HUNGRY FOR MAS

Reviewed by Jonathan Ali for Caribbean Review of Books

There is a truly wonderful moment just before the end of this amiable tribute to the art of mas-making in Trinidad. The Carnival band Threads of Joy is waiting to take to the stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah, the major judging point for the parade of bands in Port of Spain. The band’s leader, Brian MacFarlane, is going over with some of his crew the order in which different colours of confetti will be released when the band comes on. But there is a problem. The crew, at this last moment, has got the combinations of colours wrong. On top of this, the lead music truck has struck up ahead of time. MacFarlane explodes in a frenzy of expletives and wild gesticulation, storming back and forth before the situation is finally rectified and the band is let loose on the Savannah stage.

This is a wonderful moment not simply because of the high drama, or the satisfaction in seeing someone you wouldn’t expect to do so (MacFarlane is urbane almost to a fault) suddenly letting go a good cuss. No. It’s wonderful because it perfectly illustrates what, at best, documentary filmmaking is meant to do: lay bare its subject and capture it with complete, unadorned honesty.

The Insatiable Season grew out of a television series that followed Threads of Joy, MacFarlane’s second-ever mas band, through the 2006 Carnival season. Essentially, the film is that series in capsule form, and it is a deftly-put-together piece of work.

What The Insatiable Season is not is a film about Carnival as metaphor, about Carnival as a national pressure-release valve, or some other réchauffé notion; nor is it an endless recycling of clichés about heady abandon/bacchanalian revelry/whatever combination of tired adjective and even more tired noun you care to use. It isn’t even about the hoary and frankly reductive making-something-out-of-nothing idea of Carnival that’s still flogged in certain places — just consider what the average costume costs nowadays and you’ll abandon that thought instantly. Rather, it’s a film that, simply and appropriately, finds joy in the mundane romance of putting a mas together, from the conceptualising of the band to the construction of the costumes . . . and yes, in the end, to wining down to the ground come Carnival Tuesday.

There are those who would point out — I’d be among them — that in this day and age, when most of the big Carnival bands import their feather-bead-and-glitter costumes from China almost fully prefabricated in little cardboard boxes, the true art of making mas has virtually disappeared, or survives only in children’s bands. Brian MacFarlane is seen as a throwback to a time when bands were meant to be about something, when costumes had significance (and substance), and you could say with a straight face that Carnival was art. Specifically, MacFarlane is seen by many — justly or not — as the unofficial heir to arguably Trinidad’s greatest masman ever, Peter Minshall, who has all but abandoned the mas. (Ironically, the year Threads of Joy was produced, the wily ole Minsh came out of his self-imposed Carnival exile at virtually the last minute for what turned out to be a one-off presentation. He is dutifully acknowledged in this film with a lingering shot of his band’s king.)

At any rate, The Insatiable Season is no more concerned with asking “whither Carnival?” than it is with asking “what is Carnival?” — that is to say, not at all. Whether you think this was a missed opportunity is, of course, a moot point. As with writers and books, filmmakers make the films they wish to make, not the films other people think they should make. (At least they ought to.) The Insatiable Season won the people’s choice award for best documentary at the 2007 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, which really should tell you all you need to know.

And it isn’t hard to see why the film was such a hit. In its concern with the small and seemingly insignificant things that go into making a Carnival band, in the way it captures the bubbling enthusiasm of the mas camp volunteers who, despite swearing annually to never put themselves through the stress and strain of making another band, inevitably get bitten by the Carnival jumbie and end up doing it all over again, The Insatiable Season shows a love and respect for the art of making mas that people, at least Trinidadians, would easily warm to.

This brings me to my only real problem, a long-standing peeve of mine. I wouldn’t wish to speculate as to how non-Trinidadians might react to this film, but the fact that it includes subtitles means that it is intended for an international audience as much as a local one. Two questions arise. Are subtitles necessary? Everyone in the film speaks English. Trinidadian English to be sure, but no one, in my opinion, speaks with an accent or in a way that is so incomprehensible as to warrant subtitling. And, having decided on subtitles, why are they inconsistently deployed? All sorts of issues relating to language and class spring up here. Better not to use subtitles and avoid such pitfalls altogether.

The politics of subtitling aside, however, this is a highly enjoyable film, not least for the bits of candour it is so adroitly able to capture: the look of sheer delight on MacFarlane’s face as he watches a group of children being shown around the camp; or the gruff yet avuncular way in which a mas veteran coaches the neophyte king of the band, Jhawan Thomas, on how to carry his costume. And the way an utterly guileless Thomas accepts sole responsibility for failing to reach the final of the king of the bands competition, not stopping to consider that it might have had something to do with the design of the costume itself, will break your heart.