For Me, Connecting With my Roots is About the People- Ian Harnarine

What’s not to love about a filmmaker with such diverse experience as Ian Harnarine? The TIFF Alum is screening a short, “Caroni” this year at TIFF.  Caroni is an unconventional portrayal of a mother’s love and heartache. In this story, a West Indian nanny working in New York City tries new ways to connect with her young daughter at home in Trinidad.


Ian’s journey into filmmaking was heavily influenced by the photographs in his parents sitting room, while he was growing up. Born in Toronto to immigrant parents from Trinidad and Tobago, Ian lectures at the New York University and teaches both Sound Engineering in film and Physics. He has been influenced by cultures in Toronto, New York, and even India.

He has gotten a great deal of recognition for his work. Ian is both a Genie & TIFF award winner.  His film, “Doubles with Slight Pepper” which was produced by Spike Lee is listed as the most successful film from Trinidad and Tobago.

In this chat with Nollywood Observer, Ian talks about his roots, film, and culture.



N.O: Your new film is directly influenced by cultures in India, Trinidad and New York, and tells the story of an immigrant mother. As a filmmaker with immigrant parents from Trinidad and Tobago, and as an adult who has lived in both Toronto and New York, how do you connect your roots to your experiences in different cities?


IAN: For me, connecting with my roots is about the people. If I’m in New York City, it’s about being in Queens, specifically Richmond Hill & South Ozone Park, which is the hub of the Indo-Caribbean community outside of the Caribbean. In Toronto, I try to spend as much time as possible with family and friends and that usually ends up being around dinner tables, specialty grocery stores, or restaurants.


N.O: How does this influence your creative work?


IAN: There’s a direct influence because wherever there are people, there will be storytelling. All of my work stems from my own experience, or from the experiences that I’ve gleaned from listening to others.


N.O: How have you found an artistic balance to create for such a diverse audience that have all played a part in your journey as a filmmaker?


IAN: I try to make my work about fundamental relationships that people can relate to regardless of geography. For the most part, people have families and there are always stresses put on them. By exploring these relationships and placing them within a context that may be unfamiliar to a wider audience, I hope that people can still follow a story even though the accent and locations may be new to them.


N.O: You tell a lot of stories about families and this is no different. This time your inspiration comes from maternal struggle, why was this important to you, and why is parenting at the centre of this narrative?


IAN: This story comes from seeing strollers filled with white babies, being pushed by black and brown women in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I know some of these women from my own personal experience, within my own family and circle of friends. In fact, I’m sure every Indo-Caribbean person has a connection to someone that is a nanny or care worker. I began wondering about their stories, their reasons for taking this work, how they build community and the human costs to their choices.  I make no judgements about these women or their decisions because I know they ultimately are making choices that they feel are best for their families.


N.O: Your last film Doubles with Slight Pepper was inspired by your relationship with your father, it became the most successful work of film from Trinidad and Tobago, which is important for such a growing industry. How did this success come about? What does the success of this film mean to you as a filmmaker and to the people around the world that have been able to relate to the story being told?


IAN: I believe the film was successful because audiences were able to connect with it. They were able to feel the internal struggle of the characters – and this is solely the result of the strong performances from the actors (Sanjiv Boodhu, Errol Sitahal, and Susan Hannays). I’ve been fortunate that the film has enjoyed success around the world and frankly, most people have never heard of Trinidad or know the history of Indians in the Caribbean. But, the film has become an entryway for many people to learn about indentureship, colonialism or even just West Indian food. But, as you’ve noted, the industry in Trinidad is growing. There is incredible work being made by filmmakers young and old, but it’s hard to see outside of the Caribbean (I’ll include Toronto, New York, Miami, and London as part of the Caribbean!).


N.O: Would you consider your creative storytelling process more representative of the culture in Trinidad and Tobago or of New York?


IAN: That’s a difficult question. I am of the diaspora and my work is largely about immigration within the culture of Trinidad and Tobago. However, I learned to make films in New York and admire independent cinema based in the city. I like to think that, aesthetically, my films feel like New York, but often shot elsewhere!


N.O: Spike Lee produced Doubles With Slight Pepper this reflects some type of relationship between you and the filmmaker. How has his work influenced your journey as a filmmaker?


IAN: There is no question that Spike has been incredibly generous both in terms of finances, but more importantly, his time. With Doubles With Slight Pepper, he read every draft and gave notes, then watched edits and gave suggestions that truly changed the film for the better. He’s helped so many young filmmakers and I don’t think he gets his dues from the industry for that work.


What I admire most about Spike’s work is his ability to tell stories that mean something to him on a deeply fundamental level. He’s always stuck to his vision regardless of industry pressures.


