researching and writing about Carnival arts is to return Trinidad’s cultural heritage to Trinidad by bringing back things that end up outside.
I am constantly on the lookout for early film and television clips and when I was asked [by the ttff] to present a show I had accumulated a number of rare pieces that had not been seen before. Last year I was especially excited to show people clips from a 1961 Italian film, America by Night, that featured the first feature appearance by the Mighty Sparrow, and I was able to show him and his wife a copy of it and give it to them. I also showed a limbo clip with Bill Trotman and he appeared at the event, even though it was his birthday and there was a party at his house. The audience gave him a nice round of applause.
ttff: And what do you have planned this time?
RF: This year I have put together a programme of rare material that I think everyone will enjoy and that offers a lot of variety. It comprises calypso pieces that have never been seen [here], including a piece that I just turned up and got transferred from 16mm film. It’s a 1956 TV show that features [the calypsonian] Sir Lancelot doing an extempo on Groucho Marx! It arrived in Alaska only a few weeks ago and thankfully a pan-playing friend at the state film archive got it digitized for me.
I was in regular touch with Sir Lancelot before he died, visiting him in California, corresponding and calling him. I have spent almost 20 years researching his career but had never known he did this TV show. I have shown clips from many of his movies over the years, but it will be great to show this clip and I have invited the extended Pinard family here in Trinidad to come see it.
ttff: That’s not the only extempo clip you’re showing, right?
RF: That’s right. I will also present the world premiere of a short documentary film done several years ago on extempo. It features current extempo monarch Lady Africa and others like Black Sage and Lingo, in an encounter at the Mas Camp Pub. To my knowledge this is the first documentary ever done [solely] on the art of extempo. It was made by Steve Zeitlin and Amanda Dargin from New York, preeminent folklorists.* This documentary is part of ongoing research on poetry duels in many cultures. They have filmed events in Brazil, Portugal as well as New York and are off in April to look at poetry duels in Italy.
ttff: What other calypso clips will you present?
RF: Well, I am excited to show for the first time in Trinidad a Lord Kitchener music video from 1951 that no one here has seen. In part that is because it is something I commissioned. I worked in 2012 on a tribute to Kitch with the Association of British Calypsonians and this film grew out of that. Kitch sang a song about a boxing match where Randolph Turpin, a boxer of Guyanese heritage, beat the great Sugar Ray Robinson. I managed to get the footage of the match and a friend created a great edited film clip of the song and the match. It’s like watching a music video from 1951!
Going back even further there are some short films for special nightclub jukeboxes in the 1940s called “soundies” which feature the great Sam Manning. One clip features dancing from Beryl McBurnie, when she was the toast of Harlem—she does a strange dance to Atilla’s “Roosevelt Came to Trinidad”. Another clip has the nightclub singer Grace Barrie doing Houdini’s “Stone Cold Dead in the Market”, which had become a hit in a recording by Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald.
I have a special interest in the “calypso craze” of 1957. This was a six-month period when the American entertainment industry thought calypso would kill rock ‘n’ roll. I have two “craze” clips—a Pat Boone calypso song and a piece by the pop-poet Rod McKuen, singing a song called “Calypso Rock”. There were three feature films [on calypso] done and I feature two clips from Calypso Joe, the rarest of the three: a song by Lord Flea about the “Naughty Little Flea”, a Jamaican song that seems inspired by Spoiler’s “Bed Bug”; and the American folk group the Easy Riders’ take on Roaring Lion’s “Mary Ann”. Later this year Bear Family Records in Germany will issue a six-CD, one-DVD set with a massive coffee table book that Michael Eldridge and I have been working on for a long time on this fascinating period that shaped worldwide perceptions of calypso music.
I also have a late 1960s song by the sadly little-known calypsonian Young Killer, from a tourist film with Trinidad Carnival footage. And another rare piece is the late, great folk singer Pete Seeger singing Tiger’s classic “Money is King”. Seeger had a serious interest in Trinidad culture—he made the first film short on pan in the 50s, sponsored Kim Loy Wong to come to the US, and wrote articles and a manual on pan. But he also was interested in calypso and appears to have helped get Tiger to the Newport Folk Festival. This is a song he performed and his grandson Tao Rodriguez Seeger continues to perform.
ttff: Speaking of pan, will there be any pan clips?
RF: I have a number of clips of pan that show a wide arc of pan’s history and answer the question how far pan reach. The earliest is a brief clip from 1952 of the Brute Force Steelband of Antigua. They were one of the first steelbands from outside of Trinidad to develop a worldwide reputation, and started touring outside of Antigua. Then there are clips of pan in Carnival from the 60s and 70s from various documentaries that give a chance to see pan at Carnival on the streets. For those who have been following the ongoing series of articles that Andy Martin and I have done in the local papers on pan worldwide, I have a couple short pieces that show heavy metal on pan and an avant-garde duet for pan and cello.
ttff: And mas?
RF: I have rare clips of mas from 1948 to the 60s and early 70s, showing the richness of mas in eras past in footage that has been gathered from various sources. There is more but I want there to be some surprises!
The Carnival Film Series is sponsored by the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company and the National Carnival Commission. Technical Support is provided by North Eleven, the ttff’s media and projection partner. For more information visit ttfilmfestival.com.
*Steve and Amanda’s son, Benh Zeitlin, is the director of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, a ttff/13 selection; Benh was a ttff/13 guest filmmaker.
Image: Ray Funk, right, at his presentation at the 2013 Carnival Film Series.
Call for submissions for ttff/14 now open
The call for submissions for the 2014 edition of the trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff), which takes place from 16 to 30 September, is now open.
The ttff seeks to highlight excellence in filmmaking through the exhibition of dramatic and documentary feature and short films made in T&T, the Caribbean and its diaspora. The Festival therefore accepts submissions from Caribbean filmmakers, Caribbean filmmakers in the diaspora, and international filmmakers with films from or about the Caribbean or its diaspora. Submissions must have been produced after 01 January, 2012.
The Festival screens films of different lengths in various digital formats.
The Festival also accepts submissions of video art and experimental films. Artists working in this field who are from the Caribbean and its diaspora, or who address these spaces in their work, are eligible to apply.
Films screened in competition are eligible for one or more jury prizes. There are also several people’s choice awards. All awards come with a cash prize.
All submissions must be made online, via www.withoutabox.com, trinidad+tobago film festival.
There is no submission fee. Submissions will not be returned.
THE DEADLINE FOR ALL SUBMISSIONS IS 15 MAY 2014. THIS DEADLINE WILL BE STRICTLY FOLLOWED. PLEASE DO NOT SUBMIT FILMS THAT DO NOT FULFIL THE STATED CRITERIA.
