Caribbean Beat Magazine

Ian Harnarine: Family ties

Trini-Canadian filmmaker Ian Harnarine’s debut Doubles with Slight Pepper is already an international prizewinner.

  • Newcomer Sanjiv Boodhu plays Dhani, the protagonist of Doubles with Slight Pepper. Photograph courtesy Ian Harnarine
  • Errol Sitahal goes over the script with Harnarine on set. Photograph courtesy Ian Harnarine
  • A scene from the short film Botched Up. Photograph courtesy TTFF
  • Ian Harnarine outside a doubles shop in New York City. Photograph by Elizabeth Harnarine

I first met Ian Harnarine in 2010, at a filmmaker’s pitching session organised by Caribbean Tales in Toronto. At the time, he was a student of New York University’s graduate film programme, and a tutor in sound recording and (of all things) physics. Harnarine and I were part of a group of fifteen or so filmmakers from the Caribbean and the diaspora who for three days were holed up in a large, hot room at the top of one of the buildings at the University of Toronto, discussing — sometimes vociferously — our film ideas and how to pitch them to hypothetical commissioning and acquisitions editors.

I knew several people there already, was shy about meeting anyone new, and Ian was fairly reticent, so it wasn’t until he stood up to pitch his short film project that I became aware of him. His was such a simple story: a dying father’s misguided struggle to reconnect with his estranged son. And the hook: the story was built around the family’s small doubles business, and set in Chaguanas, Trinidad. The film, which was to be his graduating thesis project, was called Doubles with Medium Pepper. It seemed to me that Harnarine’s was one of the strongest projects pitched over those three days, and during a break I told him if there was anything I could do to help, I’d be happy to. I also suggested he change the name to Doubles with Slight Pepper — people in Trinidad almost never ask for “medium” pepper in their doubles.

Cut to September 2011. Doubles with Slight Pepper wins best Canadian short at the Toronto International Film Festival. Well, yes! And then Doubles is chosen as one of the top ten Canadian films of 2011. And then the film is nominated for and wins a Genie (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars) for best live action short, and Harnarine and his film are off to the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Telefilm contingent. And the accolades keep rolling in. The film’s trajectory has been dizzying. In fact, it has quickly become Trinidad and Tobago’s most critically successful film. Local audiences will finally get a glimpse at ttff/12, the 2012 trinidad+tobago film festival, where Doubles is a highlight of the programme.

Ian Harnarine was born in Toronto in 1978, to Trinidadian parents who had emigrated to Canada several years earlier. He and his family lived in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in North York, so Harnarine had the benefit of growing up both within Toronto’s large West Indian community and among people who, like him, were Canadian but not. He describes his childhood as typically Canadian in his love of ice hockey, yet he came home from school to dinners of curried channa, fried aloo, and roti. Along with his parents, he would return to Trinidad for holidays every year or two, where they would stay with his grandparents and relatives in central Trinidad. Despite Toronto’s celebrated multiculturalism, Harnarine says he never saw people like him represented in the popular media — something he wanted to address, if he ever got the opportunity.

Many film directors claim to have had a love of movies from childhood. Not Harnarine, who says his father’s photographs of his immediate family in Toronto and his extended family in Trinidad were the predominant visual thread of his youth. Harnarine himself became interested in visual storytelling through photography and the video camera when he was at high school. “There’s something profound about affecting people’s emotions and being able to tell a story with just an image,” he says. A lot of his early photography had a strong sense of geometry — at school he loved mathematics and physics, and was interested in the symmetry he noticed in the world around him. “In those pictures,” he says, “there’s a strange sense of balance, a vantage point where lines converge. This was also true of my early short films — frames were composed symmetrically. I looked for beauty through symmetry.”

When it was time to leave high school, Harnarine applied to a number of universities to pursue either film or physics. He was rejected by his chosen film school, and instead given a scholarship to study physics. The subject satisfied his curiosity to understand the workings of the universe. But Harnarine says by the time he was at graduate school working towards his master’s degree in nuclear physics, he had started to lose interest. Throughout his university career, he had taken courses in the arts — videography, photography, and film history. As an undergraduate he became an avid moviegoer and, encouraged by his father, came to appreciate some of the classics of the 1960s and 70s — The Godfather, Patton, Apocalypse Now, Easy Rider. With his interest in physics waning, Harnarine decided to make an about-turn in his academic career: he would leave the sciences behind and learn how to make movies.

