‘The most magical thing’: Karen Martinez on Film and Filmmaking

By Dr. Leanne Haynes Tuesday, November 26th, 2013 Categories: Artistic Horizons, Features, Updates

Karen Martinez, originally from Trinidad, has produced and directed several documentaries for TV, including “Kaiso for July 27” and “Chutney in yuh Soca,” and recently made her first drama “After Mas” set in Port-of-Spain.

Leanne Haynes: Can you give ARC readers a brief insight into your career path and how you came to work in film?

Karen Martinez: I came to film through photography. The first year of my degree was split 50/50 film and photography – I had never had anything to do with film before, apart from playing around with my parents’ Super 8 camera as a teenager and filming the dogs, so when I wrote, directed, shot (on a 16mm Bolex) and cut (and I mean literally cut film stock, hung it in bins and stuck it together with tape) my first one minute film in a basement in central London, I was blown away! I thought filmmaking was the most magical thing and I applied to change the next two years of my degree to filmmaking.

So after leaving film school and working as a camera operator in the UK, I came back to Trinidad and worked for three years at Banyan Productions. I directed what was then an exciting and innovative cultural magazine series called Gayelle. This was a fantastic opportunity: apart from giving me huge insight into the breadth and complexity of the society as we travelled around Trinidad, and to a lesser extent Tobago, I also learned to work as a team member and to produce a weekly programme to very tight deadlines; and crucially, I was given a lot of freedom to come up with ideas for the programme as well as the freedom to experiment stylistically. I really thrived in that lively supportive environment; I worked with some great people – Christopher Laird, Bruce Paddington, Tony Hall, Errol Fabian, Errol Sitahal, Denis Hall (Sprangalang) and Georgia Popplewell. Those three years at Banyan definitely helped shape me as a filmmaker.

Curtis (Khafra Rudder) as a Blue Devil at J'ouvert.Picture credit Johnny Mora

Curtis (Khafra Rudder) as a Blue Devil at J’ouvert.
Picture credit Johnny Mora

LH: You founded Riposte Pictures with co-founder Andy Lambert. When did you found the London based production company and what were your motivations for doing so?

KM: Andy Lambert and I met at film school, where we were both politically active. We helped found the college film society and worked on each other’s productions. Many years later, despite taking different paths in the industry, we still support each other’s work. Our company, Riposte Pictures, reflects our love of film and our ongoing commitment to working together.

LH: How are things moving along with Riposte Pictures? I read that you recently gained another grant from the Trinidad & Tobago Film Company.

KM: Yes, I recently got a production grant from the Trinidad & Tobago Film Company to make a full length documentary called Dreams In Transit – here’s the blurb:

“Dreams in Transit is a lyrical, essay-style film about a migrant’s relationship to the place they call ‘home’, set in London and Trinidad & Tobago. It asks how migrants define themselves, how they form an identity, what are their dreams, and what does ‘home’ mean to them particularly in an age of Skype and cheap flights?

In Dreams in Transit we follow a Trinidadian based in London, the actress Martina Laird, as she travels back to her island home in search of an object that has been lost. Through her we journey into the psyche of the modern migrant and discover how memory and a sense of place help construct identity for the contemporary trans-global citizens and cultural nomad.

The modern migrant inhabits a hybrid space and the film will reflect this condition in its structure as a multi-layered, poetic cine-essay, mixing interviews, archive and actuality with dreamlike ‘fictional’ sequences, with the accompaniment of a lyrical narration and an emotive musical score.”

Abi (Carly Coutts) as a Red Devil at J'ouvert.Picture credit Johnny Mora

Abi (Carly Coutts) as a Red Devil at J’ouvert.
Picture credit Johnny Mora

LH: You have had funding from both UK and Caribbean companies. How difficult is it to gain that kind of support and have funding issues hindered or impacted your scope for projects in the past?

KM: It’s only recently that I’ve come back to making my own films, having spent years doing a variety of things – location manager for film and TV, 1st assistant director on commercials, and helping set up and run an arts organisation.  But I would say that as a small, independent documentary filmmaker trying to get TV commissions for self generated ideas, well that’s quite hard. It can sometimes be easier to get work as a producer or jobbing director for a big production company who makes programmes for TV – I’m talking about the UK here. Also, trying to pitch ideas with a Caribbean angle for UK TV has become tougher. Commissioners will tell you that the audience figures for anything that doesn’t have a strong UK slant are too small.

Because I am a Trinidadian filmmaker living in London, UK, I guess it makes it easier for me to source funds from both countries and this is what I’m tapping into at the moment. The biggest advantage has been that the Trinidad & Tobago Film Company is such an active body at the moment. They have been instrumental in supporting independent filmmakers and therefore generating lots of original film and TV ideas. The funding may not be massive but the support of the film company makes it much easier to get co-production commitments from elsewhere.  This was how it worked for me with my short narrative fiction film, After Mas, with initial interest from TTFC I was able to fully secure funding in the UK from The Print Room. I hope that model continues to work!

LH: Are there enough opportunities for emerging filmmakers?

KM: In Trinidad & Tobago there is the national film company who funds both established and emerging filmmakers, and in the UK there are a number of small schemes, but are there enough? No, probably not.  Various schemes help stimulate the industry and foster talent but independent filmmaking is not an easy way to make a living.

I think opportunities in TV in T&T have changed since I was working there full-time, so, regarding what’s possible in Trinidad now, I’m not sure.

LH: What role do film festivals play in your line of work? I’m thinking of the T & T Film Festivals, which is making BIG waves in the region and further afield.

KM: Film festivals can be a fantastic opportunity to get your work seen by a wide and diverse audience; a way of building an audience for any future work; and a place to network and make connections with other filmmakers and industry professionals. If your film succeeds on the festival circuit it probably makes it easier to get funding for other projects.

The T&T film festival is great for the region and for Caribbean diaspora filmmakers. It has worked well alongside the TTFC to open up opportunities and dialogue for filmmakers locally and internationally and it has certainly created a buzz. Compared to years ago when I was working in Trinidad and there wasn’t a film festival I would say there are a lot more young people happy to call themselves ‘filmmakers’. Of course that’s also possible because at one level it is a lot easier to make films now due to the relatively low cost and availability of film equipment, as well as a thriving film course at the university that’s turning out some keen young filmmakers – two of whom worked on my short drama and whom I was very impressed with.

It seems that more of a film culture exists in Trinidad now. There is the language to talk about the diversity of film practice and analyse films. The film festival has been an intrinsic part of that expanding consciousness, alongside things like the Studio Film Club that has made it possible to see and discuss a variety of films throughout the year that you wouldn’t get to see at the multiplex (Movietowne). Also the Film Festival hosts community screenings, where they take a selection of films from the festival around the country giving access to people beyond the metropolis of Port-of-Spain.

The other way that festivals, including ttff, are of benefit to filmmakers is through the workshops they facilitate. So every year, for example, ttff hosts a ‘filmmakers’ immersion’ where ten Caribbean and diaspora filmmakers are selected to develop and pitch a feature film idea under the guidance of an invited ‘expert’.  I was fortunate enough to be selected this year for the workshop with the NY based Argentinian filmmaker, Julia Solomonoff. For me having just made my first narrative film, After Mas (that premiered at the festival and won an award for best local short) this was a fantastic learning experience. And I got to meet, exchange ideas and get feedback from nine other exciting filmmakers. It is actually because of this workshop that I am in the midst of writing my first feature script… which is the project I want to make after Dreams in Transit.

Karen Martinez directing on the set of 'After Mas'

Karen Martinez directing on the set of ‘After Mas’. Picture credit: Maria Nunes.