N.O: Who are some of your greatest influences in filmmaking?


IAN: Aside from Spike Lee, I love the work of Terrence Malick, Wong Kar-Wai, Ava DuVernay. But mostly, I admire the work of friends and collaborators!


Lately, I’ve been seeking out older Caribbean films which are hard to find. There’s a film called “Bim” that was directed by Hugh Robertson back in the 70’s that is my current obsession. It’s also a fascinating story about the making of the film since Hugh was a very successful filmmaker in New York that ended up making movies in Trinidad. “Bim” still stands as the best cinematic representation of Indo-Caribbean life in Trinidad – even though it was made by an African-American!


N.O: Photography, which is a film medium has had a great impact on your journey to becoming a filmmaker, what was it about photography that made you deliberate about telling stories?


IAN: I first got into photography as a way of portraying the natural world. I studied physics and saw symmetry and a natural order everywhere. I think that is reflected in my early photography. But slowly, I started becoming less interested in science and more interested in the story of science and scientists because they are rarely portrayed fairly. Along the way, I started to grow personally and began investigating myself and culture.


N.O: Did you feel underrepresented in the films you watched while growing up?


Absolutely. However, my home wasn’t a big movie-going household growing up. But, we watched a lot of television. I never saw stories that represented my life, my culture or have people that looked like us. I always knew that if given the chance, I would try to change that.


N.O: What non-film medium has inspired your journey as a filmmaker?


A lot of books: David Chariandy, Sonny Ladoo, Earl Lovelace. I believe Gaiutra Bahadur’s book Coolie Woman, has provided me with so much to reflect on and perspectives to consider.


N.O: As a Sound tutor, what have you noted constitutes a problem to clear sound in film, especially for developing film industries such as the one in Trinidad and Tobago?


There’s nothing that brings down the quality of a film more than a bad soundtrack, referring to dialogue, sound effects, music etc… Location sound is often recorded very poorly with the microphone nowhere near as close as it needs to be. I think the thing that I try to teach my students is that sound is another tool that you have as a director. You can illuminate the subtext, tell us about the drama, the characters, the tone all with a carefully considered soundtrack. It takes a while to fully appreciate how important a fully realized soundtrack is to the audience experience.


N.O: If you were to change certain things about the film industry in Trinidad and Tobago, what changes will you implement?


IAN: Honestly, I think filmmakers are doing the work. At this point, it’s down to local audiences and companies to support them. Sadly, there’s a bit of a stigma attached to local content as being inferior to the standard Hollywood (and Bollywood!) fare at the multiplexes. I wish the entire nation realized and supported film as another part of the national cultural identity just as music is. Clearly, the budgets of the local films can’t compete with big Hollywood blockbusters, but the local films have the ability to reflect the reality of the people – and to me, that’s really valuable currency.


N.O- For a culturally vibrant country such as the one you come from, what has affected the global recognition of the Trinidad and Tobago film industry? Do you think the stories being told capture the reality of the country?


IAN: For a while, I believe the quality of the content was a real hindrance. However, in the past decade, there has been an explosion of work (partly due to University programs, and often young people that studied abroad returning home) of high quality. So, it becomes a matter of distribution and whetting the appetite of foreign territories for this content.

I think the stories being told do capture the reality of the country just as much as American cinema captures the reality of America. That is, there are hard-hitting family dramas being made. There are straight up genre movies being made. Comedies, thrillers, documentaries…everything! If it’s made by a Trinidadian filmmaker, it’s inherently a Trinidadian film. People have posited if there is such a thing as a Trinidadian national aesthetic. I’m not sure if there is one. Or maybe it’s forming right now.


N.O- Do you think that film festivals such as TIFF have influenced your success as a filmmaker?


IAN: TIFF specifically has had a massive influence on my career. After screening at the festival, my films caught the attention of the industry and other programmers which led to more festival invitations and ultimately more audiences for the film. Equally important, TIFF has a tremendous ability to support filmmakers in other ways. It’s through them that I was introduced to the Sesame Street producers, with whom I continue to collaborate with.


Getting into festivals like TIFF give you a stamp of approval, which is not necessarily fair to the thousands of other filmmakers that have submitted their work! But it implies a certain level of quality, prestige, and importance. The industry and audiences look to the big festivals to be tastemakers and curators of excellence. When you’re in a business meeting you can mention TIFF and people will make assumptions about the work. Getting other work is still incredibly difficult, but at least it gives you an edge or at least the ear of Producers and financiers.


Another important aspect of bigger festivals are the filmmakers that you get to meet. There’s a camaraderie that’s built resulting in friendships and collaborations. You feel part of a community and appreciated by your peers. It’s a lovely feeling.


Have a look at some of Ian’s works:

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Wentling

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