“Modern Carnival has not, in my opinion, found a proper space for traditional mas to be properly maintained, nor from my observations is there any real investment for the fraternity to flourish and grown into something of its own. Without an enabling environment it is surprising that dragon mas has survived at all. The documentary Upside Down is an attempt to salvage what is already almost lost.”
This was Neisha Agostini’s motivation behind creating the documentary, Upside Down, which explores the history of dragon mas in Trinidad and Tobago and the influence of Patrick “Chinee” Jones in the early 1900s.
The film features interviews with veteran masmaker Winston Daniel.
Jones, along with Skeedo Phillip, created the first dragon band in 1906. Agostini said they researched the subject using classical works such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. There were many references to draw on, the importance of the dragon in the mythology of the small number of urban Chinese immigrants, along with the increasing presence of the British and stories of St George and the Dragon. Dragon mas enjoyed popularity until the 1950s.
Agostini said traditional mas is the genesis of Trinidad Carnival as street theatre.
“The jab molassie is considered to be the first traditional mas created outside of the European great houses, embodying the satire prevalent in all traditional characters that followed.
“Post-emancipation, the creolisation of Carnival continued to create a subversive mas that used role reversal, satire and parody to mimic the ruling elite. Sinister characters of the dragon mas band, including Bookman, Satan, Gentleman Jim, Lucifer were characters developed along with other traditional mas characters such as the dame Lorraine, baby doll and midnight robber.
"Through oppression and poverty came such overwhelming creative inspiration that it quite literally put Trinidad Carnival on the map, making it the mother of all Caribbean carnivals.”
Agostini said many people have called for Carnival to evolve, but there was a need to remember where it came from.
“Some people may say that if it does not evolve, then let it be, and this can possibly be true for many things.
"But I see a need to preserve the cultural fabric that created Carnival as we know it today. With proper investment in traditional mas, interest will be generated to allow not only dragon mas but all traditional Carnival characters to evolve and find their own niche and audience.”
Educated at Boston University and Goldsmiths College, Agostini has a BA in TV and film production and an MA in documentary filmmaking.
She has produced and directed five independent short films analysing multicultural patterns in TT society, exploring its diversity and what it is to be Caribbean.
The film will be aired twice at the TT Film Festival, first at MovieTowne, Port of Spain, on Sunday at 3 pm, and then on Tuesday at the Nalis AV Room, Port of Spain, at 1 pm.