Doubles with Slight Pepper tells the story of a fragmented Trinidadian family. The father, Ragbir, has been living in Canada for years, while his estranged wife Sumintra and son Dhani struggle to make ends meet selling doubles in the Chaguanas market. Ragbir returns to Trinidad, apparently to make amends to his family, but we learn that his intentions may not be as straightforward as they at first seem: Ragbir is gravely ill and needs his family’s help. Dhani is suspicious from the outset, and grapples with conflicting feelings of disappointment and hope.

Dhani, the film’s protagonist, was named after Harnarine’s father Dhanidath. Indeed, Ian says it was his relationship with his father — who died in 2010 of Alzheimer’s disease — that inspired the story of Doubles with Slight Pepper. Harnarine, then living in New York, would travel back to Toronto regularly to spend time with his father, as his condition grew progressively worse. “The way Alzheimer’s works,” he says, “it’s just a slippery slope that goes down. And there’s no coming back from that; it’s just a matter of how long that slope’s going to be. So towards the end, he became a completely different person from the man who raised me, and when I saw him, it was like I was meeting him for the first time. So that idea stuck with me: what would it be like to meet your father for the first time towards the end of his life?”

Harnarine started writing his script while his father was still alive, although his Alzheimer’s was advanced by that stage. “Writing it then was tough,” he remembers, “because you ask how much of yourself do you want to put into something. There were some things that were really important to me that are very personal that happened between me and my father, and I had to decide if I wanted to share them with the world. Even if I put them in, would they mean the same to other people that they meant to me?” Harnarine explains that the fictional Ragbir is not Dhanidath — “because I had a wonderful relationship with my father.” He acknowledges, though, that now the film is out in the world, it has “taken on its own reality.”

Harnarine had the extraordinary good fortune of casting Errol Sitahal, one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most accomplished actors, in the role of Ragbir. He was introduced to Sitahal in Toronto by the playwright and director Tony Hall. “Errol is the unsung hero of the production,” he says. “Of course, his performance is amazing, but also we shot in his family’s house and he suggested Sanjiv” — newcomer Sanjiv Boodhu, who took on the role of Dhani. Sumintra was played by Susan Hannays-Abraham.

Doubles’s dialogue is decidedly Trinidadian (with subtitles), it was shot entirely on location in Arima, Sangre Grande, and Couva, and parang forms the musical line of the film. Its story, too, is familiar to diaspora families, who risk alienation and failure when they choose to leave their homes in the Caribbean for “better” lives in the metropolis. Then there is that intangible, the point of view, convincingly rooted in Trinidad. Although Harnarine has never lived in the Caribbean, in every respect his is a Trinidadian film.

As the jury at the Toronto International Film Festival commented, “Through the humble but moving story of a family in crisis, this film expresses truths that resonate in Canada and around the world. It is the debut of an exciting new voice from whom we hope to see a great deal more.”

Four more short films from the 2012 trinidad+tobago film festival programme, selected by ttff/12 editorial director Jonathan Ali

Awa Brak
Directors: Juan Francisco Pardo, Ryan Oduber • 2012 • Aruba • 10 minutes
The poignant story of a young woman, Glenda, who lives in a wooden house on the beach. She survives on fish, water, and memories. Her search for herself is an intricate game of coping with the past and luring the infinite future. The makers of Awa Brak won the jury prize for best short at ttff/11 for their equally moving 10 Ave Maria.

20 Years
Director: Bárbaro Joel Ortiz • 2009 • Cuba • 15 minutes
In this animated short, a middle-aged woman tries to get her beer-drinking, baseball-obsessed husband to fall in love with her again, with heartbreaking results.

Botched Up
Director: Dominic Koo • 2012 • T&T • 30 minutes
Brian, owing money to two gangsters, attempts a kidnapping to get the cash. Unfortunately he kidnaps the worst possible guy, Jonah, who doesn’t have a care in the world — or a cent to his name. Forced to hide Jonah in his mother’s house, Brian has to contend with her ball-busting ways.

Director: Christopher Hodge • 2011 • Antigua • 12 minutes
Adapted from a poem by Tameka Jarvis-George, Dinner is the sultry chronicle of two young lovers on their quest to get home after a hard day’s work, spend time with each other, and have a romantic dinner.