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12 Questions with Perry Polar

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Perry Polar has worked in many areas including agriculture, history and the urban sector but has always had a love for acting. He has conducted many research projects some leading to films hoping that it inspires people to think and act. In this interview, he tells us about his learning experiences in the film industry and finding his way back to it.

FILMCO: Can you remember the first Trinidadian film you ever saw? What was it, and tell us about the experience of watching it.

Perry Polar: The first film made in Trinidad and Tobago I ever saw was Men of Grey (1990). I really enjoyed the well-choreographed fight scenes and the intensity of the lead actor who carried the film. The film felt like a true local production rather than a movie filmed on location in Trinidad. I remember thinking to myself that for a local film it was quite good. In hindsight, I realize it is an unfair comparison as all the other foreign made films I was seeing probably had multi-million-dollar budgets so kudos to all the persons who made that film possible. I was even more impressed with the sequel Flight of the Ibis. I would still rate these two movies as my favourite local films.

FILMCO: Who has been some of your biggest influences in film/ television in Trinidad and Tobago, and why?

PP: I would have grown up watching Sham Mohammed on Mastana Bahar, Hazel Ward on 12 and Under, Holly Betaudier on Scouting for Talent and Horace James on Play Your Cards Right. They were the local celebrities of the day and their contribution to developing local talent should never be underestimated.  I was also glued to the television watching No Boundaries and Sugarcane Arrows. Perhaps I am just being nostalgic but I think the 70s to the 90s were the golden age of local television.

I honestly cannot say that I was inspired by anyone local or foreign to pursue acting. I felt that we were on different sides of the television and while it was exciting to watch it also felt unobtainable. As a youth, I was still finding myself and just drifted from activity to activity. 

FILMCO: What have been some of the challenges you have faced in your creative projects and how did you overcome them? 

PP: One of the main reasons it took me long to get back into film was the lack of information about what was going on in the industry. With the advent of the information technology tools today, it is much easier to know what is going on. The T&T Performing Arts Network’s emails do allow you to see what opportunities there are as they arise. FilmTT has a Production Directory and other tools which can help you search for people in the industry. I think it needs to go a little further though. For example, if I am looking for an animator, I would like to see samples of their work which can show the scope of their talent and imagination. 

Another key challenge, as someone getting into producing, is that I am not an expert in the use of cameras, audio equipment, lighting or the like and the industry is technologically driven in all areas. This is where I would like to commend FILMCO which runs numerous affordable workshops on all aspects of film making and gives their members substantial discounts. At this point I have learnt enough that I can converse with a technical expert and ask him or her to push their creative boundaries.

Another challenge is managing one’s own expectations. At the start of a project, I will want the idea in my head to become a reality in a specified time and with a specified budget. Because of my own inexperience and real-life challenges, this has not occurred in my projects so far. However, my view is that if I want to be a part of the industry it is more important to build good working relationships rather than the perfect execution of the project I had in my mind. When you are in a situation with limited resources you always have to be cognizant that people have alternative commitments or challenges and what you are asking from them may be more than what you can pay for monetarily so you have to rely on goodwill. For me it is more important that people feel that it is a collaborative process and that they can see their contribution. I would like that people can look back at the year or two that they spent working with me and say that they had an enjoyable experience and broadened their perspective and that it contributed to improving their career opportunities.

Perry Polar in studio.

FILMCO:You have experience as an actor and producer but I am curious as to how you got your start in the creative industry and film especially considering your background in agriculture, environment, history and the urban sector?

PP: When I was a student at Queen’s Royal College there was an attempt to create a drama group with our sister school Saint François Girls College. It did not last very long, a few sessions maybe, but I am grateful for the teacher who spearheaded it. Teachers may not realize the impacts they have on their student’s lives at the time. 

A few years later, in my first or second year as an undergraduate at The University of the West Indies, I saw a poster looking for older versions of characters for the BBC film ‘The Humming Bird Tree’ which they were set to film in Trinidad. I looked just like the boy (Kaiser) and I did not hesitate to audition. Bubbling with confidence, I landed the part and had a wonderful experience acting in my few scenes. More importantly, in those few days, I soaked up everything I could learn from the crew. I even noticed that certain props were not suitable for the time period of the production and spoke to the director about it which ended in some scenes being reshot.

At that point, acting became something that I thought I could be good at. I did a workshop with the Strolling Players where I trained with Freddie Kissoon and had the opportunity to meet Beulah (Shirley King). From there I spent a couple years under the tutelage of Albert Laveau, Dani Lyndersay and others and then took up the challenge to play the role of ‘Eulet’ in Nine Nights at the San Fernando Workshop alongside the talented Eric Barry.  Although I was learning, I felt that I was not good enough. I had not had the real-life experience which I thought I needed to properly continue along the trajectory. I got frustrated, stopped and focused on my academic career and other activities. 

I suppose, like other people, I sometimes feel like I hit low points in my life. I was again frustrated in my late 20’s. At that point I decided that I had to leverage any transferable skill or experience from the past to create tangible ‘somethings’ in order to move up because the gravity of the situation was pulling me down.

