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A multitude of identities

Published: 
Sunday, October 18, 2015
Catherine Emmanuel as the Dream Woman in Dreams in Transit. Photo courtesy Karen Martinez

A review by 
Austin Fido

On a recent trip to Tobago, a first-time visitor got lost. Hopelessly bemused by a winding road, certain he was already three or four wrong turns into his journey, he stopped to beg direction from a man sitting on a bench in the afternoon sun.

The gentleman smiled indulgently at the tourist, looked to his right and left, and shrugged: “It have many ways to get there,” he said gently.

Screened in public for the first time at the recently concluded T&T Film Festival, Dreams in Transit is a 30-minute interrogation of issues of personal identity. Specifically, Trinidadian identity. How does one arrive at “Trinidadian” as a description of self? It have many ways to get there.

It is tempting to describe Dreams in Transit as an autobiographical film: it is narrated from the perspective of a London-based, Trinidadian woman; writer, director and producer, Karen Martinez. But the narrator is not Martinez, it is Martina Laird: also a woman, also Trinidadian, also based in London. 

To further complicate the question of the identity of the film’s protagonist, the principal character is a woman in a white dress who never speaks at all. Played by Catherine Emmanuel, the “dream woman” leads the narrative all over Trinidad and beyond, wordlessly refocusing attention on the personal in the shape of an entirely fictional person.

Fiction invites an audience to experience something foreign as its own. In Dreams in Transit, the effect of the narrative device is to turn what might otherwise be regarded as one woman’s response to her own circumstances into a nuanced examination of Trinidadian identity that is accessible to anyone with a sense of self. 

The film is non-fiction driven by a fictional construct. It is a series of interviews in which the lead is mute. It is a documentary—potentially the most prosaic form of filmmaking—with the structure and sensibility of a poem.

Delivered in three stanzas (titled Land, Sea, and Elsewhere), there is lyricism in the writing and delivery of the narration (“On a cold and rainy Carnival Monday in London, I looked out over the sea of people and found myself dreaming of my other home: the Caribbean”), and the script frequently defers to quotes from poets, such as Derek Walcott and Martin Carter. 

Indeed, the film opens with a poem from Peter Minshall. To quote it in part would be to fracture its meaning and to quote it in full would not do justice to the delivery. Suffice it to say, when Minshall concludes “I am a Caribbean,” it is clear that identity contains multitudes.

Form follows function is a maxim of industrial design, but it has currency in storytelling also. The film’s genre-bending structure complements the diversity of national (and, of course, regional) identity. 

It was a conscious choice by Martinez to “play with the norms” of the documentary format. “Identity and belonging and home are already multilayered,” she said on the phone from London. “So I felt it gave me the liberty; I could take a more fluid form.”

She had originally planned a longer film, with attention paid to political manipulation of national identity and its impact on concepts of what it means to be Trinidadian. But the starting point for the project had been less political, more personal: “It’s something I had been thinking about for a long time—where does sense of self and identity come from? What is it that makes you say, ‘I am Trinidadian?’”

Once she started researching and interviewing for the film, Martinez realised her concept of a broader, longer exploration of identity politics would obscure the personal stories she was gathering. The desire to do justice to those stories—by showing “an open-endedness” and avoiding didacticism in the narrative—gradually became the priority. 

“I really only understood in the edit,” she said of the decision to cut the projected length of the film and shift its focus, “I wanted it to be a film in which Trinidadians could see themselves.”

In seeking to identify what it is to be of this nation, Martinez’s camera introduces us to Trinidadians who are devoted to their country’s land, sea, or breakfast (doubles). For every implicit point about national identity there is a counterpoint: some take comfort in the land, others are nurtured by the sea; one subject identifies a taste for doubles as inherently Trinidadian, another has accepted the need not present herself to the world as a composite of the presumed tastes and preferences of her nation.

And the point is made that those, like Martinez, who are not resident in Trinidad at all are closer to the country than ever before. Digital connections help migrant and diaspora communities to be as up-to-the-minute on news from their countries of origin as they care to be. Perhaps too much. 

“There is no need—you are in London,” says writer and activist Attilah Springer, seemingly addressing a question posed at the start of the film: “For contemporary migrants, is home always somewhere else?” 

In her segment, Springer immediately concedes that, although it may not be her personal modus vivendi when living in the UK, the always-connected-to-home approach has its merits for those who subscribe to it: “It gives them a sense of themselves, a sense of who they are, in a big city.”

It also gives the society from which they are distanced a sense of who they are: as media producer Georgia Popplewell notes, digitally connected migrant and diaspora communities are “now exerting political influence back home.” They can be regarded as a relatively wealthy, engaged constituency without obvious representation but just a flight, or Facebook call to action, away: an irresistible combination for political parties seeking to boost finances and support.

Ultimately, Dreams in Transit arrives at no fixed destination on its journey toward a definition of what it is to be Trinidadian. It concludes by citing cultural theorist Stuart Hall: “Identity is not an already accomplished fact, but rather a production—one that is never complete, always in process.” It is a sentiment expressed earlier in the film, by Rupert Anthony Cox, who lives off the land with his family in a self-made forest dwelling: “My home is my happiness; where I feel happy, I see that as my home.”