In addition to screening Caribbean and diaspora films in competition, the ttff also has a (non-competitive) panorama section featuring films from around the world. However, the Festival only accepts submissions from Caribbean filmmakers, Caribbean filmmakers in the diaspora, and international filmmakers with films from or about the Caribbean or its diaspora.
The ttff seeks to make all screenings at the Festival T&T premieres. Occasionally, however, the Festival considers films that have already been shown publicly in T&T. Please contact us directly if you have a film that falls into this category, or if you have any other queries, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The ttff reserves the right to determine the eligibility of the submissions to be screened at the Festival, the appropriate venues and time slots for the screening of films, and to use excerpts of the films for publicity purposes. All films submitted must have applicable clearances and the Festival will not be held liable.
The Festival, which is in its ninth year, is presented by Flow and receives leading sponsorship from bpTT and the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company Limited.
Filmmaker in Focus: John Akomfrah
Early this week, sad news came from London. Stuart Hall, the great Jamaica-born educator and orator and organic intellectual, par excellence, has died at 82. Hall had been ill; his passing, to his legion of friends, wasn’t unexpected. But death’s finality always is, especially when it claims a person whose contribution so enlarged the humanity of each community—and there were many—to which he belonged. The hole Hall left is gaping; the legacy, immense.
Eulogized as the “founder of British cultural studies,” he was also, always, a proud West Indian; a major “theorist”, who also mastered the plainer idioms of radio and TV; a revered scholar who eschewed his field’s stock-in-trade—the singly-authored book—to focus, always, on collaborative work. This last trait has perhaps queered his import: one can’t go into a bookstore, or go online, and simply procure Stuart Hall’s Collected Works. His influence derived more from the students he taught, and from the artists and intellects who have worked in the space, in Britain and beyond, his ideas pried apart. And Hall’s influence derived, too, from the hundreds of BBC programmes, from the 1950s to our day, on which he was seen descrying history’s unfolding, even as it occurred.
For John Akomfrah, whose own shining career was forged squarely in Hall’s wake, this last piece of Hall’s archive has been key. When Akomfrah visited Trinidad last September, for a ringing tribute at the ttff/13, several film from his oeuvre was screened—from Handsworth Songs (1986), his classic look at the riots and resentments of Thatcher-era Britain, to Peripeteia (2012), his latest film-essay mingling of classical allusions, and gorgeous images, with super-current subjects and sounds. But the undoubted highlight of Akomfrah’s visit was his presentation of The Stuart Hall Project. Watching the film, then, one was struck by a project whose subject, and maker, and all the requisite parts, had come together just so. Now, one feels an even greater gratitude for this beautiful film, stitched together from Hall’s BBC archive, that preserves Hall’s public life in such artful form—and one feels grateful, too, thanks to Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, Akomfrah’s sterling producers, that Hall himself got to see it, before he died.
One night toward the Festival’s end, I sat with Akomfrah to discuss The Stuart Hall Project, in the light of his larger career. Herewith, an edited version of that chat, published now for the first time.
–Joshua Jelly Schapiro
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro: I wonder if you could talk about the genesis of The Stuart Hall Project. We know that this man’s work has been important to you; that you’ve known him a long time. But when did it become clear you wanted to do a film with him, or on him?
John Akomfrah: Well there are two dates, really. There was the date when it became clear that to us—to Lina [Gopaul] and Dave [Lawson] and I, the Smoking Dogs outfit—that we were going to do something with the archive. We decided, along with the people at Autograph ABP, who made Stuart their Patron of the Year, that something had to be done with this guy. That was three years ago, exactly—and it led to The Unfinished Conversation, the three-screen piece. The desire to do a single-screen film happened later. I realized we’d left so much out of the three-screen version, which was about one question, basically—this question of identity: how it comes into being, what shapes it takes, etcetera etcetera, as applied to this life. That was it. The Stuart Hall Project, by contrast, is kind of about the entire earth—up to 2000 or so, anyway. [Laughs.] But with a sense that this life, whichever way you go at it, is essentially a New Left existence. That that’s what it is. And that the way to make sense of its inventory is through [examining] where this thing called the New Left came from; the conditions that brought it into being; the byways and alleyways and cul-de-sacs it walked itself into, and out of, across the postwar world.
JJS: Which are all questions, of course, shot through with this subject’s own role in that story—and the place from whence he enters into and shapes that story.
JA: Right. When we talk about the New Left, people always talk about Suez and Hungary; 1956; Stalinism, the crisis of Stalinism. And all of that’s important. But what becomes clear looking at Stuart, is that people come at these questions with their own trajectory. If a guy is born in Jamaica, where he faces the petty tyrannies of colonialism, feels the dramas of colonialism in his own family—the take he might have on politics, on how you “resist” what’s going on, would be quite different. It won’t mean a politically different position, but the way by which he arrives at that political position will be quite different than a Raymond Williams or an E.P. Thompson or, you know, a Victor Serge. Each has their own ways for arriving at these so-called revolutionary scenarios. When you talk about Lenin, or Marx, or Rosa Luxembourg, whoever—that biography is important. So why wouldn’t it be as important for these people, for Stuart? So it just became important, to get that right. He clearly comes from a Caribbean radical tradition— Padmore, James, Garvey. But what particular form did this track take, in the postwar world? And what can we say about it? And we were immensely helped, in [tracing] that, by the fact that he had given interviews and appeared on radio programs, where you could glean an outline, of the trajectory.
JJS: The archive exists.
JA: It exists. It’s not complete, but it’s there all the same. And we had an arc for the project. So it just seemed worth it, at the risk of repeating ourselves, to go ahead. [Laughs.] But when you commit to an archival project, something very interesting happens. I often say to students: The archive isn’t just the place where you go to corroborate, or collaborate, what you already know. The archive, as often, contradicts or complicates the standard narratives. As you’re listening to this archive, or watching it, it becomes clear that something is going on. An example here: there’s the standard line on how “Stuart Hall and cultural studies” came to be—you know, in 1964, Stuart goes to Birmingham to work with Richard Hogarth; they begin to work on questions of popular culture; it goes from there. And only later, this line says, does Stuart Hall become involved with “other questions”. That’s the standard line. And this has political implications, because it means that when he embraces race studies and “new ethnicities”, in the 80s, some members of the left attack him, for deviating from the programme. But then you go into the archive. And there in 1964, there’s a radio program where Stuart’s talking about…race. Black kids. This is not supposed to happen. The narrative suggests that he’s twenty years too early. [Laughs.] But there he is, in 1964, obsessing this thing that Paul [Gilroy] calls the raciological—this cluster of themes and concerns and attitudes that produces the racialized subject. There he is, worrying about that, obsessing about it, pronouncing on it—twenty years early.
