The Brooklyn-based, Canadian filmmaker son to Trinidadian immigrants was in Port Of Spain last month to pitch his drama at the trinidad + tobago film festival’s Caribbean Film Mart.

Harnarine, who holds a masters degree in nuclear physics, talks to Jeremy Kay about his project, prospects for local and regional filmmakers and the invaluable assistance of his old NYU professor Spike Lee.

What are your roots?
I’m Canadian, but both of my parents are Trinidadian immigrants. My father was from a very large family (over 12 siblings), most of whom now live in Canada. Most of my mother’s side of the family moved to Canada too so, although I grew up in Toronto, my childhood was steeped in Trinidadian culture. We were always going to Trinidad or family was coming to visit, and Toronto has a sizable West Indian population. There’s no shortage of newspapers, restaurants, grocery stores and music venues to keep connected to the Caribbean

Tell us about the project you were pitching at the Caribbean Film Mart
My project selected for the Caribbean Film Mart (CFM) [was] titled Doubles With Slight Pepper. It’s a coming-of-age drama centred around a young man named Dhani, who sells doubles (Trinidad’s quintessential street food). He is summoned to New York by his estranged father, whom he hasn’t seen for years. Once there Dhani learns that his father’s life is not what he expected and must decide if he will help save his life, despite their strained relationship.

Is this a feature version of your short of the same name? What’s it been like to adapt and broaden the story?
The feature Doubles With Slight Pepper is an adaptation of the short. The process to broaden the story hasn’t been that difficult. My first draft of the short was well over 40 pages long, which just wasn’t practical to shoot. I really worked hard to get that down to a 19-page script (the short is under 16 minutes). So expanding it to a feature was a matter of going back to my original story and really exploring and digging deeper into the characters and themes that couldn’t fit into the short.

What progress have you made so far in terms of script, cast, financing, producing partners?
I’m constantly writing and re-writing and probably will continue right up to shooting! I enjoy that process a lot and get a lot out of it. I think the script is in great shape and was recently selected as a quarterfinalist for the Nicholl Fellowship put on by the Academy. Our cast is in terrific shape. We’ve been fortunate to secure some gracious people for supporting roles that would be recognisable to Caribbean audiences and the diaspora. The producers are Ryan Silbert (who helped produce the original short) and Leah Thomas. Leah’s come on board and has really taken things to another level. She’s also of Trinidadian heritage so connects to the project personally. We are currently ramping up our financing, which will be a mixture of corporate and private equity partners.

Tell us about the Spike Lee connection to your work
Spike Lee was a professor of mine at NYU. In his class I was able to sign up for office hours, which to me is unbelievably generous. Back when I made the short, Spike read every draft of the script, watched edits, and gave very insightful notes. I was also grateful to receive a grant from the Spike Lee Production Fund, which was instrumental in getting the short made. On top of all that, I had the opportunity to co-write with Spike for another project. That experience was a whole other film school which definitely influenced the way I wrote Doubles With Slight Pepper. [Lee is serving as executive producer on the feature vesion.]

What was your film education?
I did my undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy at York University in Toronto. Then I did a masters degree in nuclear physics at the University of Illinois. I then changed gears and did my MFA at New York University’s Graduate Film School.

Has the CFM been of any use to you?
The CFM has been extremely useful, both in terms of the short term but also long term. For the short term, we are now considering applying to some of the great funds out in the world, which I didn’t think we’d be eligible for (but we are!) But just getting to sit across from and talk to people from those funds, or producers interested in stories from the region, or Sundance and Tribeca, is a massive help. Even if we can’t work together on this particular project, those relationships started at the Film Mart. It’s the possibility of future projects that has me even more excited. I’m now thinking two or three films down the line and how to work with some of the wonderful people I met. Of course, I have to make Doubles With Slight Pepper first though!

What are your thoughts on how the market was organised?
The CFM did a great job of curating people from all facets of the industry; from people that can help with pitching a concept, to writing support, producing, post-production partners and even distribution. It was really a one-stop shop for getting a project off the ground and being seen around the world. Above all, I loved the camaraderie of the other filmmakers. It really united projects across the Caribbean (English, Spanish and French-speaking!), which is something that was sorely needed. We are all isolated from others, separated by geographical borders, but to learn from and engage with filmmakers all over the region was inspiring and motivating. I met some people that I hope to collaborate with in the future and I suspect there will be many other collaborations as a result of the CFM.

How would you describe the state of the Trinidad & Tobago film industry and the Caribbean film industry?
The film industry in T&T is definitely developing. Even from the time when I made the short film to now, there’s been tremendous growth. There’s far more support and infrastructure than ever before. There is even a green screen studio and a rental house now. The Film Programme at the University Of The West Indies has graduated a few classes now and I think that is really changing the industry. There are now more qualified people both creatively and technically. With all that being said, narrative filmmaking is still a rarity. There is a lot of quality documentaries and commercial work being done, which is what supports the industry.

What more needs to be done to get your voices heard?
I believe that the best way to get our stories out there is dependent on private-public partnerships. Because there are so few productions being made, it’s hard for people to see the value in filmmaking both culturally and financially. It’s difficult to make a case when it’s very hard to get the work seen via cinemas, DVD, VOD or on local television.  Another issue is that piracy is rampant. I think the general population is unaware of the amount of work and people needed to make a film and if people knew that they’d be willing to support local film. 

But there’s also the biggest problem facing smaller films around the world: marketing. It’s so much harder to compete with the latest blockbuster, which has ads in every paper, radio and television. With all that being said, I continue to get nothing but great comments online, emails, tweets and Facebook messages supporting the film. It got well over 1,500 shares on a single post last year, which proved that people are hungry for representations of themselves and their culture and I believe when the time comes, they will make the effort to support it both domestically and in the diaspora.