Phedra Deonarine speaks to the Canadian director
Ian Harnarine teaches physics at New York University. Ordinarily, this might not grab the attention of film fans, but Harnarine also happens to be a director. He grew up in Toronto with Trinidadian parents, and his Caribbean background features prominently in his short film Doubles with Slight Pepper, made with Spike Lee as executive producer. The film is set and was filmed in Trinidad and revolves around the relationship between Dhani and his father. Dhani has taken over his father’s doubles business (doubles are a local delicacy in Trinidad: a sandwich made of fried dough and usually filled with curried chickpeas). His father has returned from Canada and Dhani has to come to terms with his ailing parent and their crumbling relationship.
The film is wonderfully told, so it is unsurprising that it has garnered a great deal of attention since it was named Best Canadian Short Film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011. Totally Film called it “a gem of a short film,” and the Toronto Sun found it “complex and compelling.” It is a rich and nuanced work, particularly for a debut director. It's a first look at work from a director with a distinct voice, one we're likely to hear more from in the coming years.
I sat down with Ian Harnarine in New York recently to discuss the film and his background.
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Did you have any formal training in film-making?
"Film-making is not something I’ve done for most of my life. I earned my undergraduate and Master’s degree in physics. However, after that I did attend NYU’s Graduate Film School where I got my M.F.A. a few years ago."
Why did you turn away from your original field of study?
"There were several reasons, but ultimately I just didn’t see myself being a physicist for the rest of my life. I saw so many of my colleagues actually love what they were doing and I just wasn’t like that. Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge respect and still love the field, but I wasn’t curious anymore. If anything, I found myself being less interested in the science and more interested in the scientists and their personal stories. At the time, I was finishing up my masters and I didn’t have a wife, kids or a mortgage, so I decided to take a chance on myself and do something that I really wanted to do. I applied to NYU and by some stroke of good luck they accepted me."
What was your parents’ reaction?
"They were probably a bit confused about why I’d leave the relative 'safety' of the sciences and go to the unpredictable world of making movies. At the end of the day, they both wanted to see me happy and were supportive. My mom came down to Trinidad and was on set every day while we shot the film. That was important to me because it allowed her to see what it is that I do and how a movie is made. She was also there to see the film win some awards so she’s been along for the entire ride."
Is there readily available funding for Trinidadian films? Do you see or anticipate the development of a local film industry?
"There is funding available, but not a lot. It was highly competitive and difficult because so many people apply for the little funds available. There is quite a bit of commercial and music video production, but not many narrative films are made. The good news is that the Trinidadian government recognized that the film industry can be quite lucrative both financially and culturally, and are trying to support more and more.
"Even more [importantly], the University of the West Indies has started a film production program and are graduating students. This results in more filmmakers available to do great work raising the level of quality and awareness of film."
Has technology levelled the playing field for filmmakers?
"It’s become quite easy to make films. Everything you need to make a film can literally fit in a backpack and cost a few thousand dollars. This is great news because the financial barriers that prevented people from making movies before don’t exist. However, the ability to tell engaging stories and work with actors is something that can’t be purchased. It needs to be worked on and practiced."
What difficulties did you face within the industry?
Casting the actors definitely. Although the West Indian community is large in Toronto and New York, it’s been very difficult to find actors. My previous films were written for West Indian actors, but I could never find them, so I always had to compromise and work with other actors. However, with Doubles With Slight Pepper I didn’t want to compromise and made it my mission to work with West Indian actors. I did my research and settled on Errol Sitahal. We were introduced through a mutual friend and Errol introduced me to Sanjiv Boodhu and Susan Hannays Abraham."
Dialect seemed important in this film. Did you have trouble finding actors who could perform in a way which felt true to you?
"It was a choice that was important to me for authenticity. It took some time for some of the actors to speak in a more 'informal' Trinidadian accent than what actors might be trained for. It took a little bit of time, but once everyone understood the tone I was going for they embraced it."
What other Caribbean filmmakers do you admire?
"There are quite a few these days. Frances-Anne Soloman has done a lot of work historically. Janine Fung and Natalie Wei are showing subjects in the Caribbean that are not normally seen. Mariel Brown is a terrific documentarian. Nicholas Attin makes genre movies set in Trinidad. Christopher and Leizelle Guinness have done some incredible short films recently. Also, the New Caribbean Cinema collective out of Jamaica have made beautiful shorts and Storm Saulter’s Better Mus Come is probably the best feature film to come out of the region in a very long time."
What are you working on now?
"These days I’m working hard on three projects. A: turning Doubles With Slight Pepper into a feature film. B: co-writing Time Traveler with Spike Lee. It’s the true story of a physicist that’s trying to build the world’s first time machine. It’s a wonderful father-son story with a lot of science in it. C: an adaptation of David Chariandy’s novel Soucouyant. It’s a beautifully written book and I just hope to do it justice."
Is there a film you dream of making, either from a book or on the basis of an original idea?
"I’ve always wanted to do a story about indentureship in the Caribbean. It’s a massive story that I don’t believe has been told to the level that it deserves to be. Not enough people are aware of this subset of the Indian Diaspora, so I’d love to share it with the world."
Phedra Deonarine is a writer, whose fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Cuizine and on the CBC's Canada Writes website. She was the Truman Capote Fellow in the Ruters Newark M.F.A. program in Creative Writing.