On Friday June 3rd I went to the screening of:
Smallman: The World My Father Made, by Mariel Brown and My Father’s Land, by Tyler Johnston and Miquel Galofre at the IFP Media Center in DUMBO. In both documentary films we are introduced to two men on a journey to honor and connect with their fathers.
I have had the pleasure of attending a few Caribbean Film Academy (CAFA) screenings in Brooklyn. They are doing amazing things to make visible and honor Caribbean stories and the work of filmmakers from the region. Last night however, was the first time I left with mixed emotions.
What I saw in Smallman, a documentary short based on an E-book by Richard Mark Rawlins, was a respectful care in honoring a father and son conversation through the miniature worlds and pieces created by Kenwyn Rawlins, Richard’s father. The passion with which the items were made is equaled by the clear passion put into the creation of this short. Each clip is carefully angled to show the meticulous detail put into the work. While Richard narrates, with melodic music in the background, we see images of his face analyzing the pieces, and a patchwork of letters and pictures the filmmaker uses to tell a story. It is the story of a man who dreamed of being in the military, was accepted to training in London, but for some reason the acceptance was reversed. After the rejection he let go of that dream, raised a family, worked as a civil servant, and put his energy into making these beautiful small pieces. For Richard, it seemed that growing up this is just what his father did, and now after his death, there is a pride in looking closely at his artistry and honoring what he left behind.
This film is beautifully constructed and left me feeling grateful for having had the experience of being in the audience. The simplicity made it magnificently powerful. It helped me remember my own father and think about the dreams he may have had crushed as he was growing up. He found passion in making visible the art and culture of his homeland, Trinidad and Tobago, at a time when pride in things local was looked down upon. My dad passed away several years ago and I have always wanted to find a way to honor the legacy he left behind. Hopefully I will be able to do that someday soon. Mariel is doing that for her father, Wayne Brown. He passed away in 2009 but left an amazing body of work as a columnist, poet, author of many books, and contributor to the Caribbean aesthetic. I look forward to seeing the soon to be released: Unfinished Sentences.
In the 62 minute work, My Father’s Land, my reaction at the end, as the credits rolled on the screen was: ‘something does not sit well.’ It is the story of Haitian man, Papa Jah, who left Haiti at age 19 in search of work. He ended up in the Bahamas and has lived there undocumented for just over 40 years in a Haitian community called The Mud. Not being able to travel, he could not see his mother before she passed away. This film documents his journey back to Haiti to see his father, now 105 years old.
I questioned the genuine intention of the filmmakers, especially after they left Papa Jah waiting in the Haitian airport for over 7 hours while they filmed in the Dominican Republic. All I could think about from that point on was what that was like for Papa Jah. What was it like to sit waiting in an airport after having trusted the filmmakers enough to leave his family and children in the Bahamas, and take the risk to travel to Haiti, a land he has not seen in 40 years? What was going through his head? Perhaps: How am I going to get to Latoti (an island off the coast) where my father is, if they – the filmmakers – do not come for me? Am I ever going to be able to see my wife and children again back in the Bahamas? When they finally reunited there was a certain delerium in the way Papa Jah was carrying himself outside of the airport, waving goodbye to people frantically and thanking those who were kind to him over and over emphatically. This is an assumption, but I am thinking the filmmakers were financing his journey. Papa Jah was at their mercy and made to run through the details of what little power he had in his own destiny those many minutes in the airport. That moment led me on a tailspin as I questioned the choices made by the filmmakers. Why include a friendship with a white man who has employed Papa Jah and described him as a gentle soul. Why include a scene in Haiti when Papa Jah calls Tyler his boss. Were the filmmakers asking people to dance for the camera; why were there so many images of people dancing? And above all, why show the fact that you left him waiting at the airport while filming a Haitian woman now living in the Dominican Republic who is in no way related to the story of Papa Jah?
I also wondered about how Johnson and Galofre worked together. I have seen work by Galofre before. He has an uncanny ability to get the people he films to feel comfortable in front of the camera and to show the beauty of those in his lens. This is something I admired in his movie Art Connect. I wondered if there was a subconscious attempt to subtly make visible a manipulative and selfish approach to the making of this film, where questioning the ethical nature of taking advantage of ones subject in search of a ‘good story’ was not reflected on too deeply.
I did enjoy the story of Papa Jah and his father reuniting. To see a 105 year old man up and active and intensely taking in the reunion with his son after so many years was beautiful to see. They are both men who exude positive energy and a light in their hearts that transcends throughout the movie. I was sorry their story was marred by what seemed to be entitled filmmaking, manipulating lives, and not taking the time to truly honor Papa Jah. Helping to get him legal status in the Bahamas does not excuse how much the filmmakers dishonored him in that airport.
Trailer for soon to be released, Unfinished Sentences, by Mariel Brown
My Father’s Land Trailer:
Trailer for Miquel Galofre’s film, Why do Jamaicans run so fast?: