What’s it like to have a father whose literary reputation spans the region? And what’s it like to lose him?
Unfinished Sentences, the new documentary feature film by Mariel Brown, is about her relationship with her father, Wayne Brown. The celebrated Trinidadian poet, journalist and writing teacher died in 2009, only a year after Brown reconciled with him after a bitter conflict.
Unfinished Sentences makes its TT debut at the Central Bank Auditorium on April 26 as part of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. She and three of his most notable proteges, Kei Miller, Keith Jardim and Sharon Millar, will gather to speak on Wayne Brown’s legacy at another Bocas event on April 27 at the National Library.
“I wanted to find a way to celebrate daddy’s writing and pull a literary audience, because this film is so literary,” said Brown, an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose previous works include The Insatiable Season (2007), The Solitary Alchemist (2010) and Inward Hunger: The Story of Eric Williams (2011)—all awarded at the ttff. All her features have premiered there except Inward Hunger.
In a voice interview over social media last week she praised the ttff, and said she hopes to screen Unfinished Sentences there this year. The film premiered at the International Film Festival (IFF) Panama on April 9; she decided on holding its TT premiere at Bocas because it allowed the opportunity for “a special event about daddy and his teaching and his writing”.
Wayne Brown’s reputation was formidable. Born in 1944 to a prominent family — his grandfather, Vincent, was the attorney general — Wayne won a Commonwealth Prize for Poetry for his first collection On the Coast (Andre Deutsch, 1973; reprinted by Peepal Tree Press, 2011). Among other books he subsequently published a second collection of poems, Voyages (Inprint Caribbean, 1989). He wrote prose, and penned the long-running column In Our Time, which appeared in Jamaican, TT and Guyanese papers. Among his many honours were a Yaddo fellowship and a Fulbright scholarship. After moving to Jamaica in 1997 he edited the literary section of the Jamaica Observer, publishing a new generation of Caribbean poets and fiction writers, including 2015 Forward Prize winner Kei Miller and OCM Bocas Prize for Poetry winner Safyia St Clair.
Brown ran writing workshops, begun in Trinidad in the 1990s and continued over the next two decades, interacting online with writers living in other parts of the Caribbean. Brown mentored writers such as Amanda Smyth, Keith Jardim and Commonwealth Prize winner Sharon Millar.
The split between Brown and her father emerged in his later life.
As the Unfinished Sentences press kit says, “When Mariel chooses a creative career, she begins shaking the foundations of her father’s pedestal – questioning him: why he hasn’t written and published more; or why in over 30 years, has he not finished a single major book? Has he been his own saboteur?”
The film “is the story of a father-daughter relationship, by looking at his life and looking at my life and trying to see how and where and why things between us grew to become so tumultuous and complicated,” Brown told Sunday Newsday. “It’s a Trinidadian story. There’s no escaping the fact that he grew up in the colonial period, that he came from a family in which he was by far the darkest member and what that meant to him as a boy and as a man as he became himself. The race side of it is a big part of it, but only a part of the story. It is about how the choices we make affect the trajectories of our lives and the people in our lives.”
He died leaving only one video recording and one audio recording she could find. “I use daddy’s poetry and prose and letters and the memories of his friends and our family to speak for him. I found a way to have him very present in the film.”
Using actors to recreate family scenes, she filmed them on Super 8, the 1960s-era home movie format. Re-enactments can be “dicey and tacky” but the risk paid off, she said. “When you see the Super 8 footage you suspend disbelief. There’s something about the graininess; there’s a lot less control; that gives a sense of authenticity to the footage and you don’t doubt for a second that this is real. (UWI Professor Emeritus and poet) Eddie Baugh, who’s known daddy his entire life, asked, ‘Where did you find that footage of Wayne?” Brown recalled.
“Renaldo Frederick looks so much like daddy when he was a young man, it was uncanny.”
Frederick played Wayne; Sophie Wight played Megan Hopkyn-Rees, Brown’s mother. Che and Alessandra Jardine, who are cousins in real life, played Brown and her sister Saffrey.
“This was the first time I was really directing actors and it could have gone completely wrong but it worked. I think the film needs those kinds of visuals, the memories and the ephemeral feel of the footage,” Brown said.
Brown began working on the film in 2010, originally as a biography of her father. She developed the script with Fernanda Rossi, a script editor from the US whom she met at a ttff RBC Focus Immersion filmmaking workshop. Rossi provided objectivity, Brown said. “One of the things I worked very hard to avoid is for the film to become an indulgence. I have seen many films by children who have famous or quasi-famous parents and what happens in many of their films is a listing of their parent’s successes. There isn’t a grappling with the entirety of the parent as a person. My father was a complicated man and I’m a complicated woman. To not be honest about the journey a person takes in their life — good, bad, indifferent, difficult, painful, joyous — is to somehow minimize that person and I don’t think that’s right.”
After her father’s death, Brown experienced depression and “deep, profound, crippling anxiety”, which she depicts in the film. “That was scary (but at the Panama screenings) people connected with that and were grateful that I had articulated something they had experienced themselves,” she said.
“Daddy lived his life as a writer. Unapologetically,” Brown said, noting most writers make little money. “If you’re a writer in the Caribbean it’s the hardest thing to do. I think events like the NGC Bocas Lit Fest are transforming the literary scene in the Caribbean. It has made it possible to even consider living as a writer. The ttff has also had a transformative effect. These kinds of events are so crucial.”
* Tickets for the April 26 screening are on sale at Paper Based bookshop at the Normandie, St Ann’s, The Frame Shop, Woodbrook. The screening begins at 7.15 pm following a 6.30 pm cocktail reception. Call 222-0913 for tickets or information.