Unfinished Sentences: the inheritance of loss | Snapshot

Trinidadian filmmaker Mariel Brown set out to make a straightforward documentary about her writer father. But as Unfinished Sentences evolved, it turned into a nuanced exploration of grief, family, and artistic ambition, writes Georgia Popplewell

  • Unfinished Sentences includes re-enactment scenes featuring actor Renaldo Frederick (left) as Wayne Brown, and Che and Alessan-dra Jar-dine as his young daughters. Photography courtesy Savant Films
  • Unfinished Sentences cast and crew filming a scene at the Trinidad Yachting Association. Photography courtesy Savant Films
  • Filmmaker Mariel Brown and voice actor Nikolai Salcedo in the recording studio. Photography courtesy Savant Films

In the opening sequence of Unfinished Sentences, over faux-grainy footage of two little girls playing on a beach in the golden light, the narrator relates an anecdote from her childhood. She’s talking to her father, reminding him of the time she and her sister were visiting him in Jamaica and he asked them to each write a story. She wrote hers from the point of view of a crab who drowns after being placed in a bucket of water. After reading the story, the father explained that she couldn’t write about herself drowning, because she’d be dead.

The narrator is filmmaker Mariel Brown, and she recalls that moment as the dawning of her awareness of death. But it’s also a formative — and strikingly un-writerly — bit of creative advice, a case of a father’s anxieties overriding his artistic impulses. A dead narrator is a perfectly acceptable literary device, but an eight-year-old child must first learn the rules of life. It’s a dilemma with which many parents would probably identify: how to educate a child without stifling her creativity or invalidating her view of the world?

Brown’s father is the late Trinidadian writer Wayne Brown, and the film that premiered at the International Film Festival of Panama in April 2018 is not the one she originally set out to make. “It was a completely irrational project from start to finish,” she tells me, months later.

Not long after Wayne succumbed to lung cancer in 2009, at age sixty-five, Mariel, stricken with grief and panic — “I was terrified that all of his friends were going to die any minute now,” she says — feverishly began interviewing his contemporaries, thinking she would make a biographical documentary about her father as a literary figure.

Grief was also taking an unpredictable toll. Behind the compulsion to memorialise her father was the fact that he had almost literally disappeared from her imagination. “I’m looking for him in my memory,” she says, “and I’m not finding him, and I’m wanting to talk to him.”

Around 2013, with hours of interviews with the likes of writers Ian McDonald, Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris, B.C. Pires, and Rachel Manley under her belt, Mariel realised she was “being led down the road of including myself.” She resisted that impulse for a long time. “Because I started out as a journalist, the idea of putting myself into the story was anathema to me,” she says. “I was desperate to make sure the film wasn’t self-indulgent. I didn’t want it to be just a little film about me and Daddy.”

Whether a film is “little” or “big” depends less on the subject than on the depth and quality of the themes it explores. Unfinished Sentences is about a literary figure who deserved to be better known. It’s about how human beings are shaped by place and circumstance and race and history.

But it’s also about a special — and difficult — relationship, which is set up early in the film with the recounting of Mariel’s origin story. She is the first of Wayne’s two children, born after her British mother, Megan Hopkyn-Rees, had suffered a series of miscarriages. According to family lore, Wayne conjured Mariel into existence — “He seemed to write me into being,” she says in the film’s narration — assuring Megan that as soon as they moved to England she’d have a successful pregnancy.

Mariel embraces the story wholeheartedly — who wouldn’t want to be the product of art and magic? “I do believe Daddy was prescient,” she tells me. “That, in a way, is what made the relationship so hard. It became sort of a burden. Up to my teens I loved the fact that I was special.”

Unlike her younger sister Saffrey, who once said to Wayne “I don’t need to read you — you’re my father,” Mariel chose a career as a filmmaker, further cementing Wayne’s role in her life as creative touchstone. In the film, she refers to him as “a landmark by which I could always find myself. If you were to die, I would surely lose my way.”

Few of the interviews Mariel did in that initial rush to immortalise her father made it into the final version of the film, which required a new set of questions to be asked. She re-interviewed her mother and her father’s close friend Rachel Manley. Her younger sister Saffrey would become one of the film’s key figures.

Mariel already knew a great deal about her father’s life. “He was incredibly communicative with Saffrey and me,” she tells me, “which was unusual among West Indian men of his generation.” Wayne also left a meticulous archive that included both letters he’d received and carbon copies of ones he had written. “There were folders of literary letters, Rachel letters, Tony letters [from the late Jamaican poet Anthony McNeill],” Mariel says. There was also a “Sas and Boo” folder, containing letters he’d exchanged with his two daughters. Several of the “Boo” letters — that was his pet name for Mariel — are quoted in the film.

