Academic, author, historian and filmmaker, Dr. Kim Johnson, discusses his recent Studio Anansi Tv releases, March of the Mokos and Firewalkers of Kali, two films exploring aspects of Trinidad & Tobago’s rich culture through the people and traditions which helped create it.
Watch March of the Mokos and Firewalkers of Kali now and check out our talk below:
caribbeanfilm: In your own words, tell us what the films are about and why you chose to tell these stories.
kj: The Firewalkers of Kali is about the ritual practiced by Hindu devotees of Kali, in which they walk barefoot on a bed of hot coals without getting burnt. In telling that story the documentary situates Kali worship historically, how it came to Trinidad; and places it within the Hindu scheme of beliefs. I had long heard about the “Firepass” ritual and once I saw how spectacular it was I felt compelled to show it to other people. Also, I felt there have not been any documentaries which gave Indo-Trinidadian history and culture the respect it deserved, and Kali is the first of a series documentaries I plan to make. The documentary of Glen “Dragon” De Souza is a classic “one man against the odds” story, about how, without financial resources, De Souza revived an old, extinct Carnival practice – stilt dancing – and single-handedly turned into an art, a form of social intervention, and an enjoyable pastime that spread throughout Trinidad and has taken root in the USA and UK. Any filmmaker who meets Dragon and witnesses the surrealistic beauty of Trinidad’s moko jumbies, must feel an urge to document the life of this charismatic, irascible, talented visionary.
caribbeanfilm: Did the films turn out the way you envisioned? If yes, in what ways. If no, why not?
kj: Only in a very general sense did Kali and Mokos turn out how I envisioned them. That is, the first showcased a hardly-known but eye-opening ritual, and the second told the story of how stilt-dancing was revived in Trinidad with such success. On the other hand, neither turned out how I envisioned it, for the simple reason that filmmaking involves, for me, a process of exploration and discovery, and as such the end result can never be foretold. I had no idea how the single event of a firepass ceremony could be turned into a narrative, without following the story of a devotee – and that I did not have.
March of the Mokos was what we intended it to be, so that was foretold, but how it did so, the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, that we did not anticipate. This documentary, for myself and my editor, Orlando Dinchong, was such a tremendous learning experience in visual (and aural) story-telling, that there is no way we could have envisaged what we were going to produce.
kj: Kali was a difficult story to tell, because it did not really have a protagonist. The participants we approached were unwilling to discuss their participation in the firepass ceremony, so the documentary had to be about the event. Mokos was simple, we chose to tell one man’s story, and those of the many people touched by his vision. The challenge was to tell their different stories so they became threads in a single narrative.
caribbeanfilm: What was the most challenging aspect of making the films and why was that so?
kj: Documentary filmmaking, for me, always involves some historical explanation; and therein lies one of my ongoing challenges – how to get historical images to give my stories the necessary depth. In Mokos we were assisted by other filmmakers who filmed Dragon years ago. For Kali we relied on historical photos and drawings. The other challenge comes from out very very tight budget – non-existent really. As such we are challenged by acquiring licensed music, which is necessary to produce a high-quality film. In both cases we combined free music from various online sites, with music donated to us by Trinidadian composers.
kj: Kali worship in Trinidad – and in much of the Western world – is demonized, like Haiti’s Voodoo, and feared. In Firewalkers I wanted to show one of its ecstatic practices while bringing respect and understanding to its practitioners. In Mokos I wanted to show the achievement of Dragon De Souza, a man who consider quite a hero to the extent that I nominated him (unsuccessfully) for a national award.
caribbeanfilm: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a filmmaker.
kj: I stumbled into filmmaking. I curated an exhibition of old photos, and I thought they needed a short film to give them motion and backstory. That 10-minute film, comprising archival material only, was successful enough that people suggested I try a feature-length version. So I did, and found that I enjoyed it.
caribbeanfilm: If you were to pick an aspect of filmmaking – producing, writing, directing, cinematography, editing – which would be your favorite? why is that? – which do you dislike the most? and why is that?