This is what the archive does. It has this way of forcing you to reassess what has happened, and thereby of deepening your sense that [the archive] has these limits. And when you start to work with it, I think, it changes both your sense of the archive’s value vis-à-vis academic or intellectual work, and of its place in that culture.
JJS: I wonder if you could speak about that “place of the archive”—and about your own trajectory, as it were, towards it. You’ve said that “for a diasporic subject, the archive attains a special importance.” What do you mean by that?
JA: Over the years, I’ve taken to sort of flippantly suggesting that the archive is a kind of diasporic monument that stands in, as Orlando Patterson has put it, for the absence of a ruin; this fragment of civility. A lot of that is lifted from readings of Patterson. But there is something serious about that, in my head. And it has a bearing on The Stuart Hall Project. Because if you were to go to England tomorrow, from Mars, you’d find very few physical traces—except people, of course—of this grand narrative that starts somewhere in Jamaica, in 1949. When the Empire Windrush leaves with 400-something passengers, it launches this narrative which will transform not just English and British culture, but how the world, in a way, will live with itself. From that movement, [from the colonies to the metropole], all sorts of reverberations happen. But there’s no monument, or markers; very few. And there’s a willful amnesia involved in how Englishness, regularly and routinely, writes itself into being, that works against that story’s tangibility. Because Englishness, as a sort of broad, discursive regime, has to suggest that it doesn’t exist, in order to maintain the wholeness it aspires to. And in these sorts of instances, the question of the archive is absolutely critical. Not only does it provide a kind of evidence of this historical moment, but it starts to fight against itself. It becomes sort of schizophrenic—it can’t help but be. On one level, it says, “I am official memory, and anything that’s not here didn’t happen.” But when you watch it, or read it, or listen to it, it clearly comes at you in this polyglot way. Which allows for readings. And the readings can suggest that the wholeness to which it aspires, that take on Englishness, really isn’t true. When the New Left came into being, it wasn’t some corn-fed white boy from Dover who spoke for it. Here’s the evidence. It was this hyphenated figure, from the Caribbean, struggling with his own identity, but certainly intact enough, in his identity, to speak for this thing, coming to be, which is both himself, and a New Left.
And that, in tangible form, is what this slightly poncy stuff we’ve been saying about “the archive” over the years, means. Stuart is one of the examples—his inventory is an example of what we’ve been talking about. Will you find a statue to him, anywhere, given how extraordinary his contribution is? Will there ever be one? Probably not. But in that sense, what is likely to happen to Stuart, vis-à-vis official memorialization is emblematic of what happens to diasporic subjects, period. I don’t mean just black ones.
JJS: Your own sense of the archive as “inventory”, and this project’s form and tone, also mesh in potent ways with Stuart’s sense of “radical contingency”—of the openness of history; the openness of research, too, if you do it right. He is a great Gramscian, after all. And I found myself thinking, as I watched the film, of that quote from The Prison Notebooks, about how the starting point for any ”critical elaboration…is understanding oneself as a product of the historical processes to date, which [have] deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.”
JA: You know, I was talking, recently, about editing Handsworth Songs, and how I had another quote from Gramsci on the wall—the bit about the crisis residing precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new can’t be born; about how “in the interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms will appear.”…And that stuff is here, too. It was very clear to me, with this project, that we were tracking moments. We were encountering [Stuart] on these radio and TV programmes, always on the cusp of what’s about to happen, and being forced to respond—What do you think the problem is here? What will happen? What will become of this, or that, or these kids? It was clear that that’s what we were doing. And that was married to another idea—or a resolve, really, that we weren’t going to do any more interviews with Stuart. [Laughs.] This had to be an inventory of the self from the archive. That’s it. Because if we couldn’t get the past to make sense, in that way, then the very notion of a historical document, in a very real sense, was a fiction. So that was the task—to cull from this recorded material some sense of seamless narrative. But to do so in such way, too, that the tempo registers in such a way that the question of temporality, really, is in the foreground. Because that’s what we were dealing with—indexicality, and temporality; you know, the passing of fucking time. [Laughs.]
JJS: And one way, of course, that that’s done is through this film’s score—through the use, throughout, of Miles Davis; of records from these different moments in time.
JA: Yes. From the beginning, the question of how the index itself might be organized, and what the tonal register would be, was very clear. But the moment I heard [Stuart] say, “Miles Davis put a finger on my soul”, I thought, that’s it; that’s what we need. “Miles put a finger on my soul, and never took it away.” At that moment, it became a dialogue between the two of them. Not a dialogue in the sense of one saying something as substantial as the other, and the other replying. Miles is very much the slave in this master narrative. [Laughs.] But nevertheless, he does bring something to bear which is indispensable, in the unfolding of time, that’s central to this piece. Because we needed a way of marking time, and thank God [Stuart] went for Miles—I mean, if he’d gone for Sonny Rollins, we would have been in trouble. [Laughs.]
JJS: When we think of musicians, who is more periodized, in a way, than Miles Davis?
JA: Talk about contingency! I mean, here’s Mr Opaque, but he’s subjecting each moment to these urgent questions; with this sense that whatever’s happening needs to be digested, incorporated, spat out right away. And it’s so interesting to me, when you talk to people who worked with him, how little of this was articulated. Herbie Hancock, [Keith] Jarrett, whoever—they’d go over to the house, the studio: Miles says “You’re there” [in a croaky whisper], “play.” But he was a great casting director, is the thing; he got what he needed. You listen to the recording of the complete sessions of Bitches Brew, and at some point, he’s there [croaking whisper]: “Ok, that’s it.” It was all open, you know. “Let’s keep that tape running”—but at some point, he had an idea of what it was that would have to be spliced, for want of a better word, into this new being. He knew what he wanted.
I suppose the difference, between Stuart and him, is in the quality of subconsciousness involved. “Radical contingency” suggests that at any one time, you’re throwing yourself into something not knowing where you’re going to end up; you’re comfortable taking that risk, that gamble, that wager. Every time Stuart goes into a radio station, that’s what he’s doing. The sonic accompaniment is slightly different, in the sense that Miles may be embracing contingency, but he has some idea where he’s going. And I think it’s that mix, that I suddenly realized would work—the marrying this contingency with a kind of radical openness. That just seemed to suggest something, aesthetically, about how to go about things in general, that I hadn’t really thought of before.
