Dalton Narine, writer, filmmaker and Vietnam War veteran is a Trinbagonian cultural ambassador who had a first-rate childhood. While one may not link growing up dirt-poor in what he calls “the badjohn era of steelpan” as such, it was that very environment that fuelled his artistic adventures. David Rudder now sings longingly about that era when brilliance arose from the grimy streets and harsh hillsides in places like Belmont and Laventille. It was a time when the class system was clearly defined, and though the majority of residents fell at or below the poverty line the souls of many overflowed with a wealth of creative energy. Some of that energy was manifested as violence, but, for the most part, it articulated creative expression. Dalton recalls growing up in Gonzales, when music, art and culture were basically all he had to subsist on.
“My father so wanted his three children to turn out to be good people he begged a piano to teacher to give us lessons on the cheap. It’s funny because we barely had money for food, yet the piano nourished my mind and soul and led to pan.”
Today, the gruesome headlines about Laventille and places like Gonzales makes Dalton’s experiences seem like an idealistic Billy Elliot-style fantasy. But he is living proof that our culture, music and art could help one transcend barriers of class, race and nationality. He became a decorated U.S veteran, and was a respected writer for The Village Voice, Esquire and Ebony, where he served as associate editor. But he's always had a toehold in Trinidad, and continues to write feature stories for The Guardian. He is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker. His transition from print to filmmaking was seamless perhaps because it was destiny.
“I am a filmmaker because I am a writer who likes to add pictures to prose. If it sounds voyeuristic then it is. It’s my art. Not my subject’s art. When I was about 12, my friends and I used to go down to the old Pyramid theatre and they always used to laugh at me because, after the movie, I would still sit and watch the credits and I would tell them, ‘One day my name going to be up there!’ And you know, to this day, I don’t ever walk out of a movie until the credits finish rolling,”
Currently, his favorite subject for artistic voyeurism is undoubtedly Peter Minshall. Mas Man is his latest exploration of his intrigue with this Emmy and Trinity Cross award-winning carnival artist. After his successful and celebrated Minshall Triology, Dalton realized there was more to be told, and he is hoping not just Trinibagonians but the world will appreciate the genius of Minshall.
“He's enigmatic and enthralling, an artist who is driven to be the best at his craft, which is to design events that dance and tell stories that may not reach you literally, but, like all art, communicate within the purview of your sense of reasoning, sometimes even beyond the scope of observation. What amazes is how he channels your vision and mental processes so that you get it. You must get it. It's all subliminal, particularly in the detail of the mas, how he can provoke response.”
He recalls how during research for the filming of the Triology, Minshall “…became something of an apparition,” when the mas man tried to convey the scope and sentiment of his art by re-enacting the entire concept himself with naught but a candle in the kitchen for dramatic lighting effect. That was when Dalton discovered that it was best not to try to shape the man into the film but let the film be shaped by the man. Dalton knew he wanted to capture more moments like this within a more organic and free-flowing structure for another project. Mas Man would be that vehicle.
“I decided this time around there would be no narrator. Instead, what we would do is to interview as many as 32 people and edit the film so that they all contributed to the narrative. It worked brilliantly, I think. Imagine panning for gold and you come up with diamonds, rubies and rare gems in the editing room. Editing was a dream because you also got to analyze Minshall’s British delivery and intellectual gems, and suddenly he would floor you with a left hook, ripping it with street-corner ole talk. I swear if he weren't a mas man he'd be one fierce dude on the block, regaling limers with stories, all of them newly minted. And he does these mental gymnastics with so much ease. He really embodies Shakespeare’s As You Like It which says, ‘All the world is a stage,’ Well Minshall was both the stage and the entire play during a total of five hours in front of the camera. He's a natural."
Dalton recalls one particular moment at Minshall's home on a Carnival Sunday. “While associate producer/cameraman Benedict Joseph and myself were searching for interior shots, he was seated at a table with a sketch pad, the camera wandering around the room, when he suddenly started ramajaying with his pencil, then breaking the silence with a pithy statement: ‘If there's going to be another band, it would be Paradise Regained, and maybe it would be called (spelling it out) “Rezarrek”. How do you spell 'resurrect?' "
Dalton compares Minshall to “The Joker” in The Dark Knight with a mind full of pyrotechnics but behind the façade has a playful heart and a passion for the country some folks still do not fully appreciate, perhaps because they don't understand his calibre of art and gift of patriotism.
“In the film, a Uruguyan art critic and university professor in New York, breaks down the methodology by acknowledging that art used to be for those that understood and preserved it, not for the community; and Minshall, with his knowledge of class structure, pushed the mas up into this other sphere, making it alive by combining it with tradition -- a major cultural achievement, this tightrope that he walks.”
Even though the film is going through the "sweet pain of the final cut," like all experienced filmmakers (this is his 14th documentary), Dalton is not waiting till completion to tackle the business end of things. He envisions Mas Man as a self-sustaining documentary that will be screened at renowned film festivals around the world and art channels like Ovation for a long time. Although Dalton is a do-it-yourself kind of guy, he is beside himself with gratitude to his team and the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company.
“They played an integral role in the post-production. They were not there at the start and during the four and a half lean years, but they came in the nick of time. Talk about the ‘universe being patient’! I tell you by that time we were battered and bruised and they were like a knight in shining armor. I fully intend to make myself available for their workshop sessions, whatever they need, 'cause you have to give back. That’s what it is all about.”
Indeed, that is a sentiment Peter Minshall also shares, always quoting Federico Garcia Lorca, who once said that water drawn from the well of the people should be given back to them in a cup of beauty.
Dalton recounts when Son of Saga Boy, an ode to survival of the indomitable human spirit in the face of HIV/AIDS, didn't make the Kings Finals in 2006, an admirer said to Minshall, ‘I'm so sorry about your king.' Minshall’s response was, “Damn it! You got it all wrong. It is not MY King, it’s YOUR King. I did it for YOU!”
Whether or not Mas Man is the result of voyeuristic artistry or uninhibited storytelling on Dalton’s part there is no doubt a similar motivation is guiding this intimate portrait. By revealing the man, he has revealed himself to be a patriot and “soul brother in arms” to the man behind the mas.
“In Trinidad and Tobago, we have been looking for a standard-bearer all these years. Well, this is your standard- bearer!” Dalton proclaims.
Trinidad and Tobago Film Company