LH: In your interview ‘The Enigma of Identity’ you state: “When I think of ideas I tend to think much more of things that have to do with the Caribbean…that’s where I’m constantly drawn back to—Trinidad. That’s my strength. That’s my identity.” How does identity inform your work? I am specifically thinking of your recent short drama ‘After Mas’.

KM: As someone with a connection to both the UK and Trinidad & Tobago, who travels often between the two places, who has parents in one place and children in another, identity, how we describe ourselves, how others see us, is an unending fascination for me. My next project, an essay-style documentary titled ‘Dreams in Transit’, is about precisely this; the question of place and identity for the contemporary migrant.

In relation to ‘After Mas’, which is a love story, set in Trinidad, between two young people from very different backgrounds, I wanted to look at how race and class in the Caribbean (well certainly in Trinidad) still manage to keep people apart despite the tourist board claims to the contrary. Maybe this isn’t the case if you’re part of the arty scene but I think that outside this liberal group societal demarcation and conformity is still prevalent.  I wanted to highlight this issue, bring it to the fore and put it up for discussion rather than keep it hidden under the gloss of ‘all ah we is one’.

As well, coming from the Caribbean with its traditions of carnival and street performance, I liked the idea of using masking and disguise and its liberating effect; the way masking allows us to play with our identity and perform an aspect of ourselves that we may keep under wraps in the light of day. For that one night of J’ouvert we can step outside ourselves or outside what our group expects of us and really play mas.

Here is part of my Director’s Statement for ‘After Mas’:

“…It draws on themes of identity, desire and conformity, all issues that are close to my heart as a filmmaker who comes from the small multi-racial Caribbean island of Trinidad.

I wanted to explore a love story that is very real for Trinidad & Tobago but could be equally relevant to other societies.  What happens when people drawn together in a leveling experience like Carnival (or J’ouvert in particular), where they are ‘blind’ to their differences, meet outside of that situation? Will they buckle to peer pressure and stay within their boxes, or be brave enough to chase their dreams regardless?

The film roughly splits into two parts:

In the first half, the story is enacted by the non-professional cast in the midst of the real festival of J’ouvert that heralds the dawn of Carnival.   Thousands of revelers dance on the streets covered in mud and paint, disguised as devils and other traditional characters – this is the wild and dirty part of carnival where people shake off societal constraints and give over to elemental passion. By shooting my drama within this event, I was able to capture the raw, spontaneous energy of the night.

The second section is more controlled and reflective as the two protagonists return to their daily lives with the resonance of their moment of passion lingering in their memories.

I was interested in telling this story using a strong visual approach without relying too heavily on dialogue.  I’ve tried to place the story within the context of the Trinidadian psyche, creating a rich impressionistic texture that weaves itself throughout the film, acting as an additional ‘commentary’ to the events.”

LH: What particular hurdles have you had to face with regards to identity?  i.e. a Trinidadian woman living in the UK

KM: I would say being a Trinidadian woman living in the UK has been an asset on balance. In terms of identity issues, I like the fact that I’m different and I have something to add to the mix. And now my British-Trinidadian children are really embracing their Trinidadian roots and love the richness this brings to their lives.

I suppose being part of the liberal film/media world has meant there are fewer issues to deal with. But, like I said, it’s been difficult getting Caribbean themed ideas off the ground in the UK. As a woman in film I guess I faced similar issues to other women in film (many fewer women directors, a preference for younger directors) and especially bringing up two children and trying to work was tough. But as a Trinidadian woman I did not face the same issues that a black Trinidadian man or woman would have faced. In fact the funny thing that has happened to me on a number of occasions is that people (usually not very enlightened strangers) hear me talk with a Trinidadian accent and ask “how come you’re not black…you sound black”…and then I have to give them a potted history lesson.

Poster for 'After Mas'

Poster for ‘After Mas’

LH: What is the creative process like for you?