JJS: You’ve never been one, going back to Handsworth Songs, given to using voiceover—to imparting or forcing a narrative onto the images, after the fact. The narration there, as here, is diagetic; comes from the archive. I wanted to ask you, though, about “the archive”, vis-a-vis this question of Englishness. Because when we think of England’s great totems—high tea, football, Jaffa cakes, whatever—the BBC, certainly, belongs on that list. And that is unique—from the vantage of the US, certainly, where private companies own the archives; or from here in Trinidad, where as in so many places, the stuff is just gone; the resources for public broadcasting and preservation aren’t there. In England, though, you have the BBC.
JA: I was a governor of the British Film Institute for six years. In those six years, the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport—i.e. The Government, via its cultural arm—gave the BFI 18 million pounds. Which is exactly how much it costs to look after the national archive. So despite the myriad activities the BFI takes on board, and partakes in, and does, the most important thing, in the state’s mind, was to give us enough money to look after that monument. [Laughs.] Anything else could go to hang. And it seems to me that that describes a kind of desire, which is fairly recent, but that goes back long enough to be a tradition, to think about the past, and in particular the so-called great British past, in very particular ways. The idea is that there’s something of substance that needs to be preserved, and passed on—and that this archive is an extension of that substance. As we’ve said though, it is always inconclusive. It doesn’t exist as self-evidence. It requires interrogation. And that’s where the task we’re involved with comes in—and not least, incidentally, to see that one of the archive’s fiction’s is unlimited; that every subject under the sun is in there. Because it’s not. People often say to me about this project: “Why didn’t you have this?” Or “Why didn’t you have that?” They think whatever it is, in this case, that Stuart Hall, was involved in, over the past 60 years, could be found. It’s not true.
In making the film, of course, in certain ways, we preserve that illusion for people—that everything’s there. But that’s something I regret, in ways, because people watching [the film] don’t realize, say, that before Stuart comes on the BBC in 1958, to say what he does, there was a guy before who spoke in a very, very condescending way about the New Left, and him. What we’ve preserved, is that in 1958, [Stuart] spoke. Which is true. But it’s also true that in 1958, Panorama, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, made a film about the New Left to which it brought to it the same snootiness, the same sense of privilege and detachment, that it took to everything else. What it didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, is that in another 50 years, some people would be interested in that archive, and interested in using it in a way that was somehow counter to those original aims and ambitions. So, I have a kind of maniform set of investments in the existence of the archive—even in the bits I don’t necessarily think are great. And the ambivalence stretches to the role that we play in it. Because it’s not a question of replacing right with wrong; it’s one mythology with another.
JJS: How do you think, then, that your vocation as a filmmaker, as someone who deals in images, shapes your relationship to Englishness? How does it compare to someone who works in print, or music, or, you know, in a bank?
JA: I think there is a primacy to the image. And my relationship to it is a historical one—by which I mean something very specific. Because it seems to me that something happened to the status of the image after the Second World War. When people looked at those images from Treblinka and Birchenau, something happened—[those images] awakened a new sense of fidelity to the importance of the image. And all manner of people made all manner of contracts to preserve this fidelity, because they realized there’s this disjuncture between what we want to be, and how we can be. And I stand in that tradition. Of [Iain] Sinclair and Rosselini and [Humphrey] Jennings, and [Chris] Marker. All those people who believed in persevering with the image as something distinct, something that has almost a kind of ontological value in its own right. About that, we can quibble. But what’s certainly true is I think that there is a historical specificity to the status of the image—which means that it’s changing, too. For a time, the custodians of it were television, and some kind of cinema. But “the image” is now a slightly migrant, itinerant figure—it doesn’t really have a home anymore. The homes it had are full. You know, “Go find somewhere else to live, dude.” [Laughs.] So it’s even more important, I think, that people who believe in the sanctity of the image, continue to worry that note—about what it is, what it should be, what it can be, where it’s going.
Because one thing that frustrates me, too, when I talk to slightly younger directors, is the assumption that somehow what they take as their birthright will always be there. That somehow “film “as they know it will always be, that people will like it. No. Why?
JJS: This is contingent, too.
JA: You know what I mean—”Grand Theft Auto is around the corner, dude! Get out of bed!” [Laughs.] There’s no given in this at all. No guarantees. But I believe very, very passionately in there being this special space of investigation, of analysis, of interrogation, of some form of cerebral activity, vis-à-vis something one could call the image. The very question of what it constitutes is precisely what that space is about. [Laughs.] But I would certainly say that one needs to cordon the fucking area, and say: inside there, something will take place. And when it’s done, it will be called the image. Because it’s meant too much. The revelations, the illuminations that have come via the image: they are too precious, too important, to be just left to some neoliberal fucking index.
JJS: If Englishness is one pole around which your work, and The Stuart Hall Project, revolves, another pole, certainly, is Caribbeanness. Stuart calls the Caribbean “the home of hybridity.” He echoes C.L.R. James’ claims for the Caribbean, his argument that because of how this space was produced by the Atlantic system, and because of how the continents mingled here, its people were uniquely placed to shape “Western civilization”. I wonder if you could speak to those themes; about your own relation to the Caribbean, and to Caribbeanness, in your work.
JA: I’ve been around this world my whole life. More so than I have been around any other, really. Which is saying something, because I’m the child of West African political radicals. Which would suggest I’d have more connection and contact with that world, but no: most of my schooling came via this space of our planet, this colonial and postcolonial space which was the Caribbean. And look: I’ve seen, and heard, every variant of Caribbean exceptionalism, ever. [Laughs.] From the Cesaire-ian version, to the James-ian, to Glissant’s rhizomes—I’ve heard all of them. And I think now, it’s possible to say that some of those claims were a little overstated. But what I still admire is the Promethean zeal. The holding out of this space which has been a space of emptiness, as a space which can actually bring disparate things together in ways that are novel, interesting, new. Whether it would save Western civilization is another question. [Laughs.] But I’ve always admired it—the Promethean zeal. We may end up tied to rocks, and torn to bits, but fuck it—we might as well go for it. Because in the broader scheme of things, no one else is going to make those claims for you. So the Caribbean has every right, given its place at the apex of New World sensibilities, to continue to insist both on the particularity, and the potential universality, of this strain of being. And long may it continue. Because when a Bob Marley, or a Usain Bolt, or a V.S. Naipaul or Wilson Harris punches through, we think, yeah, that’s what we’re talking about. It keeps me coming back. I mean, C.L.R. James: it’s still an enigma to me, how this place produces people like that—I’ll never understand it. How did this place produce a C.L.R. James? I genuinely don’t know. I don’t know. But I don’t think that’s the point—the point is he was created by this place, and so since he was, all his claims for it have to be taken seriously, if you take him seriously. And I take him very seriously indeed.
