Written by Ian Harnarine
Sunday November 5, 2023
As Indo-Caribbean people, we are natural storytellers. Most of the time it is informal - when we’re cutting up vegetables, cooking, eating, drinking or just hanging out at family gatherings there is always someone telling a joke or an old time tale. When it is formalized, mostly in books, the results are beautiful. I’m talking about Gaiutra Bahadur, Shani Mootoo, Rajiv Mohabir, David Chariandy, etc… (I’m leaving out V.S. Naipaul, that’s a whole other op-ed!). Then of course there's music, which is a long tradition that continues to evolve, but paradoxically stays the same.
Growing up in Toronto, my parents are from Trinidad, I didn’t see many people that looked like us on screens (big and small) or up on stage in a theatre. There were people in the news: Ian Hanomansing on CBC, and Harold Hosein doing the weather and those gentlemen are true legends, but aside from on the news, I didn’t see them. There was a cool British TV show called Desmond’s, about an Afro-Guyanese family in England which was really groundbreaking.
I studied physics and astronomy at York University and then nuclear physics in Chicago. Unfulfilled with my research, I began questioning why I never saw stories that represented us and I decided that I wanted to tell the stories that mattered to me and that had people that looked like me and my family in them.
I went to New York City, got my MFA from NYU and began making the films I wanted to see. I wrote, produced and directed DOUBLES WITH SLIGHT PEPPER, which was about capturing the feelings I had when caring for my father during his terminal battle with Alzheimer’s disease. The film was as successful as a short film can be out in the world. It won the award at TIFF, the Genie (Canada’s OSCAR), it was broadcast across America on PBS and licensed all over the world. The funny thing is that at any screening I would attend that didn’t have a Caribbean audience, there would be two questions always asked: 1) Where can I get doubles? 2) Where in India did you film?
The fact is, most people in the world have no idea that Indo-Caribbeans exist. I would always use the opportunity to educate them about the history of the Caribbean and yes, that there are Indo-Caribbeans out there. The experience just proved to me that there was more work to do.
I wrote the script for DOUBLES, which is the feature film version of DOUBLES WITH SLIGHT PEPPER in 2012, which took over 10 years to get made. The reason for this, is that I wasn’t willing to compromise on many aspects of the film I had envisioned. I wanted to film in Trinidad - not in Florida playing as Trinidad. I wanted to use Trinidadian actors speaking like Trinidadians do. Casting is a really difficult issue in the film industry because usually, to get money to make a movie it’s based on which actors will be in it.
Unfortunately, the names “Sanjiv Boodhu” and “Errol Sitahal” don’t mean much to people that invest in movies - at least not yet. I tried raising the money from within our community, we all know that there are wealthy Indo-Caribbeans out there, so why not invest in a movie?
I was demoralized and disillusioned when all of our community fundraising efforts were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, there are no examples to point to of a movie like this, starring actors like this making any money. It wasn't a sound investment.
It wasn’t until Mark Sirju, a fellow Indo-Caribbean Canadian came on board as a Producer, that things started to fall into place. Together, we applied for grants and awards and we got them. Telefilm Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council, all gave us money because they supported this Canadian story and saw the value in it. I will always be grateful for them, because without them, this film would not exist.
With those organizations writing cheques, we were off and running. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In the early stages of 2020 and 2021 I couldn’t morally ask people, especially our elderly actors, to work. However, with vaccinations becoming more prevalent and 2022 around the corner we decided to film the movie during the first half of 2022.
One of the great things to happen during this production was meeting so many other Indo-Caribbeans in the film industry that were so happy to work on a project like DOUBLES because it resonated with them personally. We would hear about a Location Scout that was Guyanese, a PA that was Trinidadian - and we worked with them all. They invested their time and skill in this movie and in me. I am still humbled by it all. The same thing happened in post-production, where we worked with people that had a Caribbean connection to do the score and colour. They understood the film in ways that others just could not and it made a perceivable difference.
Every choice: art on the walls, table cloths, food, pots and pans, music, wardrobe, literally everything you see and hear in DOUBLES is designed in a way to be unapologetically Indo-Caribbean. This film was made for us to see, hear and feel ourselves. Of course, the wider non-Indo-Caribbean audience will be able to appreciate the film and I hope they will also have an emotional reaction to it. But, the details are for us.
DOUBLES is a deeply personal tribute to my father, and families like yours and mine, that work hard in foreign countries and go largely unnoticed. I am in a privileged position to be able to share this story about the Indo-Caribbean community of which I’m proud to be a part of. I cannot wait for you to see it.
About the Author
Ian Harnarine is a professor at New York University where he teaches writing and directing for film and television. He studied Physics & Astronomy at York University and High Energy Nuclear Physics at the University of Illinois, before getting his MFA at NYU's Graduate Film School. His films have screened and won awards around the world and DOUBLES his narrative feature debut.