Friday, January 7, 2011

Q & A with filmmaker Dalton Narine by Darryn Boodan

He has written for The Village Voice, been the Features editor at Ebony, as well as The Miami Herald. He is a decorated Vietnam veteran and has won awards for his writing on post-traumatic stress disorder.

Somewhere in between all of this, Dalton Narine has also managed to make an astounding 14 films, all set in Trinidad and Tobago, making him one of the most high-profile filmmakers in the Caribbean. His latest feature ‘Mas Man Peter Minshall’, which chronicles the life and work of Peter Minshall, won Best Documentary at the New York International Film Festival in 2010.
Here is a conversation I recently had with Dalton, in which he talks about what it was like working with Peter Minshall, and why the word ‘documentary’ can be tricky when you are looking for funding.

Check out a preview of 'Mas Man' below and look out for the movie now on Flow on Demand

You spent five years working on ‘Mas Man’. What was your motivation for such a huge project?
The motivation for producing and directing ‘Mas Man Peter Minshall’ lies in my passion for documenting culture, and the leading icon of the arts in Trinidad and Tobago has been Peter Minshall. Given our rich pool of talent, such declaration might seem thoughtless and provocative to people with a different mindset. Yet, art is privy to subjective interpretation and one cannot look at oneself in Minshall’s mirror without flinching or being awed – Sir Vidia Naipaul’s volume of work notwithstanding.

You probably know Peter Minshall better than most of us now. What was it like interacting with him on this? What is his reaction to the film?
No, I still don’t know Minshall well. His work, yes. I’ve been following his stylish themes since ‘Paradise Lost’ in 1976, and interacting with him can be measured to my interacting with the mas. There’s always a push and pull with Minsh; a tug-of-war of minds, though very few can match his wit. It’s his rope. Always. But it wasn’t a big deal to push back and forth during the interview sessions. It just happened in passing.

However, in the initial meeting when we discussed the production, his first question was, “So, how do you plan to do the film?” My immediate response was, “Without a narration.” “Good,” he said. And that little exchange provided the grease, and the grist, too, for the laborious five-year project. Minsh is every bit as proficient loquaciously as he is creatively. The camera, or the microphone, could be a fetish, you know.

About his reaction to the film, you’ll need to ask him yourself. A patron at a film festival in Wales asked during a Q&A, why we made the film while Minshall was still alive. I saw his point right away. Because nobody would relish a portrait of himself or herself, if it was manufactured by others. It’s not like looking in a mirror. Then again, it’s very much like looking in a mirror. For two decades, Minshall shoved his looking glass in our faces and said, “Look, that’s you. Like it or not.” Well, what’s wrong with responding in kind? Minsh has been the conscience of our age, and that’s how we depicted him. We really didn’t raise the temperature.

I liked the rawness of the look of ‘Mas Man’. Was this intentional? What was your vision for the film?
You probably watched the festival or extended cut, the 87-minute version, which was the first cut. It won at the 2009 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival as a work in progress. Besides, when you spend so much time on a project, it can alter your mood, how you think, how the work behaves. Nine months later, after we began retailing the extended cut, we completed the final cut (57 minutes) just in time for the New York International Film Festival screening. Audience reaction was superlative. Even the festival director who was in the audience approved, for we had submitted a work in progress six months earlier. This was a telling moment in the film’s history. I was in the UK while the editor was finishing up, and I told him to FedEx the final cut to a friend in New York, who met me at the airport – without the package. He hadn’t received it. We got it with two hours to spare and headed for the festival by subway. But an announcement came up that trouble lay ahead on the tracks. We taxied to the cinema, arriving two minutes before the screening. And I rushed in with the Blu-Ray copy, begging the projectionist to screen the final, not the one he had in hand. He said, “I haven’t seen this; it’d be like flying blind.” We are both in the same boat, I said. And I sat in the back of a crowded theatre acting as if I were from Croatia and I’d walked into a New York cinema not knowing what to expect. That was my vision for the film. At last! The editor was the one who turned it into reality. The director can instruct all he wants, but it’s the editor who interprets the page. The film won three festivals thereafter.

There is a perception that our society fails to properly document and archive the lives of individuals such as Minshall. Do you agree? If so, why do you think that is?
Another story as illustration. A few years ago, I asked then-Speaker Pennelope Beckles why it was so difficult to raise funds to finance the project. Was I blighted? Was Minshall? “No”, she said. “Change the word documentary to film, as in ‘A Film by Dalton Narine.’” Documentary was too heavy for viewers. Then, she added, “Nobody has ever undertaken a project about Dr. Eric Williams, Hasely Crawford, Uriah “Buzz” Butler, Capt. Arthur Andrew Cipriani, and so on. Maybe they’d have found themselves in your shoes. You’re now the vanguard. Once you complete the film, with whatever funds (bank loans and pension funds mostly, along with a contribution by Trinidad and Tobago Film Company), others will follow your path.”