KM: Where to begin…it depends on the project and what the film is for – when I made the film for the Marginal Voices theatre project for trafficked women I couldn’t reveal their identities for safety reasons so I had to work within those parameters. For the short I made with the poet Vahni Capildeo, because of the nature of her work I felt freer to experiment and that film has a slightly more fractured feel.

What I can say is for me a lot of the film takes shape in the edit. I love strong visuals and layered sound design, I don’t want to be didactic, I feel comfortable trusting my instincts and at the moment I’m loving working on my feature script and getting to know the characters.

LH: I want to talk more about your new film ‘After Mas’, which won the award for Best Local Short at the T & T Film Festival.  What drove you to create this film?

KM: How I came to this film was almost by chance – In 2012 there was a call for short film ideas and collaborations between writers and directors so I approached my Trinidadian friend Georgia Popplewell (MD of Global Voices) who I think is a wonderful writer, and suggested we collaborate as we had worked together very well in the past. In the end Georgia had some pressing deadlines and couldn’t do it so I thought, what have I got to lose, I’ll write it myself. Well my script didn’t get selected for that particular scheme but when TTFC put out a call for short narrative fiction I had a script in my back pocket and voila! After Mas! Very fortuitous. So I have my friend’s busy schedule to thank for giving me the courage to branch out. And now I just want to keep writing!

LH: One thing I really thought worked so effectively was your opening sequence where you switch between the ants and the snake. With extreme close-ups. Is this kind of focus new to you? What was your intention for that opening sequence?

KM: I like using a montage of images to create meaning or add to the meaning, to give a sense of layering. Having a background in documentaries meant I was comfortable mixing documentary-like techniques with fiction. So I conceived of the opening montage as a way of setting up the Trinidadian psyche or exploring the forces that the story was set against. I’m happy for people to interpret the images and their juxtaposition how they wish but the general idea is to contrast desire and conformity. The snake, for example, is about desire and temptation, perhaps the serpent in the garden of Eden, set against the control exercised by the church and school. The ants we filmed by chance while shooting sunrise on top Paramin hill on the north Coast but I used those shots because I thought they worked in a number of ways – conformity of the masses, maybe doing things without thinking but also in conjunction with the snake and the musical drone it gave an unsettling feeling, the threat of nature and desire.

Filming J'ouvert reconstruction for 'After Mas'

Filming J’ouvert reconstruction for ‘After Mas’. Picture credit: Maria Nunes

LH: What part of the process did you think worked particularly well?

KM: What really worked was that the two leads Carly Coutts and Khafra Rudder were completely up for it, they never complained and stayed in character in the midst of the mayhem around them. Also I had to wonderful cameramen in Miquel Galofre and Johnny Mora who had masses of documentary filming experience between them and had both previously filmed during J’ouvert. We came out of that night feeling exhausted but on a high.

LH: Finally, did you experience any difficulties when filming ‘After Mas’?

KM: The biggest difficulty was filming the drama sequence with the cast during the real J’ouvert with a band of over a thousand revelers on the streets of Port-of-Spain, liberal alcohol consumption, a mega sound system that meant we couldn’t communicate over our walkie talkies and the fact that I wanted to shoot everything at night so we had just over an hour and a half to shoot the whole of that scene before dawn broke. We were seriously fighting against time and it was the very first day any of us had worked together. It’s a miracle we got it done! It felt insane but magical and electric at the same time and we got some beautiful footage.

‘After Mas’ has been selected for the London Short Film Festival, which will take place from 10-19 January 2014.

Dr. Leanne Haynes
Dr. Leanne Haynes

Leanne Haynes has recently finished a PhD at the University of Essex, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her thesis focused on St. Lucian literature and mapped out the island’s rich literary landscape. She also completed her MA (Postcolonial Studies) and BA (Literature) at the University of Essex. Haynes has presented material at conferences in the UK and Europe. She is a keen creative writer and amateur photographer, with publications in the UK and US.