Author: Ballengee, Christopher L
Date published: March 1, 2013
Salt of the Earth. DVD. Directed by Sophie Meyer. London: Mundo Nuevo Production and InavisionTV, 2004. £11.00.
Mystic Fighters. DVD and Blu-Ray. Directed by Sophie Meyer. London: InavisionTV, 2013. DVD, 15.00; Blu-Ray, £20.00.
Beyond the familiar flamboyance of Carnival lay everyday traditions of Trinidad and Tobago, a nation whose tortuous past has produced a profoundly diverse people. From filmmaker Sophie Meyer come two stylistically divergent though thematically complementary films documenting two of these traditions virtually unknown outside of the region and its diaspora. Meyer has worked on feature films and has extensive journalistic experience with the likes of the BBC, Reuters, the Associated Press, and others. With the fearlessness of a journalist and an eye for cinematic storytelling, Meyer's films combine art and ethnography in a form accessible to general audiences with a rigorousness that scholars will find welcoming. Salt of the Earth tells of continuity and change within parang, a genre of Spanish-language song performed by string and percussion bands at Christmas and other Catholic holidays. Cognate with Latin-American paranda, Trinidad's parang is largely the domain of a few families who trace their ancestry to nineteenth century Venezuelan immigrants who came to work on cocoa plantations. Despite its clear affinities with Hispanic melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre, parang highlights a creolized identity, one that honors the past while celebrating its Trinidadian-ness; an identity perhaps best embodied by the late diva of parang, Daisy Voisin (1924-1991) who receives only passing mention in a film less about the history of the music than its passing to a new generation.
The parandero Cristo Adonis and longtime parang promoter Holly Betaudier appear throughout the film guiding the viewer as quasi-narrators (alongside an intermittent voiceover). The first section illustrates traditional parang via profoundly important interviews and performances with prominent paranderos including Willie and Tito Lara, Francis Salina, and La Familia de Rio Claro, a family band led by Sydney and Ramona Granger. These are truly one-of-a-kind moments never before recorded in such high fidelity. The second section details a move away from intimate village performances and toward professionalization as parang goes the way of steel orchestras, tassa bands, and other artistes who garner corporate sponsorship and advance their notoriety by winning competitions. As several interviewees lament, this has come at the expense of a fundamental edginess typical of old style parang and the loss of a depth of knowledge about the tradition that is irreplaceable.
Meyer's cinematography is beautiful, though tinged with a roughness that accentuates the saltiness of the paranderos and contextualizes them within the verdant countryside where parang was born and matured. Meyer further contextualizes this music culture with scenes of cocoa harvest and preparation, descriptions of the instruments of the ensemble, and a visit to cuatromaker Raymond Rivas. Overall, Salt of the Earth is a straightforward film that importantly captures a moment in time when many veteran paranderos were either dead or at the end of their careers and a new generation stood ready to take the reins with novel ideas about what parang should be.
Meyer's most recent film contrasts rather significantly with Salt of the Earth. Mystic Fighters blends cinéma vérité with innovative audio-visual techniques to tell a highly sensual story about traditional stickfighting in Trinidad. Its origins lie in Afro- Caribbean kalenda, which is both a dance and martial art that was a central aspect of nineteenth century Carnival. Rhythms played by drummers and songs sung by the "chantwell," or lead singer, were meant to encourage and spiritually strengthen the fighters. As chantwells became sought after singers in their own right, these songs- sung mostly in French Creole-are thought to have given birth to calypso around the turn of the century. The rhythms of kalenda live on as an accompaniment to stickfighting while the dancing aspect has largely faded.
Yet, the average viewer will learn none of these things from Mystic Fighters alone. The film is indeed short on facts about kalenda, favoring instead a cinematic style that combines footage of actual events with scripted vignettes that aim to evoke a heightened sense of emotional perspective. The narrative is held together primarily through the story of stickfighter Peter Noel, with the film following his preparation and eventual participation in the National Stickfighting Competition. The violence and spirituality of the film is accentuated by stunning cinematography and exceptional sound design, the latter adding a critical layer of meaning throughout. For example, an early scene features drummer Desmond Noel searching for a tree to build into a new drum. The sequence features a series of extremely detailed close-ups of tree bark and Noel's flesh juxtaposed with electronically manipulated heartbeats and rushing blood, all of which draws the viewer into the scene in a rather visceral manner.
The esoteric nature of the film, however, can be distracting. In one sequence, images of fighters accompanied by noisy drumming, singing, and yelling essentially suggest a sense of controlled confusion. This scene transitions into a similarly raucous reenactment of canboulay (from French "canne brûlée" or "burnt cane") with devilish jab jabs emerging from a stand of fiery sugarcane, howling and swinging pitchforks toward the camera. While the historical and cultural images embedded in this sequence would be abundantly clear to most Trinidadians (namely the relationship between slavery, Carnival, and stickfighting), it seems somewhat overwrought and stylistically out of place.
I was leftwanting more from the music of Mystic Fighters in particular. Drumming and singing is present throughout, but it is never discussed at length. The DVD's special features satisfy this to a certain extent, including full interviews with Desmond Noel and others. In the end, Mystic Fighters' at times suffers from an uneasy balance of art and ethnography, with Meyer's most important contribution lying in the way the narrative unfolds with sound and image on equal footing.
These films represent a significant step forward for documenting traditions that have heretofore been ignored by quality filmmakers. Simultaneously, they serve as examples of how one might approach documentary filmmaking from varied creative and technical angles. While Salt of the Earth would be appropriate for a range of students, academics, and the general public, Mystic Fighters may be a bit violent for younger audiences.
Christopher L. Ballengee
University of Florida
Santa Fe College