As a boy growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, Damian Marcano often spent his days at play in the streets of his community of Morvant/Laventille, in east Port-of-Spain. He migrated to the US at the age of 12, and later enrolled at Ohio State University, intending to study medicine. Instead he moved to New York and became a web design programmer, then entered the world of filmmaking.
Currently based in Los Angeles, Marcano made his first film, the charming short The Little Boy and the Ball, in 2011. Now he has returned to the streets he knew as a child to shoot his first feature, the gritty drama God Loves the Fighter, the story of Charlie, a young man down on his luck who reluctantly gets drawn into working for a drug-dealing gang leader.
Recently Marcano dropped by our offices to talk about his journey to becoming a filmmaker, the making of God Loves the Fighter, and the charge that Caribbean filmmakers are only content to show the negative side of life in the region.
Tell me the story of God Loves the Fighter.
God Loves the Fighter is a portrayal of a few characters’ lives in east Port-of-Spain. Essentially these are people who live in all the communities of the hills, Morvant, Laventille, Belmont, Beetham—all these places. It’s a portrayal of their life and some of the circumstances that they face trying to just do the everyday things that you and I do. The story follows Charlie, who’s a young man growing up in Port-of-Spain. He needs to earn some money; he’s down to his last dollar. He goes on a very interesting path of finding a job. Our female lead is Dinah, a prostitute who finds time to go to church. Eventually their stories intertwine amongst all of the other characters’ lives.
You spent your childhood in Morvant.
On Cassia Street. The reason I say that is because the Express [newspaper] had done a write-up when we were here during Carnival, and they said I was from Pashley Street. And my aunt let me have it. She said, “Pashley Street? We are not from Pashley Street! That is a bad street!” [Laughs.] So when you print this—
Cassia Street, got it.
That’s where all of my influences came from. Morvant wasn’t the place that it has—well, I suppose it always had the stigma it has now, but as a person living there I always saw the beauty of my community. I left, I went to the US, and when I began to start travelling back here on my own again, as an adult, I started venturing into the community and just meeting people.
One of the problems that I see is that in our community of the hills, if you will, or just east Port-of-Spain, there’s so many territories a young man can’t go, and I didn’t grow up that way. So it was very important for me as a young man from there to team up with other young people from the same community.
So this film was a joint effort of the “less desirable” places we read about in the papers. To a lot of us from there, and a lot of us currently living there, it’s a beautiful place. Yes, there’s bad people. There’s bad people everywhere. This film was a positive effort put forth by a lot of young people in these communities. Yes we’re taking a very unflinching look, but it’s so real, so true, and we tried to add some beautiful poetry and beautiful imagery to the story.
What was it like shooting in the communities?
Being from the community I never felt threatened being on my own. I could lose my life just like anyone else; I’m not bulletproof. But at the same time I also believe there’s a certain respect you get when you meet a man in his own home. So going into all of these places, every time I saw a guy in any of these neighbourhoods, I stuck my hand up and waved, just to say hello, ‘cause they don’t get that. They usually get police riding by. There’s a reason why some of these men have to wear hard faces, because the life they’re living is hard. That doesn’t mean they don’t have the same basic human factor that you and I do. It doesn’t mean they don’t laugh and talk shit with their friends, and the movie shows exactly that. These guys aren’t unapproachable. Chances are if you don’t have a problem with a person they won’t have a problem with you.
We filmed a scene on Block 22, that has some of the prettiest views of Laventille, and while we were working some young men from the area just sat up on the hill and watched us the entire time. That to some people can be looked at as threatening, but at the same time, I’m a stranger with an entire crew of people in your neighbourhood. And after a while it came to the point where there were saying, “Man, this is happening in my neighbourhood?” And they were happy and pleased, and everyone said hello to us. They weren’t over-welcoming, they weren’t under-welcoming, they weren’t threatening, they were just like, “Wow, continue man, you’re not offending me in any way, you’re not harming my community, you’re not making me look bad.” And that’s one of the prettiest scenes cinematically in the film. So yeah, it’s a hard place but I think there’s still a lot of great, kind and beautiful people there and people who want better for their communities.
The end of all of this is to show that because of those warm welcomes that we got in these communities is how this film got made. I hope I did a good job in honestly portraying their lives.
Tell me about how you cast Muhammad Muwakil as Charlie, and how you came to work with his band, Freetown Collective, on the film’s soundtrack.
I met those guys through working at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in Belmont, with Mr Albert Laveau. Mr Laveau is actually the first person that ever opened his doors to me as a filmmaker in Trinidad. When I said I wanted to shoot something, he said, “I have a stage.” And I shot a scene on there years ago.
I saw a photo on Facebook of these guys standing outside the theatre workshop, and I saw that they were calling themselves Freetown Collective and they were just trying to do something positive and I was like, “Wait, here’s positivity coming out of the neighbourhoods in which I grew up, how can I team up with them?” I ended up starting to read a lot of Muhammad’s poetry, and there was a film of his poetry called 4AM [a ttff/10 selection] that Janine Fung did, and I was like, “Yeah, I get it, I know what you’re talking about, I understand that story.”
And so I had to reach out to this guy. And we ended up speaking via Skype when I was in Atlanta. And I said, “I really want to work with you on something.” And he had written something, and it said, “If God loves the prayerfully penitent, then too must he love the person that sees death coming in waves, who has no other choices, who’s up against all odds.” And that was saying that if God loves the person that prays every day, he’s gotta love the person who’s dealing with other circumstances. And I said, “We need to take the idea of that—that God loves the fighter—and turn that into a film.” And he said, “Okay, sure, let’s do that.”
As you said earlier, the film is an unflinching piece of work.
Recently we had the Jamaican film Better Mus’ Come getting a US theatrical premiere after doing well on the festival circuit. And that also is a film set in a ghetto community, that doesn’t pull any punches. What would you say to people concerned that the cinematic representations of the Caribbean that we are seeing are negative, and that filmmakers are only showing the bad side of life?
You can blame companies like Sandals and Carnival Cruise Lines for that, because they’ve always painted a “joyous” picture of the Caribbean. They paint people frolicking on beaches in slow motion and women getting massages and unfortunately, for most people, most West Indians that I know, that’s not the case. The negative portrayal, I believe, will only be felt by people who did not experience [the film’s events] growing up. But if you grew up anywhere from Belmont Circular Road to Morvant Junction or Barataria, you grew up with this story, so it’s not offensive to you. This is a true story. There are a lot of people in this country that are the fighters. And this film is for them.
God Loves the Fighter is slated to premiere later this year. You can see a teaser trailer of the film here.