Welcome to Filmmakers in Focus, a new feature on our website that presents conversations with filmmakers at work in Trinidad & Tobago and the Caribbean. First up is Sophie Meyer, a documentary filmmaker.
Originally from France, resident in London (where she is an independent media producer), Sophie has been coming to T&T for over a decade. During that time she has made several films, including Salt of the Earth (2006, and a trinidad+tobago film festival selection in 2008), a documentary about parang music.
Sophie is currently at work on a new film, about stickfighting. She found time near the end of her busy shooting schedule—in the middle of the Carnival season—to sit down and chat with the ttff about the film.
trinidad+tobago film festival: What is the name of the film?
Sophie Meyer: The film is called Mystic Fighters. It’s a film about stickfighting and the power of the ancestral drum.
ttff: How did you decide that you wanted to tell the story of stickfighting?
SM: I’ve been coming to Trinidad for quite a while now. The first time I came was in 2000. And I experienced J’Ouvert. And throughout the years I’ve come back regularly. There’s something about J’Ouvert that instinctively I connect to. So I started to look into J’Ouvert, the roots, the history, everything. And this is how I got interested and I started to learn about Canboulay, original Carnival, stickfighting.
I wanted to look at the [stickfighting] tradition a little closer and see where it came from, what remained of it, and who are actually the people who make it survive. I’ve always been very interested in looking at rituals, folk traditions. The parang documentary [Salt of the Earth] was looking at this music coming from Venezuela. Mystic Fighters in a lot of ways follows this same idea, looking at people and their original traditions, and where they come from.
ttff: What was your approach in making the film?
SM: The approach is…I’m not a historian, I’m not an anthropologist, I have passions, I just see something that touches me and I want to explore it and explore who makes this happen. As someone from a European background with no ancestry in the West Indies, how come that it resonates. I’m not looking at making an informative documentary. It’s not that. The intent was to give an account through my own eyes—I’m very aware that it’s totally subjective—of what I think is a beautiful artform, very spiritual and rooted in African ancestry.
ttff: How did people in the stickfighting world respond to you as a foreigner and a woman? Stickfighting is very much a man’s world…
SM: I [first] went to a stickfight, to a competition, in 2009, I think. I sat there and I was just looking at the gayelle and thinking, What is happening? It’s going so fast, I don’t understand. And I turned around and there was this guy who visibly was well into the fight and knew exactly what was happening. So I said, Excuse me, can you explain what just happened? I was so lucky that day because I talked to one of the most passionate stickfighting fans, probably the best person to talk to, and he explained to me. His name is Merrick Mundoo. He has been invaluable and is actually the producer of the film. He was the contact for the stickfighters, he was the entry.
I did some filming that time, I interviewed some stickfighters for research purposes, I met a few people, historians who know about traditional mas, I read a lot of books, trying to understand. It took me quite a long time to put the pieces together. I couldn’t make it [for Carnival] in 2010, neither 2011. 2012 is the year when everything started to come together.
ttff: Tell me about the importance of drumming to stickfighting.
SM: Without the drum there’s nothing. The drum calls the spirit of the fight and calls the fight. In other words, the beat of the drum directs the fighters. I love music, and the music is a very important element for me. So I approached it from this aspect, the mystical aspect.
ttff: Stickfighting is also violent. Is that something that was a factor in how you looked at it?
SM: It’s violent, yeah. The purpose is to buss your [opponent’s] head—you get the most points when you hit the head. There’s a lot of blood in the gayelle. People have died following some of the hits. Some go blind. Yes, it’s dangerous. But the point is they still do it. It’s so ingrained. It’s a tradition passed on from grandfather to father to son. I haven’t met a stickfighter who hasn’t learned his art from his father, or his grandfather. And they just have this urge, it’s exciting, and it’s something they look forward to. One of them said, “You have to be stupid to be a stickfighter.” One hit and you could lose your eye, or even your life. So it’s very dangerous, yes. But yet they go back to it, there’s this thrill.
What came up also, for a lot of them it’s a way to be recognised in society. And they tell you also it’s how they access what I interpret as power, or spirits. If you look at their faces they are inspired by the drum and they take on another persona. Some of them look so fierce—I’ve got faces in my head—and when they’re out of the gayelle they’re as sweet as can be.
ttff: There’s a lot in terms of ritual that goes along with stickfighting, not just in the stickfighting itself, but other aspects like the making of the bois, the stick. Was that something that you also explored?
SM: What we did was that we went in the forest with the stickfighters and we cut a bois from a poui tree. There’s a ritual attached to it, absolutely. It comes from the tradition that everything around you has spirit. Nature has spirit, you don’t just go there and help yourself to anything you like. You go there with respect and you ask permission, you “pay” the tree and then you go. All these guys are a wealth of knowledge in terms of the forest, they know the plants, they know the trees, they know the animals. To me the mystical aspect is that, really.
ttff: Of course, you have to “mount” the stick…
SM: Well, no. Careful with that. Some people do mount their stick, but the stickfighters I interviewed, and I believe them, they play “clean” stick.
ttff: We should probably say, to mount a stick means to—
SM: To mount a stick means basically to go through a process of putting poison in the wood, to give it an evil power. You do that by getting a crapaud, a frog, and putting the stick inside the living frog, then you put the stick on a tree, you let it rot for twenty-one days, and there’s other things that you do, and that is really bad. I was told, and I saw it, it leaves marks [on the body] that look a certain way. I was also told that the worms [from a mounted stick] actually infect the skin. It’s quite controversial. The funny thing is that every time you speak to a stickfighter they will tell you so-and-so is playing mounted stick, they are not clean.
ttff: Coming back to the style of the film, will it have narration, and talking heads? Or is it all observational?
SM: Well, I’m still thinking about it. I would like to use as little narration as possible. I want to use music, but we’ll see how it goes because as you know music is expensive. We’ll see how it will work out. Funding is really an issue I’ve got to look at.
ttff: How have you funded the production so far?
SM: My credit card.
ttff: So it’s all you?
SM: In terms of money? Yes, but you can’t say that it’s only me, the team of people who worked on it, without them I would not have been able to do it.
ttff: How big is the crew?
SM: Well there’s the cinematographer. I’ve got a sound engineer but not all the time. And I have a permanent producer, Merrick. He’s never worked on a film, but he’s amazing. He’s a dream. I’ve been very blessed and very lucky.
ttff: When do you expect the film to be ready?
SM: There’s an exhibition on the 15th of June in London, so I’m going to have a version of the film done for that. What I really would like is the film to be presented at the trinidad+tobago film festival. So I’m going to do what I can to have it ready so you guys can see it and decide whether you want it or not.
You can find out more about Mystic Fighters on its website, www.mysticfighters.com, or by visiting the film’s page on Facebook.
Photograph of Sophie Meyer by Maria Nunes