12 QUESTIONS WITH PATRICIA MOHAMMED
—Published on 10th Jun, 2020.
We welcome the month of June with scholar, writer and filmmaker, Patricia Mohammed. Apart from heading the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies St Augustine, she was also the first head of the Mona Unit, Centre for Gender and Development Studies, U.W.I Mona from 1994-2002. Mohammed’s main interests are gender and development studies, film and the study of aesthetics and visual intelligence. Her publications include her most recent book, Travels with a Husband, written with artist Rex Dixon. Mohammed has directed and produced 13 documentary films – most notably, a six-part series entitled “A Different Imagination”, of which “Coolie Pink and Green” 2009 and “City on a Hill: Laventille” co-directed with Michael Mooleedhar are award winning films.
FILMCO: You describe your use of filmmaking as a method of generating confidence in discovering new ways of “seeing and learning”. Tell us more about this, and about your initiation into filmmaking?
PM:The invention of the still camera in the early nineteenth century and the moving camera by the early twentieth century have been two additional art forms that transformed how we look at ourselves and others, how we create a myth of immortality, how we can reinvent and rebrand things to represent a more psychologically rewarding way of celebrating culture and life. I grew up, strangely enough, naively free of the burdens of colour, race, ethnicity and class, in a little village in South Trinidad, and had to confront the fact that these are the predominant lens through which people look at the world. I am not compelled to experience life through victimhood or continuing to place oppressive burdens of diminishment on people I interact or work with. It seemed to me that film offers us one way of telling our stories that make us proud of who we are and what we have been able to achieve. I know there are many others who will tell the other sides of the story.
My initiation into filmmaking allowed for taking this philosophic vision further. I produced a well researched visual history of the Caribbean examining its evolution over 500 years in a book entitled Imaging the Caribbean: Culture and Visual Translation, and realised that with each discovery of image data there was more to celebrate about what we had created rather than what had been taken or destroyed under colonisation. Culture only survives if it is constantly attenuating and borrowing – sometimes imperceptibly – from other cultures. I had amassed far more knowledge and images than could be included in the book and wanted to use the medium of film to begin to tell stories to those who were drawn to film: a younger generation that was growing up with access to technologies that weren’t available in my childhood.
So my first films were really very pioneering. Drawing on the media services of the School of Education at UWI, around 2004 I hired a cultural studies student who was trained in Texas as a film student, and set up a rudimentary filmmaking unit at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies on the St Augustine campus and began to direct and produce the series which I called “A Different Imagination”. This is a series of seven short documentaries to which the TT Film Festival award winning “Coolie Pink and Green” belongs. At first I saw the films primarily as a complement to the book, to be able to use them in a classroom to teach history, sociology, gender, cultural studies and so on. But with each documentary, the learning curve and aspirations changed. Since then, I have continued to be asked to be supportive of other film projects that promote research and teaching, among them several pioneering films for the University of the West Indies, St Augustine.
I have to say that it has helped to be married to a genuinely gifted artist, Rex Dixon, from whom I have learnt and continue to explore a world of aesthetics which of course feeds into the sensibility of filmmaking. Many of my films have used art and painting especially as a metaphor and apart from my own primary training in art in secondary school and subsequent attachments, I have viewed the screen as another kind of canvas on which we paint with light.
So essentially, I came into filmmaking to tap into a new vein of teaching and learning that I hoped would benefit another generation – to compress masses of knowledge into a format that would be more accessible and easily recalled perhaps, and one that could also give them confidence about their own futures and their role in shaping them for better rather than for worse.
FILMCO: Your work in gender and cultural studies is well known; How have you managed to merge your two worlds of scholarly research with filmmaking?