Along with the writer’s sense of posterity, Mariel attributes Wayne’s compulsion to collect and catalogue to the fact that he was the last descendant of his family. “The Vincent Brown line ended with Daddy, and I guess he felt a great responsibility to keep things.” Also present in Wayne’s trove were the letters between him and a Scottish pen pal named Rhona, with whom he had corresponded in his late teenage years and early twenties. In the 1990s, Rhona tracked Wayne down and wrote to him that she was downsizing her possessions; she offered to send him the letters he’d written to her. For Mariel, these letters were documentary gold, giving her access to her father as a young person “discovering poetry, meeting Derek Walcott . . . the struggle within his family.”

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The film recounts the trauma of Wayne’s early life: the death of his mother just days after his birth, and later of the aunt who raised him; of his family’s upper-middle-class preoccupation with skin colour and its effect on a boy who happened to be born darker than was desirable; his fraught relationship with his father, a renowned jurist. “The loss of his mother was probably the most profound loss that stayed with him for his life,” says Mariel. “Death was a constant in his life, and death is everywhere in his work.”

Unfinished Sentences traces the trajectory of Wayne and Mariel’s relationship as childhood reverence gives way to what Mariel comes to see as a wilful refusal on her father’s part to accept the person she’s becoming. It weaves interviews, readings of Wayne’s prose and poetry and letters by Trinidadian actors Nigel Scott and Nikolai Salcedo, and Mariel’s narration together with visuals of family photos, image-and-text animations, and home-movie-style reenactments of moments from the lives of the family, featuring Renaldo Frederick and Sophie Wight as convincing stand-ins for a younger Wayne and Megan.

There are only a few glimpses of the actual Wayne in action, from an interview Mariel filmed in 2004. He’s already white-haired, wielding a packet of Benson and Hedges with a chain-smoker’s absentminded dexterity. That, plus some audio from a 1987 radio interview with an unnamed journalist, provide the only instances in the film of Wayne as a living person, of his deep, measured voice with its cadences of educated Port of Spain. On her last trip to see him in Jamaica, Mariel took along her camera equipment, hoping to interview him again. But it was too late: during her visit Wayne would die.

The portrait that emerges of Unfinished Sentences’ two main subjects is rich and emotionally complex, which means it isn’t always flattering. Mariel’s mother Megan and younger sister Saffrey, in particular, don’t pull punches in their assessments of the two.

“You were always a drama queen,” Megan says early in the film. Saffrey puts part of the blame for the difficulty of the relationship on Mariel’s alleged inability to let things go. Megan recounts Wayne’s fear, on their return to Trinidad, of being perceived by his peers as being the kind of man who would engage in housework or child care. The Jamaican poet Mervyn Morris is obviously choosing his words carefully when he says that Wayne was “pretty sure who were his friends.”

As she grows older and more aware of her father’s relative fame and talent as a poet and writer, Mariel has to acknowledge that this talent hasn’t translated into material success, which makes her anxious about her own future as a filmmaker. The narration and excerpts from their letters to each other chronicle the sometimes brutal antagonism that develops between them as Mariel grows up. “You tore me to shreds with your words,” Mariel says in the film, “as though the I that I was meant to become had already been decided by you, and you were angry with the person I was actually becoming. How could you know who that would be?”

Unfinished Sentences took eight years to make, and its painstaking evolution is evident in the film’s nuance and quality. Mariel says the feedback she received after showing a rough cut first to a group of friends and colleagues (myself included) in Trinidad, and then at Primera Mirada, the works-in-progress section of the International Festival of Panama, was critical. “Getting notes will be something I’ll definitely do on the next project,” she says.

Another first was working with actors on the reenactments. “I enjoyed engaging in a fully creative process and pushing myself. As I move forward, this is the kind of the direction I want to go more in.” Also “revelatory” was the collaboration with composer Francesco Emmanuel, and working for the first time with a professional sound designer.

For Mariel, unveiling this very personal film to a wider audience was understandably daunting. “I was nervous about whether it would reach people,” she tells me, “whether it would connect, whether it worked on that level.” In her hotel room before the first screening in Panama, she felt physically sick.

“It was after [that] first screening that I got a sense that it was working and connecting with people on many different levels, in terms of family relationships, in terms of grief, in terms of living a life of creativity . . . in terms of anxiety and mental instability,” she says. “I was astonished and delighted by the kinds of questions I got in the Q&A and afterwards, when people kept coming up to me and talking about their own experiences of being a struggling writer, struggling to commit to that, suffering with crippling anxiety. All these stories emerged. And that made me feel brave.”