JJS: James, curiously for someone who became so well known as a de-colonial thinker, often spoke of this idea of “western civilization”. It was a category that mattered to him. Your film Peripeteia, which showed here at the Festival, is a riff on some sketches by [Albrecht] Dürer—these images of the eruption of difference, if you like, in that civilization. But that piece places Dürer’s images of black people in dialogue, too, with your own.
JA: Yes. I love the film. And when we made it, I was hoping—I’m still hoping—that it was one of a series. That we would occasionally find another subject, and come back to it; I think we will. And all of them, in one way or another, will be alternative cartographies of certain seminal images, brought into this new constellation to talk both to images that we create in this moment, and to other inventories—whether they’re photographies, or musics, or something from the past. So that’s very much a broad ambition. And I think that that, in embryo, carries something of what I think the relationship between the various versions of our past, and the present, needs to be. I don’t want to go and look at [Heironymus Bosch’s] Garden of Earthly Delights as something good or bad, to say whether it has any “relevance”; I want it to have what the Althusserians used to call “relative autonomy”. But in that relative autonomy, what is at stake is its ability to converse, with other archives, or other images. And there’s a political and ethical move involved here. Because so much of our discussion of the trans-Atlantic past, especially when it comes to artifacts, gets re-routed either through this economy of “negative” images, or through the language of restitution: the idea that someone must pay for the past, because they stole important bits of our past, and so on. But what both of those tend to leave out, and leave silent, are the millions of fragments that don’t fall into any of this.
JJS: One thinks of Derek Walcott’s Nobel speech—his line on the Antilles as “fragments of the original continent”; and on the artist’s vocation, to reassemble those fragments. But so many of those fragments are gone, are even actively destroyed, by their institutional keepers.
JA: All the millions of fragments of the past which are not Benin bronzes, or Elgin marbles; the hundred million spears that are lying around in British museums that no one wants. And it’s worse with images—with some of these economies, you know, built on ascertaining which images are “positive” and “negative”; on having a debit-credit sheet where they can say: we have deemed all of these “negative”—they should be expunged from the accounts. “All of this stuff with Africans standing with no clothes on: useless! Take ‘em out to sea!” But if we’re not going to say that, what can we say? Because we can’t stay in this interregnum for much longer. Somebody’s got to say something else—other than these images are “negative”, or that they’re no good. And I’m not trying to suggest that using them in a way that puts them into, or out of, circulation, necessarily makes them “positive”. I am saying that that question of what they are cannot be answered solely in those terms any longer. We have to find other ways of getting them to circulate. That’s the task. To move beyond the reverence, and the disgust and loathing. That, I think, is what we have to do.
Ray Funk to present vintage calypso, pan film clips at Carnival Film Series
For the second year in a row the trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff) is pleased to feature Carnival historian and researcher Ray Funk presenting rare historic film clips on calypso, pan and Carnival, at two events.
These free presentations, part of the film festival’s annual Carnival Film Series (CFS), take place at San Fernando Hill and the NALIS Amphitheatre at the National Library in Port of Spain, on Friday 21 and Sunday 23 February, respectively. Both events begin at 7pm.
Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge and has been coming to Trinidad and Tobago Carnival for almost 20 years. He writes regularly for the local newspapers, and is passionate in researching a range of traditional Carnival arts. His collection of early film clips is an important part of that research, and he has been doing free educational events showcasing these clips for years, as a way of giving back this heritage.
Over two hundred people came to Funk’s presentation at the NALIS Amphitheatre during last year’s Carnival Film Series.
“I had a great time last year and was thrilled to be able to show cuts that it took me years to find,” he said. “But the highlight of the evening was to have Bill Trotman show up—on his birthday, no less—and see an Italian film clip of a comedy limbo dance that he had performed back in 1961.
“He had told me about it a decade ago and I have been searching ever since to find it. It was special to present it on the big screen with Bill present and give him a copy of the footage.”
Another clip was of the Mighty Sparrow’s first feature-film performance from the same Italian film.
“He couldn’t be there the night of the screening but I was able on Carnival Sunday to see him and show him and his wife Margaret and give them a copy.”
With the success of last year’s presentation, the film festival is pleased this year to have presentations from Funk both in Port of Spain and San Fernando.
When asked about what he is bringing this year to show, Ray is hesitant to reveal too much. “I am still determining which pieces to present, but I guarantee there will be many things that almost no one has seen before,” he said.
“Here are a couple things. Steve and Amanda Zeitlin—the parents of filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, who attended the film festival last year and presented his film Beasts of the Southern Wild—came to Trinidad and shot a short film on extempo several years ago. That will get its T&T premiere.
“For an Association of British Calypsonians tribute to Lord Kitchener, I commissioned a music video on one of his first recordings, on a boxing match. That will also get its local premiere.”
Funk has been working for several years on a project on Harry Belafonte and the American “calypso craze” of the 1950s, which will result in a major coffee table book with a set of six CDs and a DVD. It will be out hopefully towards the end of 2014.
“I have a couple of calypso craze film and TV performances that I want to show in my presentations, including popular American performers doing material by Roaring Lion.”
For Funk, bringing these performances to a local audience is all about returning T&T’s culture to its home.
“My ongoing search to find these clips, present them in Trinidad and Tobago and give them back to the performers has been very rewarding. At all times I am in search of more missing bits of the country’s rich cultural heritage.”
Image: Ray Funk (in orange T-shirt at left) speaks at his presentation at last year’s Carnival Film Series. (Photograph by Marlon James for the trinidad+tobago film festival.)
Film festival hosts free tribute screening of The Stuart Hall Project
As a tribute to the celebrated Jamaican intellectual and cultural theorist Stuart Hall—who has died at the age of 82—the trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff) is hosting a screening of The Stuart Hall Project, this coming Tuesday 18 February at the Festival’s offices at 199 Belmont Circular Road, Belmont.
Hall, who was born and raised in Jamaica, went to the United Kingdom in 1951 to study at Oxford University. He settled in Britain, where he helped evolve the concept of multiculturalism, and became a key architect of the academic discipline known as cultural studies.
A major figure of the New Left movement, Hall was a founding editor of the seminal New Left Review. His theories on the concepts of identity and hybridity, class and colonialism, politics, gender, culture and art have influenced the thinking of many people over the decades; for a time he was arguably the greatest public intellectual in Britain.
Directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker John Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project is a portrait composed entirely of photographic and film footage from Hall’s archive, from his childhood in Jamaica to his time as a TV and radio presenter with the BBC and beyond.
The film—which is 100 minutes long—is complemented by a sublime score comprised of the music of Miles Davis who, as Hall once put it, “put his finger on my soul” when Hall was a young man.
As a number of critics have noted, the film serves not only as an illuminating biography of Hall, but also as a potent alternative history of the world in the latter half of the 20th century.
The Stuart Hall Project had its premiere in 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival. It went on to screen at many film festivals, including the ttff/13, where it had its Caribbean premiere, to great acclaim. The film was also released in cinemas in the UK.
The screening of The Stuart Hall Project begins at 7.30pm, and doors open at 6.45pm. Space is limited, so please arrive early to ensure seating. Refreshments will be available.
UPDATE: There will be parking available at Belmont Secondary School for tomorrow night’s screening, from 6.45pm. Parking space is limited, so please arrive early to ensure a spot. Carpooling recommended!
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Filmmaker in Focus: Ian Harnarine
At just under sixteen minutes long, Doubles with Slight Pepper is arguably the most critically acclaimed film to come out of Trinidad and Tobago. Written and directed by Ian Harnarine—who was born and raised in Canada to parents from T&T—the film tells the story of Dhani (Sanjiv Boodhu), a young doubles vendor who lives with his mother, Sumintra (Susan Hannays-Abraham), in rural Trinidad. When Dhani’s father, Ragbir (Errol Sitahal), who had migrated to Canada years before and eventually abandoned his family, returns, Dhani is resentful and wants nothing to do with him. But when Ragbir reveals he is suffering from a potentially fatal illness and needs Dhani to be a donor for a blood transfusion, both father and son are forced to confront their broken past.
Doubles with Slight Pepper—which was Harnarine’s graduate thesis film from New York University’s prestigious film school—premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, the world’s largest public film festival, in 2011, where it won the prize for Best Short Film. It went on to screen at numerous film festivals worldwide (including ttff/12) and eventually won the prize for Best Live Action Short Film at the Genie Awards, Canada’s version of the Oscars. Later in 2012 Harnarine would win the Pitch This! competition at TIFF for his pitch for the feature-length version of Doubles. That year he was also named one of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film.
Fast forward about a year and Harnarine—who teaches physics to undergraduate students and sound dynamics to students of the film school at his alma mater, NYU—is in the pre-production stages of Doubles with Slight Pepper, the feature. He recently visited T&T with members of his crew, and kindly agreed to sit down to an extended conversation with me. We talked about the current status of the feature, how at first he got rejected from film school, his relationship with his mentor Spike Lee, and how every time he screens his film to an international audience he has to explain what doubles is.
(You can view Doubles with Slight Pepper at the end of the interview.)
Jonathan Ali: You’ve been in Trinidad for a week. What have you been up to since you’ve been here?
Ian Harnarine: The industry has changed so much in Trinidad since I made the short, two-three years ago, in 2011. It was really tough in terms of equipment and crew; the logistics and facilities for filmmaking were non-existent. That’s probably not the best word, but it was tough. I’d been hearing that’s there’s more development, more equipment, more infrastructure for filmmaking and for filmmakers. And I think that’s been the goal of the trip, is to see how much that’s true. So we’ve been going and seeing people that have equipment. And it kind of blew my mind, because they have exactly what we need. It’s terrific. Good professional-level gear.
We’ve also been meeting with NGOs, groups that can probably help facilitate us here, whether it be financially or in terms of services; catching up with cast, and trying to figure out other casting situations we might get for supporting roles, reaching out to people with resources to find those people for us, or to help us find those people. And just getting people aware of the project, because the short was fairly successful and the good thing is that a lot of people do know about it and have seen it, and that’s good.
JA: And you’ve found that the response has been positive?
IH: Yes, absolutely. Because most people have seen the short, and everyone—I think most people like it, which is great, and they’re happy to hear that we’re trying to make a feature-film version of it, and they’re excited about it and they want to help out in whichever way they can, because hopefully it will be a good movie. It will be a good movie, I should say. [Laughs.]
JA: When are you looking to go into production?
IH: We’ll be shooting later this year. The feature is set around the same time the short was, which is around Christmastime. The film is set between Trinidad and New York, and the good thing is in Trinidad you can cheat Christmastime anytime because the weather doesn’t change. It’s exactly what we did with the short. We shot the short in March and April and we brought out some Christmas lights and we were good to go. Unfortunately you don’t have that freedom in New York because it’s really obvious and clear whenever it’s cold outside.
JA: In the short version of the film the father migrated to Toronto; that’s where he came back to Trinidad from. In the feature version you’ve switched to New York, where much of the film will be set. Why?
IH: It’s a good question. I have strong ties to both places. I grew up in Toronto so I know the West Indian community really well there. But I’ve been living in New York for ten years now, so I know the West Indian community really well there, too. So in my mind I can justify it either way. To a certain extent I’m closer right now to the community in New York than in Toronto. But I think one of the things that is different about the community in New York that doesn’t exist in Toronto, is that in New York all of the Indo-Caribbeans—Indo-Trinidadians and Guyanese—they’re all pretty much in one neighbourhood. And that’s unique, that doesn’t happen in Toronto. In Toronto it’s a very scattered community, some in North York, where my family is, or Brampton, or Oshawa, or Mississauga. But there’s no one real hub. Whereas in New York there is. They call it Little Guyana or Little Trinidad—
JA: In Queens.
IH: In Queens, South Ozone Park. For me that’s a really inspiring thing, whenever I go there. The film is about those people pretty much. It’s about people like my parents, and all those people that have left here and gone abroad, whether it be to New York or Toronto or London or wherever the case is. And I think one of the things about it is even though it is set in New York it really could be Toronto, it really could be London, I feel like that part of the story is very universal. But I do like the neighbourhood of South Ozone Park just because it’s so unique and it doesn’t exist in Toronto, which is a far more scattered community.
JA: You talk about these communities where Caribbean people have settled, in metropolitan countries. Could you say a bit about your own background, where you were born and grew up, and where your parents came from?
IH: My parents are from central Trinidad. My father is from Chase Village just outside of Chaguanas; my mother’s from Tabaquite, which is the geographic centre of Trinidad pretty much. My mother left Trinidad just after high school; she married my father and moved to Canada, to Toronto, with him. My father comes from a really large Indian family—fifteen brothers and sisters. The majority of them have left Trinidad.