PM: I have always been a film buff, early cinema-going, my father liked Indian films and there was a small cinema in Princes Town that we used to be allowed to go to to see Saturday morning films. Then television brought in the black and white films in the 60s which I loved. So filmmaking and a native discernment of style, lighting, mood, acting, camera work, script etc matched a similar interest I had in good fiction. I have described my method of working elsewhere as disciplinary promiscuity – which works both for and against me in that I see too many connections that cannot always be developed with the depth that they require. Apart from the hard sciences at which I am really no good, the other disciplines are all prisms through which one can interpret phenomenon – my primary area, gender, is not a discipline per se, it is a category of social analysis that is threaded into almost every discipline and area of life. Because of my preoccupation with sociology, anthropology, history and culture, my focus has been in the area of gender within cultural studies. And a great deal of the material of gender and cultural studies naturally gives itself over to storytelling through film – whether in documentary or fiction.
I might add here, not as a side bar but as very integral to my scholarship, is the way in which working with the tools and elements of film has given me another layer of intelligence – I often speak about visual intelligence without explaining it fully to myself or others, but I found that actually working with production and post production in film, grasping the importance of sound and music, marketing film, and being involved in filmmaking not just as a consumer, I continued to layer my levels of engagement, observation and intelligence, giving me greater sense of perception. This is useful whether you are teaching, working in administration, writing, or managing a film crew.
Finally, coming back to your question of merging the two worlds, they seemed to merge over time when film itself became more accepted as scholarly texts, although this battle is still being fought. But the question of whether or not they were incompatible or needed to be made acceptable partners in my working life never occurred to me. First, perhaps because my field of gender is a very embracing one and allows for expansiveness and creativity, for innovating and innovative methodologies. Second, because as a scholar, one is always exploring and it is exciting and rejuvenating to develop new competencies as one continues a career. Finally, it was valuable to discover how montage, the process that my colleague Dr Jean Antoine is also fascinated with, lies at the basis of all filmmaking and storytelling and how this comes to life in the editing room. I continue to be fascinated with the editing process and if I had to choose the area of filmmaking that I would want to excel in, that would be editing. Editing is very much like writing, the selection of the mot juste in a sentence to convey with words the image and thought that you want to leave with the reader, is the same as selecting the images and sound that fit together.
FILMCO: Who or what have been some of your biggest influences in film/ television in Trinidad and Tobago, and why?
PM: I am sorry if I leave out some persons, but I think the Banyan group: Bruce Paddington, Christopher Laird, and Tony Hall were valuable models of early television and promise of a film industry. I am not sure who produced the Pearl and Dean ads but strangely enough, they were useful clips to view as vignettes of our reality in the early days of cinema-going. I know both Carla Foderingham and Francesca Hawkins whom I have a lot of respect for in terms of their work on television and the film industry. There are others… can’t seem to wrap my head around the range of influences that must have seeped in over the years.
FILMCO: Can you remember the first Trinidadian film you ever saw? What was it, and tell us about the experience of watching it.
PM: I think the first film I may have seen was “Bim” or it might have been “Girl from India” many years ago. I remember seeing Ralph Maraj and a female actress whom I knew in “Bim”, and although I haven’t seen this film lately, it left me with a profound sense of seeing the familiar on the big silver screen and appreciating the closeness to the characters and the settings.
FILMCO: Your award-winning documentary short, “Coolie Pink and Green” is an experimental film that beautifully captures Caribbean East Indian culture. In what way does this and your other film work relate to your work around gender and social dimensions in the Caribbean?
PM: I have answered some of this in the first of your questions so I will simply be extending this here. The series of films that came under “A Different Imagination” was really extracted from different chapters of the book Imaging the Caribbean. I had one on Jamaica called “The Colour of Darkness” in which I explored the idea that what was normally viewed as a dark space of culture emptied out had actually been filled with the new dimensions of culture that were revived or reinvented in jamaica, among them Rastafari religion and culture. In painterly language, black is an amalgamation of all colors and I used this metaphor and the data from Jamaican art production together with an interview with anthropologist Barry Chevannes to create the film.
“The Sign of the Loa” is about Haiti, the script is poetic and narrated in the first person – using the wonderful art produced by Haiti to argue that the origins of this art were in the practice of vodou, a mixture of African religions and Catholicism. While most Caribbean people continued to demonise vodou and shun Haiti, “The Sign of the Loa” (2007), attempts to celebrate the most derided part of its culture, which I argued was also the basis of its artistic fertility and its signature identity in the new world.
“Coolie Pink and Green” was the fifth film in this series and I was dealing perhaps with Trinidad and Guyana. The subject I tackled here was the derision of an Indian aesthetic in the eyes of a colonised and post colonial culture. I celebrated the bright magentas and emerald greens that Indians brought with them from India that were deemed to be lower class and tasteless. When I look at old photographs and footage of the Caribbean and Trinidad in the early twentieth century, the primary colours worn were white; pastels and light colours were considered, it seemed, to be the epitome of taste and breeding. Perhaps the cloth imports were limited, who knows? Anyway, the film uncompromisingly confronts the derogatory overtones of “coolie” and claims its use with the pride and dignity that it needs to possess, to commemorate the difficulties that migrants always encounter in the bid to seek a new life. The protagonist in the film is a young girl who wishes to marry a mixed race young man, placing the question of gender arrangements as one of the primary social issues that affect peoples of different ethnic groups who find themselves in a shared geographic space. The real beauty of the prose – the script was written as rhyming poetry following the tradition of the Ramayana – was realised by the absolutely amazing cinematography and filmmaking skills of Jamaican, Franklyn St. Juste, and the superb editing by Michael Mooleedhar and Christopher Din Chong. Not unexpectedly, this was the most personal of the films to make, but it also allowed an insider view and perception of a culture. Even if not shared by many, it certainly reflects my own experience and celebration of the Asian aesthetic into the Euro/African space of the Caribbean.
All of my films are not centered around a gender perspective in the sense that people generally assume to be gendered, ie centering women. I think gender sensitivity is a demonstration of compassion about social issues that both sexes face in their struggle for affirming identities, whether of sexuality, class, race, or nation.
FILMCO: What has been the most memorable moment of your career as a filmmaker so far?
PM: I think going to New Delhi India in January 2010 where “Coolie Pink and Green” opened the First Pravasi Film Festival. The entire crew went along: Sharda Patasar who produced the wonderful original music, Michael Mooleedhar, Christopher Din Chong, and my husband who co-produced the film with me. We did not realize before we arrived there how big a festival it was! There were film stars that I had grown up seeing in old Indian films, now a little older of course, and amazing filmmakers like Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair. Deepa Mehta was at the opening screening and her comment, “That was like visual poetry…”, captured the film’s essence completely and was such a compliment to our efforts. We were celebrated at the festival despite the cast of thousands, both because it was the opening night film, and but also because so many people were interested in the story of migrants from India who had left long ago, and what had become of their lives. It was also my first trip to India and when asked why by the Indians, I said truthfully, I had nothing to bring to them before. Making this film and taking it to be screened in India was by way of a pilgrimage back to a land that I do not consider home but feel the affinity of culture and roots of creativity that still extend today.
FILMCO: For many filmmakers, when developing a project, certain resources are often difficult to come by. What has been a recurring/ prominent challenge you have faced with taking your films from page to screen, and how have you overcome it?
PM: Funding is always the greatest challenge – so far I have underwritten the primary cost of many of the films I was personally committed to – a luxury I can no longer afford!
FILMCO: You have worked in the capacity of a producer and a director. You are also a published writer. Do you have a favorite role? Why?
PM: I would have to say writing, because of its solitary nature, and because one is almost completely in charge of the product – writing for me is not a collective effort. Collectivities, though exciting and interesting, can also be distracting from concentrated attention that brings out the best – for example, I am not a good public speaker and orality does not flow as easily as when I am writing completely alone in front of my computer.
FILMCO: Mentorship has come easy to you over the years, as a filmmaker and a scholar. You’ve worked extensively with Michel Moolheedar over the years – describe for us some of your most memorable experiences as a mentor, and why this is a route you have taken.
PM: My mentorship in film started with my own learning process when, in a sense, I was also kindly mentored by those around me who knew far more than I did about filmmaking (and still do – this process continues). If I have mentored others in film it is perhaps consistent with my own training as an educator and my natural inclination and desire to bring out the best in people’s talents. I have to admit that among those I have worked with, Michael Mooleedhar has been one person who possessed a similar sensibility. I realised very early in our working relationship that when I handed something over to Michael to edit with some explanation of what I was looking for, he could somehow imagine the mental images in my head and interpret them visually.
As an example, I remember very early on, us working on a short film, “Becoming Elsa”; I think it was the first film we worked on together. The film commemorated the life of Professor Elsa Leo Rhynie, the first female principal of UWI Mona campus. I explained to Michael that although Elsa was a very proper lady, who was well respected as an academic and stateswoman in Jamaica, we needed to depict her humanity and humaneness, something that was central to her style of management. I left him alone with this and came back to a short clip in which he had taken a basic shot of Elsa walking along the front of the a large well known mural on the Mona campus and cut this to a reggae song that would have been popular when she was a young girl – “Uptown Ranking”, “See me in mi heels an’ ting / Them check so we hip an’ ting / Give me little bass, make me whine up mi waist”. It was the perfect counterpoint and entry to the film.
I would prefer to see my relationship with those I work with, especially those younger than me, as partnerships in which we share and teach each other. It gives them confidence in their views and voice. It requires that one dispenses with ego and deal with the collective goal of excellence. If Michael Mooleedhar and I have worked well on several projects, including “City on a Hill” which also won a TT Film Festival audience choice award in 2015, then it’s because we trust each other’s instincts and judgements on many matters. My style of filmmaking is unorthodox. In the making of “Seventeen Colours and a Sitar” which brought together the talents of artist Rex Dixon and sitarist Mungal Patasar, we had to discover the script from the work they produced on set – a difficult task.
FILMCO: Given the knowledge of filmmaking that you now possess, if you could have a conversation with your 16 year old self about pursuing a career in filmmaking, what would be the most important piece of advice you would give her?
PM: I would not place my bets on earning a career only in filmmaking but would diversify sufficiently so that within the film and media industry one can have a range of competencies. I still think, perhaps my bias as a scholar, that writing is the basis of all good films and scripts, and this is an area that is very underserved along with the other more visible roles that one carries out in filmmaking.
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?
PM: First: national and corporate or other funding that supports the arts of which film and television are a large component. Film particularly requires bankrolling to allow for good productions. This is allied with marketing and branding – a hard nut to crack in the global market but linked with the wider Caribbean, there is possibly a niche market for the region as both a site for filmmaking and for our stories to be told in a way that transcends the parochial to capture the global imagination. Second: a core group of local actors who are trained for acting on film. Third: re television, in particular, we need a series of programs that engage the popular imagination (no, not “Crime Watch”, please!). Ones that entertain but at the same time build nation feeling and visual intelligence. These can range from soaps to quiz shows to good coverage of events, either annual or incidental celebrations that we need to record for posterity – this can only happen with a well-funded cadre of media practitioners who are well trained, challenged by global standards to excel along with front line personalities who are compelling.
FILMCO: What’s next for you/ any plans to tackle a feature film?
PM: Lately I have found myself working on a number of short videos or documentary productions (some corporate). So clearly, I’m being drawn back into the film world even while I remain committed to writing. I recently scripted and had oversight of a UWI short film on climate action called “A Matter of Caribbean Survival” and completed youtube videos to exhibit my husband’s artwork. Under the COVID 19 pandemic, the possibilities of him having walk-in exhibitions or us traveling abroad to have access to other galleries is limited, so I am stepping up skills to promote his work through video and keeping my hand in the field.
I do have a script in the making and hope to finish it one day and see if I can interest anyone in funding it. It is based on my reading of passages of Trinidadian history, much of which has not found its way into a feature film. But more immediately, I am currently writing a biography of Janet Jagan of Guyana. The story of a beautiful US Jewish woman who migrates from the United States to join her new husband Cheddi Jagan in 1943 in the then British Guiana and spends her life selflessly committed to a nation that she adopted as her own is an unusual one for this region. In 2012, Janet was named by the New York Times as one of the 12 most radical women in world history. I think her story deserves to be told, not as a documentary but as a feature film – it has all the elements of a good feature including romance, intrigue, imprisonment, and tragedies – I can see it in black and white, set in the Caribbean, with characters in the 40s looking like something out of “Casablanca”.