kj: I was a journalist and by extension a storyteller. Venturing into filmmaking only meant changing the media: instead of words, images and sounds. Consequently, the aspects I am drawn to are writing, directing, sound design and editing, in that order of preference, because they are at the heart of telling the story. I am too lazy to learn to minutiae of cinematography. As for producing, I have no administrative interests and tend to be disorganized. Production design is too far from my skillset and costume likewise.
caribbeanfilm: Currently, there is a sort of awakening in the Caribbean to filmmaking as a form of artistic expression … you are a part of this “new wave”… can you share with us your thoughts on what is currently happening and where you see this energy leading filmmakers? Is there much of a difference between what’s happening in the French Caribbean as opposed to the English and Spanish Caribbean?
kj: Globally, filmmaking has changed and continues to change, under the impact of digital technology, which has made production accessible to everyone, and other platforms, such as the internet, which has made distribution accessible. Millions of flowers are blooming everywhere, and the Caribbean is part of that. Here we must include the full spectrum of filmmakers, including, for instance, the kids who make humorous videos with their phones. So I’m not really part of the “new wave” but rather a storyteller from the old wave who might have some things to show the young kids, who are really “first wave” explorer and are now discovering their voices. The Hispanic Caribbean is very different: they have old, established traditions of filmmaking. I don’t know much about the French and Dutch Caribbean.
caribbeanfilm: Do you think there is a “Caribbean film aesthetic” being created as more and more films are being made? If so, can you describe what you’re seeing as that aesthetic?
kj: There is no single Caribbean film aesthetic being created, because there’s an established Hispanic (mainly Cuban) aesthetic, a Jamaican aesthetic which is old and being revived, and embryonic ones in the rest of the Anglophone Caribbean. Trinidadians are now groping to an aesthetic, which depends on the society’s foundational myths and the stories that can be shaped from them.
caribbeanfilm: And then some completely random questions: What is your fav film (or 2 or 3) all time? What did you enjoy about it the most?
kj: Of course there are countless films which I love for different reasons, and that includes those of the great modern directors, Chris Nolan, Quentin Tarrantino, Ang Lee, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, etc. Offhand, two films pop into mind: Kurosawa’s “Dreams” and Linklater’s “Before Sunset”, and I love them for opposite reasons. “Dreams”, which is a series of shorts, is purely visual storytelling, you don’t even have to understand Japanese to appreciate their beauty. “Before Sunset” is simple, spare, two people talking in almost real time, yet it has all the drama and reversals and conflict a sexual relationship can have: I especially like it because it’s a simple love story, which are almost non-existent in Anglophone Caribbean mythos.
caribbeanfilm: What is your fav Caribbean film? What did you enjoy about it the most?
kj: The Lunatic, written by Anthony Winkler, directed by Lol Crème. I’m attracted to the idea of the fool as the true critic of modern society, but also it was a beautiful story that showed the race and slass relationships, told with humour. That is in competition with my own “PAN! Our Music Odyssey”, which I think is a great movie and, after all, the best movie is the one you make yourself.
caribbeanfilm: Is there a particular director’s work you admire? If so, who is that and what is it about their work you admire?
kj: So many, so many. Hitchcock for suspense, Tarrantino for dialogue and pacing, Nolan, Ang Lee, Almadovar, Cuaron, del Toro, Coppola, Errol Morris, Adam Curtis, Woody Allen: the list could go for pages. I learn from all of them.
caribbeanfilm: What’s next for you? Anything coming up you’re excited about and want to share?
kj: I’m working on several documentary shorts, on the 1884 Hosay Massacre in Trinidad and on the Hindu Ramleela passion play; and one feature-length drama on kids in YTC, the young offenders prison.
Kim Johnson is currently the Director of the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago. His films, which were all screened at the TT Film Festival are The Audacity of the Creole Imagination, The Radical Innocence of Jackie Hinkson which he wrote and directed. He also wrote PAN! Our Music Odyssey, Re-Percussions: Our African Odyssey, and Our Soul Turned Inside Out.