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Filmmaker in Focus: Ian Harnarine

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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

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]

Date: Thu 06 Feb, 2014
Category: ttff news and features

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