So I was born and raised in Toronto, and the part of the city I grew up in was the Russian and Jewish neighbourhood of Toronto. Amongst all of my friends I was one of the few that was born in Canada. Most of them were Russian, Jewish, recent immigrants from Russia and Israel, Eastern Europe. All of my friends were immigrants. I have a good Iranian friend, a good friend from Algeria, Israel.
JA: Growing up, did you visit Trinidad often?
IH: Yeah, absolutely. Some of my fondest memories are here. And because I come from such a large family on my father’s side, there was always this continuous rotation of family coming up and staying with us for a week or a month or whatever. But we’d usually come down once a year or so to visit my grandmother if she didn’t come up, and all my uncles and aunts and the army of cousins that I have down here.
JA: How did you become introduced to film, and in particular the idea of becoming a filmmaker?
IH: That’s a good question. Growing up I can’t say that I was a big movie buff or anything like that. I don’t remember watching a lot of movies growing up. I remember the first movie we went to go see, my dad took us to see Gandhi. I remember falling asleep, I don’t remember any of it. I remember it was a really empty theatre.
I can’t say that my parents are big cinemaphiles. But then later on as I grew older it turned out that my father actually really was. After he left Trinidad he moved to Chicago, before he moved to Toronto. And it was in Chicago where he saw all these great movies. And later on, when I went to university, the school that I went to [York University], they have an incredible film library, just massive, it’s probably the best in Canada. It’s called the Sound & Moving Image Library. So every Friday, Saturday night I’d bring home something and we’d watch. I made my dad watch Darren Aronofsky’s Pi in 2001. And then I remember one day he was like, “Have you never seen Easy Rider? You need to bring that home and we’ll watch it.” And we watched it, and it was one of the best movies I’d seen in my life. And he used to tell me how he remembered going to the theatre and seeing all these movies in Chicago, which was cool.
JA: And that was in the Seventies, during the new wave of American cinema.
IH: Absolutely. This is like late Sixties, early Seventies. So he knew what was going on during that time, which was cool. But I guess conventional life took over, and he just never had any more time for movies. As I grew older I’d come back—I was living in Chicago—and we’d go to a movie, the Oscar films, because that time was always around Christmas, and we’d always go and see something. And it was good. The thing that he always used to say, whenever it was a big screen, “The great thing about movies is the sound.” He was really into big sound, which was cool.
And then in high school I had a good teacher that exposed me to photography. As it happens, my dad was the first person in his family to buy a camera in Trinidad, and some of the pictures he has—they’re just family pictures—but they’re absolutely amazing. They’re all black and white, these beautiful pictures of family. And so I was using his old camera that he had in high school. And I got more into the artistic side of that. And it became more about storytelling with pictures. And it was through photography and cinematography that I got into film, and I started to appreciate movies more as an artistic medium and a storytelling medium, as opposed to just Police Academy.
Out of high school I applied to some of the best film schools in Canada. I got rejected; I didn’t get into any of them. Which was good, because I don’t think I was ready at the time, I was way too young.
JA: So what did you eventually study?
So I got a scholarship to go and study physics—well, sciences in general—so I went and did that. I really enjoy physics, on a really fundamental, basic level, for what it’s trying to do, which is explain the universe. So while I was at university I was getting more and more into philosophy. I took a lot of science of philosophy classes. I also had to take some general education classes. I still had this love of film, but I couldn’t take any actual film classes. But I was able to take classes that were cross-listed with the humanities classes. There was one class called American Film I, and it was American film up to the Thirties or Forties. And it was amazing; every Thursday we’d go into this class and we’d watch a movie and then just talk about it. It was a joke, almost. It was so stimulating because I was able to see so much stuff that I wouldn’t have seen, like early Chaplin, the Keystone Cops—
JA: Right, yes, the Mack Sennett films.
IH: Yes, I never would have seen them. And we saw all the Orson Welles stuff. So it was an amazing class. And then the next semester they offered American Film II. I had to get permission from the instructor to take it because I was a non-film major; I was a physicist. It was from the 1940s to the present day, which was the Nineties at the time. I learned a lot.
JA: At that time were you thinking of doing film in graduate school?
IH: No, absolutely not. I had no clue. To me it was just really interesting, on that level. To be honest I was reading a lot of film reviews. I was devoted to Roger Ebert at the time, and his writing, because he was funny but eloquent and really profound in what he would be able to say. And that was when I really started to go deeper into movies and think, what’s the director really trying to say, what’s really happening here?
So I ended up in grad school doing physics because I didn’t want to go get a job; it was the easiest thing to do. And it also got me out of Toronto. It was my first time moving away, which was good, which was what I wanted to do. It was either Chicago or Montreal, and I went to Chicago because I was into music and there was such a great music scene there at the time. So I moved out there and I was slowly becoming more dissatisfied with what I was doing, and I started really exploring so many other things, especially within the city. It’s such a vibrant city, there are so many cultural things. Every weekend I’d be volunteering at a festival; I volunteered at the Chicago Film Festival twice, and saw amazing movies there. And you’d get to see, like, wow, there’s the director, right there! It was just cool; you’d get to see movies you’d never see again and meet cool people. So that was an important part of my life.
I also volunteered at this place; it was like a tutor-mentoring programme in Chicago called Cabrini Connections. Cabrini-Green was this huge housing project in Chicago, and at one point it was called the worst place to live in America. It was a terrible housing project. Good Times [the Seventies African-American sitcom] was set in Cabrini-Green.
So I volunteered at this place for kids, helping them with homework, tutoring and mentoring these kids. And somehow they got a bunch of donated iMacs which were brand new, and they got a whole bunch of cameras, really simple video cameras. And they said, “Let’s start up a video programme for the kids.” And for some reason they asked me to do it, and I said, “Sure, why not.” And I started doing that; making really simple movies. It was like commercials with the kids, making a fool of themselves, just having fun. It was amazing. It was like these kids from this area wanted to see themselves, and when they saw themselves on a computer screen afterwards it was amazing to them, because they’d never seen themselves anywhere. They never felt like they saw representations of themselves. And it was during that time that I started to realise that I’d never seen representations of myself on TV or movies at all. That’s when I started thinking about telling my own stories, getting into movies.
And at the time I wasn’t married, I didn’t have any kids, didn’t have a car, no responsibilities, and I decided to take a chance and I applied to some of the better film schools in the US. And I really wanted to get into NYU, and by some miracle they let me in.
JA: You made Doubles with Slight Pepper as your thesis film at NYU. What was the impetus behind the story?
