“I’m asking the audience to fill in some blanks”
A sad irony underpins the short film Caroni. Its protagonist, a domestic worker in New York City named Rajni, gives care and affection to her employers’ baby, yet is unable to provide the same for her own daughter in her native Trinidad. They chat via messaging service — though we never see Rajni speak; we only hear her voice — but technology can’t assuage the longing for togetherness. As her daughter’s obsession with the brilliantly plumed scarlet ibis in the nearby Caroni Swamp makes her dress up as one, Rajni herself begins a wondrous transformation to take her home.
Following his acclaimed short Doubles with Slight Pepper, New York–residing, Toronto-born, Trinidad-descended filmmaker Ian Harnarine returns with another touching and accomplished exploration of the impact of economic migration on family relationships. He speaks with Jonathan Ali about nannies, tassa drumming, and asking audiences to make an imaginative leap.
Where did the idea for Caroni come from?
One of the first things that struck me when I moved to New York City was all of the strollers filled with white babies that were pushed by black and brown women. And in talking with many New Yorkers, when you tell them you’re West Indian, they will immediately say: “Oh! Our nanny is from Trinidad” or “Oh! My nanny was Guyanese.”
Doubles with Slight Pepper is realist in style, while Caroni contains elements of the fantastical. Why the shift?
This production started as a scientific approach to the mythical chimera animal. It was always meant to be more experimental than my usual work. I’m asking the audience to fill in some blanks because not everything is spelled out. Trying to keep the audience’s attention while not frustrating them was a balance we were trying to achieve.
Radha Singh as the mother gives a moving performance. How did you cast her?
We were very lucky to find Radha! Trying to cast Indo-Caribbean actors in New York is hard — the traditional casting resources are still a bit exclusionary and lacking in real diversity. Radha came to audition for us via a [theatre] troupe, and she immediately “got it.” She’s Guyanese-American. She worked hard to get the Trinidadian accent right, but also did the work to understand the world of nannies in New York.
What was it like working with Arianna Ruben — the daughter — in Trinidad?
Working with Arianna was a dream come true. I did a project for Sesame Street where we filmed some pineapple farmers in Trinidad. One of the contacts I made through that project had young kids, and I thought he would know some girls that could do the job. During a pre-production trip, we held a small audition for girls, and Arianna really stole the show! She’s wise beyond her years and really understood what we were going for.
A striking aspect of the film is that we never see mother and daughter in the same scene.
We wanted to create as much disconnect as possible between mother and daughter, so we never wanted to show them talking together. In fact, even on set, the actors never worked together. We filmed Arianna’s portion and put it on the cell phone for Radha to play off of. It’s a testament to the actors to work in such an unorthodox way and still pull off compelling performances.
Another memorable element is the use of tassa drumming in the score.
I really love tassa drumming. It’s primarily used in Indo-Caribbean culture during celebratory events like weddings. I thought it would be interesting to place that same music in a different context than it’s usually used, and I thought the results were powerful.
Having made several well-received shorts now, are you looking to step up to features?
Yes! We’re very close to getting the green light for the Doubles with Slight Pepper feature film. I am also currently working on the adaptation of David Chariandy’s novel Soucouyant, about a Trinidadian-Canadian family in Toronto. And I’m still fascinated with the nannies in New York City, so I’m beginning to think about longer-form stories within the same world.
Director: Ian Harnarine