I leveraged my agriculture and environment training into project management and leveraged that into a different discipline (urban sector). When I had nothing to publish as a Scientist, I collaboratively published in history leveraging my data management skills. Whatever punches life threw at me I had to duck, weave and punch back. I get knocked down a lot but never knocked out. 

Once again, I find myself transitioning my skill set back into filmmaking. It is largely driven from the fact that I work in the policy environment and a lot of effort is going into producing documents which only a few people will ever read and even less will act upon. To have an equitable society is a dream of mine so I am hoping to translate some of the technical issues I work on into a form which is more palatable to a wider audience with the hope that it inspires people to think and act. 

FILMCO: Your film Ganga Dhaara: Sacred Spaces premiered at the trinidad + tobago film festival in 2020, what drew you to tell that story?

PP: After I had decided to get involved in film-making I started to think about a topic which I could tackle. I was at an academic meeting where there was a presentation by Dr. Kumar Mahabir who pointed out there were few East Indians involved in film and as a result there are local Indo-cultural experiences and traditions which run the risk of never being recorded on film and may eventually disappear from human memory. A challenge is an opportunity in disguise so I chatted with him and he suggested that I look at Ganga Dhaara and tried to make the appropriate linkages. Funding and the linkages did not pan out and the project was put on hold for about a year.  

I happened to encounter Sharda Patasar and we agreed to work on the film. She had an understanding of the event and linkage with the founder, Ravi-Ji, and she sought to get a green light. We approached it in exactly the way you probably should not approach a film. There was limited published information on the festival so I did not fully conceptualize what we were trying to achieve. I did not execute a successful fund-raising campaign beforehand and I completely underestimated what production would cost. We dived in anyway and captured beautiful footage of the Ganga dhaara pilgrimage. As fate would have it, we did not get the step-by-step explanation of the events at the pilgrimage from our interview with Ravi-Ji, but we got a bit of his life’s story and philosophies.  Although it bore little relation to the footage, it dawned on us that the film was no longer about Ganga Dhaara but about Ravi-Ji. Dissecting his interview allowed us to address many more topics in the film than we could have hoped. Yes, we told the story about how the event occurred but we also addressed continuity of cultural traditions, the feminization of religion, temporal and spatial dimensions of sacred spaces, and patriotism and identity in a multicultural society.

Film still from Ganga Dhaara: Sacred Spaces directed by Dr. Sharda Patasar and Dr Perry Polar

FILMCO:How do you think your experience in research has helped you with your filmmaking?

PP: Although my training is in the biological sciences which relies more on quantitative research, I have had exposure in qualitative research which is more suitable for understanding social situations. The methodologies will vary but they both are aimed at identifying the ‘truth’ in a situation. Research training, particularly at the Ph.D. level, makes you aware that you have to obtain as much information about your subject but also understand the context in which the various information is presented to determine how rigidly you are willing to accept the information as ‘fact’. This is particularly useful in producing documentaries but also applies to fiction. 

Research training also helps you break down masses of information into smaller, more manageable pieces. My younger days were a whirlpool of half-finished ideas but my research training forced me to complete the ideas from start to finish. This makes a big difference in the quality of writing whether it be technical or creative.  Most importantly, research training teaches you to present the findings as supported by the evidence you have received rather than trying to twist the information to fit your preconceived notions. You also have to accept that what you have concluded is based on the limited information you would have gathered and what you are presenting is a perspective rather than an unshakable truth.  

Having knowledge in technical disciplines also allows you to imagine unique scenarios. I have not committed to any ‘type’ of genre as yet in my screenplay writings but I have been leaning toward nature inspired science fiction. Oddly enough, I have spent my spare time in the last four months writing what could be considered a suspenseful horror not at all related to nature. 

FILMCO: A project you worked on led to the creation of the film “City on the Hill”, was it always the goal for that to be made into a film? And what was it like seeing that brought to the screen and win the people’s choice award at the tiff?

PP: I was lending management support to a project entitled Leveraging built and cultural heritage for the Economic Development of East Port of Spain which was funded by The UWI-Trinidad and Tobago Research and Development Fund (RDIFund). The basis of the project was that East Port of Spain had significant cultural heritage and some built heritage and thus the area was worthy of investment to produce local economic development. The project sought to document the built and cultural heritage in the area and through a stakeholder consultation process produce a community led vision for East Port of Spain. 

The film itself was an intended output of the project. I often try to encourage other research grant writers to consider inclusion of funds for film production as research communication is an aspect we do poorly in the Caribbean.

I had the opportunity to work with Professor Patricia Mohammed, Michael Mooleedhar and Dr. Sharda Patasar on the project and they were the ones who were responsible for the creation of the film itself. I was blown away by the first cut of the film which got feedback from stakeholders. Wendell Manwarren’s distinct and commanding recital of local poetic interpretations of the area coupled with Patricia and Michael’s sublime structuring of the visual material allowed for the message to be made clear. It was a masterpiece and, judging from people’s responses and the awards won, the audience agreed.

