Monday, February 08, 2010

The other side of TT Carnival

Coat of Arms, Trinidad & TobagoImage via Wikipedia

It has long been hailed as the greatest show on earth, an annual celebration of our creativity and uniqueness as Trinbagonians.
But beneath the bikinis and beads, pulsating soca and wild abandon, citizens are expressing mixed views about Carnival and its relevance to life in Trinidad and Tobago. 

This was the discovery of Los Angeles-based director and producer Charysse Tia Harper and her crew, who visited several towns and villages in the country to capture the key elements of Carnival and how it affected the socio- economic life of citizens. Based on her findings, Harper, 25, compiled a 48-minute documentary, titled The Other Side of Carnival. 

The footage was shown to an audience on Wednesday at the National Library in Port-of-Spain. 

Harper said the production, comprising interviews, glimpses into several elements of the festival and other aspects of life in Trinidad, was an eye-opener.

“I feel that we have 48 minutes of strong information,” Harper told Sunday Newsday in an interview on Wednesday, hours before the viewing. “We present a lot of issues. But, we do not go in depth and the main reason for doing that is because I wanted to appeal to an international audience as well because if I went in depth into every problem in Trinidad and Tobago, only Trinbagonians may care about that. 

“I wanted something to interest the locals as well as the international population. But, I think that the strongest thing that came out of the experience was that everyone has an opinion about Carnival.” 

Born in Trinidad ( her mother and father were from San Juan and New Grant, respectively), Harper migrated to the United States while she was very young. 

The only link she had to Carnival, she said, came by way of discussions and from watching footage from her family. 

With a burning passion to produce documentaries as a career, Harper studied film and journalism at the University of Southern California, before pursuing a master’s degree in management and leadership in the United Kingdom. 

She later established the fledgling Xplore the World production company to bring her dream into a reality. 

“My crew and I, it started with about three people. We started talking about documentaries we want to make in December 2007 and threw out ideas,” she recalled. 

Harper soon realised that the area in which she lived, Oxnard, a town an hour north of Los Angeles, somehow provided the perfect opportunity to explore the festival. 

“There are not many people from the West Indies there. So, whenever they see a black person and you tell them you are from Trinidad, they are like ‘Which part of Africa is that?’ 

“So, I decided to make a documentary that would highlight my culture but not make it like a history lesson. Carnival, I figured, would be the point to draw people in.” 

Harper’s team, she said, comprised first-time film makers from TT, the UK and US who were not affiliated to any studio but were determined to promote the project in any way possible. 

After several successful fundraising ventures, Harper and her small crew finally set foot on local shores on July 7, 2008, to do the ground work for the project. 

It was not until last year, however, that Harper finally got the chance to experience the event in all its glory. 

Her crew, she said, interviewed more than 60 people from all walks of life. 

But while some felt the festival was a good thing, others simply did not. 

“It’s such rubbish, you have people dancing with nothing on. It’s a time for people to go out and have sex. People are ridiculous,” a few respondents complained. 

Some, she said, even got carried away. 

“I remember we interviewed a police man about the crime rate during Carnival and he just went on a tangent about the good and bad sides of Carnival,” she jokingly recalled. 

The visiting film maker confessed that about 90 percent of the material on the footage shocked her “primarily because I was an outsider coming in.” 

Generally, people lamented what appeared to be a decline in traditional mas, she said. 

Harper tended to agree based on the footage the group had captured. 

“The traditional elements started in Trinidad and Tobago, and we have to ask ourselves what would make this Carnival different from Toronto’s Carnival or Rio’s Carnival or Miami’s Carnival. 

“So, by beads, bikinis and feathers we are not differentiating ourselves from the other Carnivals around the world. And that is very important to keep because Trinidad is a small country. 

“And, if we have to be unique we have to maintain the traditional elements and characters. Wherever we went that was the big point — that they want to maintain that.” 

The lack of productivity on Ash Wednesday was also a sore point among many people, Harper said. 

“What we found was that there was no traffic and I did not have to fight anybody to get on a maxi to go home,” she said, bursting into laughter. 

Interviewees estimated that about 30 to 40 percent of people stayed at home on Ash Wednesday, the official start of the Lenten season. 

Harper was flabbergasted. 

“The thing is that Ash Wednesday is not really a public holiday in Trinidad and Tobago,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. 

What was even more alarming, she said, was the fact that some employers expect that there would be a poor turnout at work. 

“I learnt that sometimes bosses are chilling on the beach, too,” she said. “Carnival is great but at what cost. Imagine how many businesses lose income based on not being open for Ash Wednesday?” 

Four university academics also had their say about the celebration. 

“Two were for Carnival and the others were against,” said Harper. 

“They said the Government needed to regulate it because they figure that the Government is just trying to make money.” 

Like the other respondents, Harper said, they also felt that the Government was neglecting traditional mas as well as the people who could not afford to go to fetes and play mas. 

The young film maker observed that a lot of people still needed to be educated about the origins of Carnival. 

“Of about 20 people only seven were able to say how Carnival originated,” she said. 

One lecturer, Harper recalled, suggested that the origins of Carnival was seldom taught in primary and secondary schools. 

“You learn more about the US and European and Caribbean History. So they are putting a lot of blame on the Government.” 

Tourists were not to be left out. 

“They loved the women, the alcohol, they love the entire show. They have a blast,” she said. 

Harper argued, though, that while tourists offered a valuable perspective, they were not always best suited to give a comprehensive opinion on Carnival. 

“Tourists just come here and they leave. They do not know what goes on prior to Carnival or after. So, they are wearing blinders. They have not one bad thing to say,” she said. 

“The locals had the best overview because they experience it every year.” 

Expatriates, on the other hand, said although Carnival was too expensive, they got a lot for the money they were putting out.


The Other Side of Carnival Promo from Stephanie James on Vimeo.
The Other Side of Carnival is a soon to be released documentary directed and produced by Charysse Tia Harper and helped along the way with a handful of volunteering crew from around the world.

The Other Side of Carnival project started in 2007 resulting in the filming of the 2009 Trinidad Carnival. We have made many friends along the way and met many talented musicians and craftsmen who were all happy to tell their story of their experience with the Trinidad Carnival. We followed small town Mass Bands, Port-of-Spain's The Blue Devils and the general public through their journey of Carnival and managed to get an overall outlook to the life lived through it and beyond.

The Other Side of Carnival Promo 2 from Stephanie James on Vimeo.
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