Coolitude poetics interview with Ian Harnarine

Ian K. Harnarine

Ian K. Harnarine was born in Toronto to Trinidadian parents. He studied physics at York University and the University of Illinois. He has an MFA from NYU’s Graduate Film School where he now teaches with the Physics department.

As a location sound mixer, Harnarine has mixed God of Love (Academy Award), The Fly Room, Stuck Between Stations, and numerous award-winning short films, features, documentaries, special events, and commercials.

Harnarine’s directorial work includes Sesame Street, which garnered him an Emmy Award nomination, TEDMED, and a groundbreaking 360 music video for the Headstones. His short film Doubles With Slight Pepper (executive produced by Spike Lee), won the Toronto International Film Festival and the Canadian Academy Award.

Harnarine is a member of the National Board of Review, the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, the American Physical Society, and a Certified AVID Instructor.

Harnarine is co­writing Time Traveler with Spike Lee, an adaptation of David Chariandy’s novel Soucouyant, and a feature adaptation of Doubles With Slight Pepper. He was selected by Filmmaker Magazine as one of the Twenty-five New Faces of Independent Film and profiled in the New York Times. This biography was taken from Ian’s faculty page on the NYU Tisch website.

Rajiv Mohabir: Your award-winning film (Toronto Film Festival and the Genies just to name two) puts its finger on the pulse of contemporary Indo-Trinidadian life. The story opens with Dhani’s voice saying “I am one-hundred-and-fourth–generation Brahmin. That’s a lie. I come from a long line of poor and stupid coolies …” This is a daring opening line — what does this reflect of Dhani’s familial context?


Ian Harnarine: There is a lot happening in the lines and particularly between them. I’ve always been repulsed by the caste system, but I also find colonialism’s response to it equally problematic and oppressive. Old ideas that somehow traveled the kala pani to the new world. It’s interesting when contemporary Indo-Caribbeans, both in the Caribbean and in the diaspora, refer to themselves or their forefathers as Brahmins, or some other caste. It’s as if they have a need to set themselves apart from the “rest,” or to claim a higher stance. So for me, Dhani is playing with those immediate expectations and bravado of someone that claims higher caste. But then there’s the immediate twist, and he tells us his familial truth, which for the most part is every Indo-Caribbean’s history. My hope was for the audience to know that Dhani is a smart, self-aware young man that doesn’t take himself too seriously. At the end of the film, when he repeats those lines they have a different meaning to him because of all that he’s been through, and I wish the audience feels the same way.


Rajiv Mohabir: This is a brilliant opening that also includes Dhani on a bicycle riding to set up his doubles shop — a Trinidadian food innovation — while Parang music plays in the background. In just a matter of seconds you set up a complicated tableau of Caribbean Creole space. Why did you choose doubles as a symbol for inheritance and cultural shift? Why is food the major site for articulating the fractured familial story?


Ian Harnarine: As my belly shows, I’ve always enjoyed doubles and probably had one too many! Doubles are a uniquely Trinidadian food that exist because of Indo-Caribbean ingenuity. It has spread within the diaspora and is quickly moving around the world too. Culturally, its roots can be placed in India, but it looks forward too, by incorporating North American raw ingredients such as wheat flour and chickpeas. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, making and selling doubles is a family business, which opens itself to the conflicts within families. As a storyteller, that’s a ripe backdrop.


The one thing that unites Caribbeans is food and doubles are no exception. The enjoyment of this particular food now defies all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. In a queue, you’ll find schoolchildren, office workers, athletes, blue-collar workers — everyone! And so even within Dhani’s family, which is broken and perhaps beyond repair, it’s the food that will unite them.


Rajiv Mohabir: What ways does your history of Indian indenture influence your art? Do you feel connected to Bollywood narrativizing South Asian diasporic stories? How do you think Bollywood influenced your sense of art either positively or negatively?


Ian Harnarine: What inspires me are the untold stories of the “unseen” people; the cab drivers, bus drivers, nannies, nurses, domestic workers, construction workers, food industry workers — the people who are essential to making a city run. I believe that the stories of Indian indentureship, Indo-Caribbeans, and the diaspora have been left out of most narratives, even though we are highly visible “on the streets.” As a filmmaker, I feel I have a privilege and responsibility to tell those stories, which is something I don’t take lightly. I know for a lot a of people it’s a rare occasion to see someone who looks like them on screen, and I hope they have a feeling of recognition, pride, and the work resonates with them.


