A Small Life with Grand Visions
By Valerie Williams-Sanchez
June 24th, 2014
Mariel Brown’s short, Smallman tells the story of John Ambrose Kenwyn Rawlins, an ordinary man of modest means with a gift for making extraordinary, creative objects. With a skill that went largely unrecognized — outside his immediate family and friends — in his lifetime, Rawlins had the ability to imagine entire worlds, orchestrating scenes and settings which afforded him a universe of freedom that eluded him in his real, day-to-day life.Rawlins was a husband, father, grandfather and public servant. He lived inside the proverbial box. Obedient and a man of service, Rawlins came alive in the small workshop he maintained beneath his Caribbean home. It was there where Rawlings used found materials he re-purposed, re-imagined and reconfigured into 1/16th-scaled works of art and interest.
Representing a rupture from conventional notions of Black manhood, Brown’s tale presents the humble life, loves and heartbreak of this unexpected hero. Smallman offers an alternative look at the Black male experience, of one Caribbean man in particular.
Her latest film means to challenge assumptions about Black men, Brown said, but more importantly, the project means to tell the story of this unsung Caribbean-everyman.
Brown said she, “wanted to tell the story in a Caribbean context,” in order to debunk conventions and pop cultural myths that presume Black men don’t have intellectual hobbies, pastimes that challenge the senses, and require the use and mastery of equipment, and the development of a distinct skill over extended periods of time.
“[Caribbean men do more than] play cricket, soccer and go drinking…” she said in a recent interview for AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange.
In England, Brown continued, such a hobby would be more typical. But “hobbies that have to do with making things, in particular,” Brown said, “is not something you see everyday in the Caribbean.”
She added: “I’ve not seen anything [like it].”
Incorporating music, tight and angled camera shots and pacing that seems to mirror Rawlins style of artistry, the short film is both precise, exacting and enormously creative in its presentation.
“I realized in the process,“ Brown said, “that the heart of [this film] had to be told through the objects.”
Intricate and authentic, many of the details Rawlins’ imbued in his objects were only revealed in the expanded focus of Brown’s camera viewfinder. A work, Brown characterized as an “elegant film,” the movie is precise in exploring the narrative of a man’s efforts to build a life despite the disappointment of a dream deferred.
Small Man illustrates the art and artistry of the film’s hero, a unique craftsman of unmistakable talent, while underscoring the ingenuity of the filmmaker in telling the tale.
“It’s the story of a life in 10 minutes,” Brown said.
The life core to the Small Man narrative has special resonance for Brown. As it is based on a short story written by Rawlins’ son, who is also a friend to the filmmaker. In working on the project, Brown said Small Man taught her how to make a film about a loved one without making it a eulogy.
Brown is the only documentary producer in this series of AfroPoP Caribbean Shorts. She’s currently in production on a documentary film about her father, a well known Trinidadian writer. She’s also a writer and publisher. Brown’s projects often center on a central figure. A magazine feature writer-turned filmmaker, Mariel Brown is head of the creative and production company SAVANT Ltd., based in Trinidad and Tobago. Her films to date have centered on a central character, or explored a central theme.
In 2004, Trinidad and Tobago-based SAVANT, Ltd. began its business of producing quality television productions that cross genres and expose viewers to vibrant and engaging stories from around the Caribbean and beyond. Small Man is no exception and is but one of Brown’s growing list of award-winning documentary film projects which look at real people and craftsmen of the Caribbean diaspora and include: “The Insatiable Season,” (2007) which featured a compelling cast of characters dedicated to the craft of carnival making in Trinidad and Tobago. The film was awarded the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival.
“The Solitary Alchemist,” her second film, is described as a revealing and intimate profile of Barbara Jardine, a jeweler from Trinidad. Screened at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival and awarded the jury prize for Best Locally produced Film, the film has also been screened in Jamaica, at the Best of Caribbean Tales Film Festival in Barbados, among other screenings worth note.
The third biography in Brown’s portfolio is a three-part documentary series on Eric Williams, Trinidad and Tobago’s first Prime Minister. Titled “Inward Hunger: The Story of Eric Williams” the film has been recognized as the Best Local Feature Film at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. It includes London, England; Kingston, Jamaica; Florida, USA and Port of Spain, Trinidad, according to the Savant website, among the cities in which the film has been screened.
From simple push toys to elaborate diorama models depicting battleship and dockyards, fully appointed miniature homes, Rawlings built everything from scratch, sometimes spending upwards of a year on a single model.
Ironically, Rawlins’ passion was not his gift. That passion is fully explored in the film. A bittersweet and motivating chord within the greater narrative, the story of Rawlins devotion to his creations “had to do with control and order about the world.”
In his work space, Rawlins was a god in his own right, with the space to create and escape from the pressures of the world. A skilled craftsmen, Brown’s talent helped him to dream of lives he could not live.
“[His] was a small life,” Brown told AfroPoP, “but a fulfilled life, a happy life.”
And in that regard, Rawlins’ life, like the movie short, was grand.
You can watch Smallman here.
This article first appeared on blackpublicmedia.org.