You said you had enough material left over to write a novel. If you did, what would be its theme?

The fascinating mind of a misunderstood artist.

You have produced over 14 films. What do you think of the TTFF and what do you think will help spur more people to turn to filmmaking in Trinidad?
‘Mas Man Peter Minshall’ is my 14th. And the TTFC question has answered itself. I’ll consider any request the TTFC asks of me. Whatever it takes. I see the company as a light probing the crevices of the budding filmmaker’s mind, reminding, “You, too, have a story to tell. We’ll help as far as we can go.”

You described yourself as a “writer who sees the big picture”. What’s your process like in filmmaking, as opposed to writing?
It’s almost the same road. There’s a fork, though, that takes filmmaking through a technical world. Whereas, strong verbs create powerful images, the mind has a mischievous camera of its own, though you must coax it properly through variations of angles and light and sound. That’s the simplest answer I know. One more thing, it is necessary to imbue both media with rhythm and pacing, particularly in dialogue.

What are your thoughts on the progression of Carnival? There are many who criticise the high price of costumes and perceived lack of ‘creativity’ – that it’s become very middle class. Do you think these are fair comments to make?
Relevant, for sure. Middle class is the wrong crowd, though. How about lower class? Funny you would ask about that. I’m about to wrap up a piece about the topic. Here’s a preview:

De ole time days was mas in yuh brass: Frame upon frame of colour-plated pageantry, tinged with Van Goghian hues that captured images of hordes of revellers magically transforming National Geographic and the Encyclopedia Britannica into a mobile theatre of the Drag and the stage.
Here, the dance of the Cree of Canada; there, the mystery of the Relics of Egypt; Somewhere in New Guinea beckons; Saga of Merrie England titillates. To Hell and Back and Back to Africa; Primitive Man and Extracts of the Animal Kingdom; Imperial Rome; The Glory that was Greece; and a plethora of sailor bands putting on a show, their risqué and comedic acts mimed to the rawness of steel band music, the only nativity in the multiculture, blessed and cursed alike, just like the mas. And fancy sailors, too, Fascinators and Syncopators strutting, and peacocking headgear, such as clocks and cameras and elephants and crabs from the Mang, leaving Cito Valasquez up front to bogart attention with his Gulliverous Fruits and Flowers.
Not to forget the traditional mas like the dragon blowing his whistle, a polished wooden snake, marble for eyes, wrapped around – as if copulating – a piece of bois rubbed down with coconut oil, this once-upon-a-time stick fighter turned ballet dancer operating Behind the Bridge; or the venerable Bookman dissuading his teenage counterpart from crossing the canal on George Street without the necessary preparation (or else what?) and the caped-tongue man with the oversized wide-brim frill hat fobbing children off with scary stories, parents shooing him away with money for the coffin, er, his sow’s ear purse.
The mas was all over the place because it felt free to play yourself, not free up, or wine down like rats in the sewer. Ha! God knows the rodents wouldn’t have tolerated such slackness. Indeed, thousands of them, unnerved by the mere notion, haul they tail and scurried across to French Street to sign up with Rat Race, Minshall’s purview of the land and its lubbers.

If you could change one thing about Trinidad Carnival, what would it be?
Bring back the sass and sassiness in Monday mas by throwing the day to the steel band. Pan all day, all night. At least, that would happen. But you can’t force the winers and “beachgoers” to change their ways and means.

What are your thoughts on the proposed National Carnival Centre? –
Can’t comment until I peruse the architect’s plans, whenever those are made available to the public.

You’re an artist yourself. What are some of the challenges you have faced working on your projects in Trinidad?
The seven deadly sins. Full stop.

Mas Man Peter Minshall’ was nominated for Best Documentary at nine festivals on four continents, and won five awards:

 Best Documentary, Trinidad and Tobago International Film Festival [Submitted as a work in progress];
 Honourable Mention, Greater Columbus International Film Festival (at 58, second oldest film festival in the USA) [Submitted as a work in progress];
 Best Documentary, New York International Film Festival;
 Best Documentary, South Africa International Film Festival;
 Best Cinematography, Chagrin Falls International Documentary Festival.

See more of Darryn's work at

No comments:

Post a Comment