I have fairly strong views about Bollywood — most of them negative. I personally feel no connection to Bollywood, largely because I don’t see myself in it. The tropes, stories, and lifestyles depicted in standard Bollywood fare are so far removed from my experience that I think it does us all a disservice. They are like Disney animated fairytales. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe the stories and most of all, I don’t believe the characters. But, I think it’s the desire to see ourselves on screen that has fueled the love of Bollywood among Indo-Caribbean communities. My feeling is that Indo-Caribbean culture is unique and deserves its own cinema.


That being said, I do love Indian movies! Satyajit Ray is a master, not to mention the exciting independent films that are being produced by young Indian filmmakers that reject Bollywood. Those are the Indian movies that I watch and enjoy.


Rajiv Mohabir: Who have been your greatest influences?


Ian Harnarine: My major influences are friends that are doing their own work, artists like Vashti Anderson, Mariel Brown, Andil Gosine, Vashti Harrison, Diana Mathura-Kahrim.


I’ve been reading a lot: Gaiutra Bahadur, Elizabeth Jaikaran, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Shivanee Ramlochan. Of course, the great Rajiv Mohabir too! All have published important  work in the past year which should be celebrated.


My closest collaborators are Elizabeth Wentling and Doug Lenox, who inspire, but also push me to places I never imagined.


This will sound cliché, but my greatest influences are people on the subway or on the streets. I love talking with people and hearing them tell their own stories. I eavesdrop on conversations shamelessly.  


Rajiv Mohabir: Not only did you make Doubles with Slight Pepper, you also recently created Sesame Street’s “Beautiful Skin Song.” Why did you take on this project?


Ian Harnarine: I worked on “Beautiful Skin Song” with a former classmate of mine, Sally Kewayosh, who is an indigenous filmmaker.


We told Sesame Street that they do a wonderful job with diversity and inclusion, but they could do better. There are still very few people that look like us on television, let alone children’s television, and we wanted to change that. To Sesame Street’s credit, they supported us and my vision of celebrating diversity (in all aspects of the word) among children. We focused mostly on the outer boroughs of New York, where film crews don’t visit and traditional casting agents avoid, but it was those neighborhoods that gave us the range of skin tones and kids that I wanted.


I know how important the show is to early childhood education worldwide, so it’s been a highlight of my life to contribute to the canon of Sesame Street while putting my “personal touch” on the work.


No matter how many people see my other films, way more people will have seen the work that I do for Sesame Street!


Rajiv Mohabir: Your dexterity in your art is compounded by the fact that you are also a nuclear physicist by training. How does science come to bear upon your artistic sensibilities?


Ian Harnarine: There’s a certain way of thinking that is ingrained in me now. It’s an approach to solving problems that I learned while studying physics, and I try to apply it to all aspects of my work. Whether screenwriting, directing, or being in the editing room, there’s constant experimentation in trying to solve a problem. The problem could be the dramatic tension in a scene or the psychological movement of a character. Either way, it takes a lot of trial and error to make sense of what the data (or in the case of movies, the raw footage) is telling you.


I also learned in science that things might not go the way you expected them to, but that’s totally fine. As a filmmaker, there is nothing more exciting than being surprised by an actor with a performance that you didn’t see on the page.


Rajiv Mohabir: You are currently trying to turn your short film into a feature-length film. What are the challenges you face in accomplishing this?


Ian Harnarine: The greatest challenge has been funding! My original version of the short film was about forty pages, which is very long since one script page translates to about one minute of screen time. It’s been a matter of going back to that story that I had originally envisioned and delving deeper into the characters, situations, and commentary that I had always wanted to explore.


Rajiv Mohabir: Aside from Doubles with Slight Pepper, what else are you currently working on?


Ian Harnarine: I’m fortunate to say that there’s a lot going on! I just finished a short film called Caroni about a West Indian nanny in New York City and her daughter back in Trinidad. I’m also working on a documentary inspired by the photography of Diana Mathura-Kahrim about some fishermen in Trinidad that I’ve been shooting off and on for a couple of years. In long-term projects, I’m adapting David Chariandy’s stunning novel Soucouyant, about a Trinidadian family in Toronto. I’m really excited about that story because it touches on so many issues that are important to me — I can’t wait to make it!