IH: The story was based on the relationship I had with my father. My parents were living in Canada while I was living in New York, and my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. And the way Alzheimer’s works is that there’s this steady decline, and there’s no cure, it’s just a matter of how steep is that slope going to be, how quick is that descent going to be. And I’d go back and forth a lot, between Toronto and New York to see how he was doing and help out however I could. And towards the end of his life he was a completely different person. He wasn’t the man that raised me anymore; I didn’t recognise him.
And one day I was in bed, after putting him to bed, and I was like, wow, this is like meeting him for the first time. And I started writing. That was the original story—what it’s like to meet your father for the first time. And even though that relationship that’s in the film is nothing like the relationship that I had with my father, it stemmed from that experience. And the story mutated in all these forms for more drama, and to increase the stakes and that sort of stuff, but it began with that simple premise, with my father.
JA: It’s an emotionally intense film; it deals with real human emotions. It’s about love, it’s about loss, it’s about resentment, it’s about anger—all these serious emotions. Did you find in working with your actors that there were particular challenges in getting everybody where you wanted them to be?
IH: You know, in the first couple of days it took some people a long time to understand the tone that I was going for. And that was fine; that was us working together to find out the tone of the film. But once we got that it was really easy. There were moments where I had to trust myself that we were getting the right thing. And we weren’t obsessed with getting coverage, of getting different angles. If you look at the film it’s really just two types of shots—it’s just one shot and then the reverse and that’s it. And the reason is we spent the time on getting the performers to go somewhere; to create a moment there in front of the camera is the hardest thing to do. But we didn’t move on until I had felt we’d given it a shot.
So we spent a lot of time; those guys will tell you it was a lot of takes. But there were moments that were amazing. I remember some of the stuff that we shot at the hospital was just so powerful, like the stuff between Sanjiv and Errol was incredible. We did one take and I said “Cut” and Sanjiv was just like, “Waaay boy!” It was just so good and everybody knew it, something was happening in that moment. In terms of being an artist, that was one of the first times where I actually felt that I directed something, like I got the actors to get to somewhere that they needed to go to.
JA: My favourite moment in the film is in the party scene, just before Errol has his health episode. They’re drinking and dancing, and Errol makes a drunken grab for Susan; Sanjiv holds him back, and Susan gives Errol this look of profound sadness and regret. It sums up all the lost years between them better than any exchange of dialogue could; it’s a lovely moment of pure cinema. Did you script that, or was it improvised?
IH: Honestly—that’s my favourite scene of the movie, for a bunch of reasons. When we were shooting the film, it was that scene where everything came together and I finally put my mind at ease that we’d actually have a movie. Everything was scripted. But even when I look at the film now, I still get a tingly feeling from Susan’s look. To me that look that Susan gives is the entire movie. I spent a lot of time talking with Susan from the first table reading about that moment and she immediately understood it. We didn’t rehearse that scene too much aside from blocking out where each actor would end up physically, trusting that the actors knew where they had to go emotionally. They all nailed it.
JA: The film begins and ends with a monologue from Sanjiv. What was the inspiration behind it? Particularly what he says about being 104th generation brahmin, and then saying, “No, that’s a lie, I come from a long line of poor and stupid coolies.”
IH: This is just the history of Indo-Caribbeans, right? I think that this character particularly believes, aspires to be something much greater but the reality of his background is that the poorest people from India came down here. We really do come from a long line of really poor people. And sure, a lot of us have done great things, but we can’t forget that. And it’s also about colonialism, and why we’re here. And so all those lines are talking about that. When the film screens for a Caribbean audience that knows what these words are and the history, at the beginning people laugh throughout the entirety of that monologue, people think it’s really, really funny. By the end when it’s repeated, nobody’s laughing at all. And that’s great, to me that was the whole point.
JA: The film of course went on to do very well. What do you attribute this great success to, considering that it’s about a place, a community the majority of audiences who’ve seen it abroad don’t know?
IH: You know, I think that’s one of the biggest surprises. We made this movie, and it was a decision to have them speaking in Trinidadian [English], in a way that I knew was going to be difficult for a lot of people to understand. But we stuck with it. Even some of the actors were unsure at times, but I was like, “No, do it like you’re on the street talking to somebody.” And somehow people still got it.
JA: Well of course, it was subtitled.
IH: Yeah, sure, but when I say “got it” I don’t just mean the language, I mean I felt like they understood the story, they had some sort of emotional attachment through that. And I think there were a couple of things that people found interesting. It was a place a lot of people had never seen before, and weren’t even aware of. The two questions I get at every single Q&A that I do at a festival are, first, “What are doubles? Where can I get them?” and the second one is always, “So, which part of India did you shoot this?” And you have to explain to people that there are actually Indians living in the Caribbean and why they’re there—you sort of go through this mini history lesson. So it fascinates people on that level. But I think that fundamentally it’s just a human story, a father and son, and most people can relate to that, it resonates with people.
JA: Spike Lee has an executive producer credit on the film; he was your teacher at NYU. Could you talk about your relationship with him?
IH: He teaches a class at NYU in the final year of the programme, which I took, called Directing Strategies or something. But it’s really just whatever Spike wants to talk about. The best part of that class is that he has office hours. You can book office hours with him and he’ll read your script. He’d critique our writing, tell us what was wrong with it, or what he’d do. It was amazing, we saw this other side of the industry, like how you have to write for certain actors, things like that.
So I had this relationship with him, and I had to make this film to graduate, my thesis film. And I came to him with this script, Doubles with Slight Pepper. And he loved it. He gave me great comments. I still have his marked-up script with his writing on it; and he’d be like, “Alright, make those changes, come back next week.” And I was able to get a grant from his fund that he has for films. So I got some money out of that, which was really important. And when we came back, and we were cutting the film, he watched two or three cuts. He gave me great notes. He had a lot to do with the film, from writing, to the production, to the editing.
JA: As you gear up to shoot the feature, what’s it been like raising funds? Have you found having a successful short version of the film has been to your advantage with potential investors?
IH: Having a successful short makes things so much easier. Because you can say, “Look, here’s the world, this is the aesthetic, this is the general story, it’s going to look something similar to this, these are the characters, and here’s the script.” I think that opens doors immediately. And I think because the short was so successful you can say—whether or not it’s true—“I know what I’m doing.” And if you have a commodity like that where people want to see something and you can prove it, and there’s a chance it could win some awards, or that at least the quality is going to be there, I think it gets people interested immediately.
Watch Doubles with Slight Pepper, the short, here:
[vimeo 41997098 620]