‘Memories Playback Like Movies’: A New Personal Documentary from Trinidad

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This past April for the third consecutive year, International Film Festival of Panama (IFF Panama) held their outstanding emerging filmmaker support program, Primera Mirada. Led by artistic director Diana Sanchez, this Central America/Caribbean-focused event provides some of the region’s most interesting voices to screen early cuts of their work in a safe space and receive invaluable feedback and support. The program has supported projects such as Guatemalan filmmaker Julio Hernández Cordón’s I Promise You Anarchy (which had earlier participated in Miami Film Festival’s similar Encuentros event) and Dominican filmmakers Yanillys Perez’s Jeffrey (an official selection in Miami Film Festival 2017) and Laura Amelia Guzmán’s Noelí en los países, all of which have gone on to significant international success.

The 2017 edition again featured a major emerging Dominican talent, Nelson Carlos de Los Santos’ new film Cocote (a major world premiere for this film will be announced very soon), and other projects including Panama’s own Fernando Muñoz’s Una noche de calypso and a fascinating new documentary being worked on in Trinidad and Tobago by Mariel Brown, entitled Unfinished Sentences.

Unfinished Sentences

Unfinished Sentences is part mystery, part personal memoir. Inserting herself into the film, Brown opens up a Pandora’s box of memories of her late father, black Trinidadian poet and writer Wayne Brown (1944-2009), who died of cancer after living the last decade of his life in Jamaica. Delving deep into the legacy of work he left behind, including personal letters, Brown seeks to make peace with her father’s enduring enigma.

Memories and dreams can sometimes take on the vivid feel of cinema, and Brown embraces this quality in recreated footage of key moments in her father’s life. Using actors that physically resemble her family members (including mother Megan and sister Saffrey), she creates the feeling of aged memories with the aged format of Super-8 film, and does a superb job of giving the footage the exact feel of “found footage” of home movies from the 1970s.

Recreating footage for Unfinished Sentences. Photo by Michele Jorsling.

The practice of re-created footage in documentaries remains controversial, although I do not see why. The documentary genre is no more “real” than any scripted film – all choices in any film work to support the specific narrative of a filmmaker’s vision. Everyone has a story to tell, and the skill with which a filmmaker uses the available tools at their disposal should be the main criteria. Yet detractors remain, which may explain why Sarah Polley’s similar 2012 film Stories We Tell won so many critics, guild and industry awards, yet failed to win the Oscar nomination that everyone predicted. I don’t buy their arguments, which center around some kind of notion of “purity” that doesn’t hold up. Purity is in poetry, and that is found in Unfinished Spaces on many levels, from Wayne Brown’s words to his daughter’s outstanding images.

In further creating the sensation of how memories work, a significant amount of Brown’s material is layered and super-imposed upon other visuals, creating a sense of the dense thorniness and complexity of how the mind seeks to reclaim and recast the past into the present. The results are mesmerizing and deeply moving. Brown is a born filmmaker, with an impressive eye and a deep sense of how to connect the intimate to the universal. The cut of Unfinished Sentences presented at IFF Panama was not complete and still had more work to be done, but I’m looking forward to seeing the final version of the film make its way into the world, when it is ready. Follow her progress at https://unfinishedsentencesfilm.com/

Jaie Laplante

Jaie Laplante is the Miami Film Festival's executive director and director of programming. Learn more about Jaie on Programmers.