It was in this experience that I decided that I wanted to return to the film industry. I looked at the film’s structure and realized the material was laid out in the same way I would approach an academic paper for publishing and I was confident I had the tools to do something similar. I worked with Sharda on Ganga Dhaara: Sacred Spaces and when I heard Michael was producing Green Days by the River, I dusted off the acting cobwebs and auditioned. I did not get the lead role as I hoped but I was grateful to be in the movie.

Film still from City on the Hill directed by Patricia Mohammed and Michael Mooleedhar

FILMCO: What inspires your creativity?

PP: I have always had a creative mind. Although I did well academically, I always had challenges concentrating and still do today to some extent. I would withdraw into my own thoughts when presented with new information and visually explore a number of the permutations and combinations and often come up with unique conclusions. What was a weakness I have tried to turn into a strength to help in my screenwriting and producing. 

I was not particularly gifted in the artforms I was exposed to at school such as drawing, painting or music. In my early teens, I did have a knack for writing simple poetry and I also took a shot at writing a murder mystery novel which was way too predictable. I got an A on a school project where my neighbours and I acted out a scene where an assault was foiled which we filmed with a point and click camera. Unfortunately, I did not continue developing any nascent artistic talents and one of my deepest regrets is telling my mother that I did not want to do guitar lessons when she offered. I often look back and think what my life could have been if I grasped some of these opportunities earlier.

I think my creativity is linked to my ethos in life. At the end of my life, I would like to know that I have left the world in a better place than when I found it and if that is not possible at least I would have done my best to push back and my body of work would have helped a few people along the way. I have to be creative not just from an artistic perspective but in all aspects in life just to survive and in trying to make a difference. 

FILMCO:Can you tell us about your favourite project to work on, to date?

PP: Everything I work on seems exciting for its own reasons. I particularly enjoy creative writing because the combination of my training and experience makes me feel like I can produce something of quality and it allows me to bring to life the random thoughts in my mind. Actually, producing a film allows you to learn so many new things from so many people. Acting allows the escapism to be something other than yourself. 

If I had to choose I would go with the animated production I am working on right now, Becoming Wild. It has had some setbacks but I think it may bring something unique to the screen.

FILMCO: Since entering the film industry, what have you learned and what advice would you give someone venturing into their first project?

PP: I think the key word is ‘industry’. The most recognizable people are the creatives: Actors, Director, Animators, and Screenwriters but it takes an army of skilled persons to get a production off the ground. This means that in a viable industry there are career opportunities for project managers, administrative persons, engineers etc. and not just persons which would traditionally be considered artists. From what I have learnt about large productions, it requires military precision as one misstep can impact many other aspects of production costing time and money so it is critical to be hardworking and professional. 

For the lead creative venturing into their first project, I would recommend making sure that you put what is in your mind down on paper. Learn to write a treatment, a script, a budget, and draw a storyboard even if it is just basic. The clearer you can communicate an idea the more likely you will find people to support you in your vision. 

FILMCO: What do you think are the three things we need to be able to build a sustainable film and television industry here in Trinidad and Tobago?

PP: Financing is obviously going to be a major challenge to the industry. Based on what I have been exposed to through workshop from FILMCO and FilmTT, there are financing opportunities through tax relief, sponsors, loans, and crowd funding, however, there will always be a challenge to raise enough funds. Creatives should consider legal agreements between each other to share in the revenues of a completed production based on the value of the time contributed during the production if it is not being immediately paid for. While people do have to eat, and there is no guarantee that films may be profitable, it can provide an opportunity for future earnings. Such an arrangement may also be of interest to investors, particularly if they can write off losses.

Film makers, or FILMCO, should interact with other institutions which target large scale funding, for example, academic institutions. Donors are keen on highlighting that they have been financially supporting activities and grant recipients often do a poor job of highlighting their achievements to targeted stakeholders and the general public.  

Building trust is also critical in the absence of resources for paid work. The industry is based on Intellectual Property (IP) and the risk of having one’s IP stolen is high. Trusting environments which encourage people to collaborate is likely to produce higher quality work, however, this cannot be done without protections. Creatives can utilize non-disclosure agreements or other forms of agreements which allow the creation of work and penalties for non-adherence.

FILMCO: What are you currently working on or what can we hope to see from you in the future?

PP: At the moment I am working with my co-producer to have Ganga Dhaara: Sacred Spaces ready for distribution with FILMCO. This will make the film available to the wider public. 

I am currently working on making Becoming Wild. It is about an uppity and pretentious cocoa tree who learns to live like her forest dwelling ancestors. I entered the script into FilmTT’s inaugural Script to Screen competition and made it to the second round. Despite major delays due to COVID-19 I am in discussions to get it to the stage of animation. 

I have a quite a few ideas which are at various stages of writing. At the moment, I feel driven to complete the suspense horror screen play I have been working on. It is pretty dark and what I am addressing will make a few people uncomfortable. Even I dialled back a scene because it may have gone beyond the boundary of what may be considered acceptable. Hopefully, I will enter it into the next Script to Screen competition but the plan is to have a crowdfunding campaign.

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