Films introduce us to subjects, stories and places that we might not otherwise experience in our every day lives. Films enable us to try on different cultures and ideologies and compare them with our own surroundings and beliefs. Today’s guest blogger, filmmaker Vashti Anderson, writes about her passion to tell a Trinidadian story, though she grew up in Wisconsin and how she relates to P.T. Anderson though she initially had no interest in his “turn of the century American rural rough life aesthetic,” film There Will Be Blood.
I’m a Midwestern girl who grew up with a love of calypso. It’s really my mother’s fault, because she took us to her childhood home in Trinidad every year, where we would eat fresh mangoes off the tree and sleep under mosquito nets. We would come back with all the latest calypso songs, and she played them, with the fireplace roaring, on snowy winter nights. My sister would teach us the latest dances, and my mother’s raucous laugh would echo through the house as we figured out the lyrics. This constant flux of lush and barren led me to dance, then to writing, then to art, then to film. It also led me to to India, the land that my great grandparents left, crossing the kalapani to cut cane on Trinidadian plantations as indentured servants.
Anderson and Michael Toney on the set of Jeffrey’s Calypso
At NYU, where I developed my voice as a filmmaker, I realized that I always wanted to shoot a film in Trinidad. Inspired by my family and the people I knew there, I went to my grandmother’s house to shoot Jeffrey’s Calypso. At the time, there was very little infrastructure or support for filmmakers in Trinidad. While this was a fun challenge that yielded unique aesthetic results, I’m happy to see that interest is increasing. As evidenced by the impact of the work of Jonathan Ali and the trinidad+tobago film festival this year, there is a demand for Caribbean stories. The story I wrote is about a young man who is trapped in a life that he didn’t choose. In order to break free, he has to defy race and class boundaries and win a girl’s heart. I wanted to explore the post-colonial race and class dynamic in Trinidad and consider how those themes could affect something as core-basic as a love story. Whether it be between father and son, mother and daughter, friends, etc., and whatever the genre or subject matter, I think that’s what everything comes down to – a love story.
Princess Donelan and Dino Maharaj in Jeffrey’s Calypso
However odd or complex the love story is, I think that this is essentially true across P.T. Anderson’s work. When I first saw There Will Be Blood, it was hard for me to connect to; although P.T. Anderson always chooses difficult characters, Daniel Plainview was a particularly tough one, and the turn of the century American rural rough life aesthetic isn’t exactly one that appeals to me. But, I watched the film again. Things started to click; I got the dark, almost covert humor, and I started to understand the character. I was with Daniel in the story, and when he reached his horrific ruin, I felt sad. The masterful score became visceral. The themes of alienation and greed went from the intellectual to becoming part of my experience. I realized the value of the risks that P.T. Anderson was willing to take in this film and those he had taken in his previous films. And, only after watching The Master and understanding that at its core it’s a love story between Freddie and Lancaster did I come to think of There Will Be Blood as a poetic and brutal love story between Daniel and Paul. I hadn’t experienced any of his films in this way before. It’s exciting to me to see the films interact with each other. Even though the themes may cross over, the experience is always different, always elevated. He’s not afraid to experiment. He’s constantly challenging himself and getting better with each film. He does his work. He pushes himself.
A few months ago, I was crawling out of my skin between film projects, and I forced myself to keep writing, regardless of the outcome. By doing this, I somehow got to the point where I could look back at previous scripts I wrote and say, okay, that scene is not working or that character is not developed enough, or I’m being too didactic and not visual enough. I gained the perspective I needed to start revising. The result with the current script was that I started to write better scenes. Things started to feel natural, and all of a sudden writing was fun again.
This summer marked the end of an era for my family. My grandmother, at whose home my entire family gathered for generations, passed away. So I went back in time a bit, to the places where my fondest memories reside. They collected in my field of vision and expanded. I extrapolated, and then I wrote outright fiction. Out came White Cousins, a story about a Midwestern teenager who goes to visit her family in Trinidad. Although she strongly identifies with the culture, her cousins see her as a tourist, a vacationer, an invader. Secrets about her big family are revealed, she falls in love, and there’s lots of calypso music. This fiction is grounded in the reality of my perspective. I believe in fiction film, not only as a means to tell a story, but also as a way to preserve a point of view
Vashti Anderson is a filmmaker whose experiences living in the U.S., Trinidad, England, and India have had a profound impact on her work. As a result, she has developed a passion for telling stories that examine the complex and ever-changing themes of cultural identity. She holds an MFA in Film from New York University and has won grants, recognition and awards at national and international film festivals.
Jeffrey’s Calypso photo credits: Justin Francis