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Inward Hunger: The Movie

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Raymond Ramcharitar

Two things can be said with certainty about Mariel Brown’s documentary, Inward Hunger, on Eric Williams. First, it’s a good illustration of what local filmmakers and arts funders could be doing: producing work of local interest and value. Second, it illustrates the serious problems of the politics of cultural production. But the movie: it is a three-part opus that tells Williams’s story from his birth in 1911 to death in 1981. The script (by Alake Pilgrim) gets the history largely correct. Williams’s early life, his ancestry, his QRC and Oxford experiences are reasonably well illustrated. Much of this material comes from Williams’s autobiography, which gives the documentary its name. And a few interesting, risky facts which were not as well known—like Williams’s abandoning his first family in the US, and having to get a quickie divorce to marry his second wife, Soy—were included.

For its factual fidelity, the documentary deserves to be seen widely in schools, and I imagine many adults would find it edifying. Whether the main target audience (teenagers, young adults) could be induced to sit still for three hours for this is another matter. (More on this later.) As to the narrative construction of the life, some bits are given more weight than others. Wil-liams’s time at Howard in the US, and how he fit into the intellectual canon of the pre-nationalist era, alongside figures like Ralph Bunche and Alain Locke, are glossed over. This is one of the major weaknesses of the documentary—the inability to assess, or even enumerate, Williams’s considerable intellectual achievements. As if to redress this deficiency are a few lengthy digressions, like the bit on the 1930s labour situation in Trinidad, to establish the main social and intellectual currents of the pre-War era.

Others are Black Power and lengthy interviews with Williams’s nieces and daughter about the day of Williams’s death. These are distracting tangents—interesting, but redundant given the story as presented.
This leads to another weakness: the documentary qua structured narrative. It follows the facts rather than guiding them into a purposeful arc. Even a biography can be orchestrated (and the three subtitles show an awareness of this possibility), but the gush of facts was overwhelming, and formed an unmanageable narrative. Some skilled editing could have cut and reorganised the material into a more satisfying work. A satisfying work would have presented a thesis on Williams—what he was, meant, was not, and so on, and used material to argue it. Inward Hunger tries to get everything in, but leaves big gaps. As mentioned, Williams’s great love was scholarship, yet the documentary is weak on this. Lloyd Best and the New World Group—the PNM’s antithesis—are mentioned in passing. Neither are Williams’s relation to Caribbean intellectuals and his destructive interventions into UWI explored.

However, many controversial issues are broached—Williams’s racial politics, PNM corruption, and his manias (paranoia, vindictiveness)—but the perspective veers between political correctness and reactionary middle class sentiment. Apropos of this, there’s an interesting film within the film which the filmmakers either didn’t see or couldn’t touch, because they were implicated in it. This is the role of Erica Williams-Connell. Erica manhandles the narrative—like saying the Black Power people should be on their knees before her dad for not shooting them. She overlays a caring, loving father, of her and the nation, rewriting the story as it was being told. That aside, this handling of the material leaves us no better or worse off in terms of our knowledge of the man, what he did, and what he meant. History, especially told via film, has many possibilities: none of them was evident in the filmmaking—either in the script or the visual narrative.

The first hour rolls like a soundtrack with pictures. Much of it relies on camera pans on stills, and gloomy full-frontal interviews with academics, Williams confidants, and relatives. When more footage becomes available as Wil-liams’s career blossoms, it is laid down as embellishment to the soundtrack, rather than as part of the discourse/text. This is the fatal deficiency: the poverty of the “filmmaking” bit:  style, technique, technical competence. Comparing Inward Hun-ger with successful documen- taries like last year’s Academy Award-winning Inside Job, Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, Black Box’s Hacking Democracy, and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (to name a few) is revealing and disheartening. Unlike Inward Hunger, evident in all these are creativity, wit and intelligence.

Inward Hunger shares its debilities with many local films I’ve seen over the years. The permanent excuse of Trini filmmakers is “Oh Gord, we tryin’”. But what is missing from the films, including Inward Hunger, is much more basic than resources and training. Missing are imagination and the ability to think past the local. You have to wonder what movies local filmmakers watch. Quentin Tarantino learned to make movies by watching movies.  Kevin Smith made movies in an empty convenience store with his friends as actors. Rashomon was made with a low budget, minimal sets and cast, and no CGI. The intention here is not to heap all this on Mariel Brown’s shoulders. This is an epistemic issue: What is known, knowable, and acceptable to official institutions since it is access to institutions, and the ability to reassure them their political or epistemological limits will not be breached, that determine the art produced.

If Inward Hunger is what comes out of the Trini financial-creative, political-artistic nexus, the problems are as bad as I think they are. The main problem is (to repeat): A small, undeserving group seems to have a monopoly of cultural funding and production in Trini-dad. But if Inward Hunger is, in funders’ opinion, good stuff, then, well, what do I know?