Words by Eddie STATS Houghton
On Labor Day 2010, four filmmakers–Sam Flesichner (Wah Do Dem), Tony Lowe (Cool Places Soundsystem), Wills Glasspiegel (Afropop Worldwide) and Olivia Wyatt (Swinging Addis)–picked up four cameras, synchronized their watches and set out to document the West Indian Labor Day Parade AKA Brooklyn Carnival. Or, in their own words, they “followed the ebb and flow of ritual, dance and celebration for over 30 straight hours.” The end result of that cinematic marathon is Below the Brain, an “experimental documentary” on Carnival that premieres tomorrow (Friday 9/2) as part of an “Island Film Week” (curated by Lowe) taking place at Spectacle Theater and BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn (flyer and full schedule at bottom). It’s not yet clear from the trailer–a visceral, choppy and sometimes dissonant immersion in the Carnival experience (watch below)–how this experiment will fit into the festival line-up of mostly unavailable Caribbean culture films, including gems like Ghosts of Cité Soleil and The Land of Look Behind. Read on for an extensive conversation with Tony Lowe and Wills Glasspiegel about the creative process behind both. One thing emerges from all the mud and electro-acoustic distortion fairly clearly: Below the Brain, much like Carnival itself, will grab you by the bumpa and not let go.
LargeUp: How did “Below the Brain” come about? Did you have a clear idea what you were going do with the footage when you started filming/recording?
Tony Lowe: Yes and no. Sam and I planned to produce the film months in advance. We even knew the title would be “Below the Brain,” and had a couple pre-production meetings with Olivia and Wills to discuss logistics and style. But, of course, we had no idea what kind of sights and sounds we’d encounter and how that would shape the film.
LU: What’s the indication of the title Below the Brain…I read it is a sort of “letting go” of normal thoughts/worries during Carnival, i.e. embracing the carnal—is that intentional, or did you have other things in mind?
TL: The title sprang from a conversation Sam and I had where we were talking about our experiences at past Labor Day parades and also the theories of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. There’s no denying that Carnival is body-centric: the non-stop rhythm and sheer number of people sort of make it impossible to do anything but get funky. You cease to be an individual–especially in j’ouvert, where everyone gets covered in mud and paint and becomes one people. But we read it in many different ways. As filmmakers, we wanted to be possessed by the true spirit of Carnival–to make the richest and most honest images we could–rather than trying to “document” it from the outside.
LU: The film is described as an “experimental documentary.” Did you restrict yourself to any particular documentary guidelines? Did you have any method to the experimental aspect?
TL: Well, in pre-production, we made a few “experimental” style decisions–namely that there would be no talking head/traditional style interviews, and also that we wanted abstract sequences in the film that focused on texture and color. In general though, we knew we had given ourselves the impossible task of trying to convey, in one hour, the feeling of a multi-day party with 6 million people from dozens of different Island cultures! So in editing, we had to develop a unique approach that would somehow conjure as many feelings of the experience as possible–like being inside a crystal that floats through Flatbush.
LU: What do you think the function of the final result is? Is it intended to give people who’ve never attended Carnival a representation of it? Or to stand alone? Judging from the trailer, it seems like it could have other ‘uses’ (i.e. psychedelic).
TL: The way the film turned out, I think it could definitely be shown as a sort of “midnight” cult movie. Carnival really is a transformative trip–our lives were certainly changed. But our intention was really just to spread Caribbean vibes via a thrilling cinematic experience that is as true to the people and energy as possible.
LU: Who do you think the film’s audience is –have you had any reactions (or other exchanges) from the revelers who appear in the film?
TL: It’s been really interesting, because people are very accustomed to having images made of them during Carnival. It’s a spectacle, and there are cameras everywhere. One of my favorite shots in the film is Sam and an older man filming each other. We wanted it to be different, but we wanted it to be for everyone. We want Island people to be super excited and intrigued by it, but we also want to help turn “outsiders” on to Carnival in a way that felt approachable. It’s the richest cultural event in the city and it can’t be bigged up enough.
But yeah, we’ve had some unbelievable interactions with the Flatbush community. Last night I visited a fruit shop I filmed for a sequence of close-ups of different fruits set to a road-mix drum loop. And Dawn, the proprietor and sweetest woman in the world, insisted on weighing us down with so many free goodies, cactus pear, soursop, cane. Caribbeans are the best people on earth.
LU: Talk to me a little about the use of distorted and/or dissonant audio in the film. I’m curious whether you’re worried that the use of dissonance as a signifier of the ominous in so much conventional film will cause viewers to read the carnival visual in a negative or scary light?
TL: My friend Morgan, who plays with Brother High–the rara band featured in the film–said members of the group saw our trailer and said, “why did they make it seem scary?” To which he answered, “darkness must walk with light.” Technically, it wasn’t really a decision, because it was the audio we had–the drums and sound trucks just blew out our microphones, but once I mixed it, I knew it gave the truest feeling of being there.
Wills Glasspiegel: I don’t think we were trying to do anything more than to communicate the experience of carnival through our lenses and mics, and to place our lenses and mics in center of the action. Maybe you could say we were calling down the spirits through our cameras. Terror, dissonance, the ominous — that’s all an essential part of the experience (certainly not just our experience) of carnival, especially j’ouvert. We needed to convey that visually, regardless of sound.
Bass and dread have long been allies, but overwhelmed speakers and maxed out bass also signify the physical aspect of sound. When sound distorts like that, it becomes tactile. The way the speakers rattle is the same way that so much rattles in African instrumentation. Bottle caps on the marimbas, distortion on a guitar– it’s a similar idea that plays out in a soundsystem. The message of the music is so strong that it resonates the medium itself. The speakers or mics actually become instruments.
I also think that throughout the film, perhaps unlike the trailer, we don’t always link distorted bass with ominous settings. There’s plenty of dark and scary vibes but I think in the film the sonic quality you’re describing is more linked to bodies dancing, bodies resonant and brimming with the spirit and sexuality of carnival.
LU: How does Below the Brain fit into y’alls other creative and/or documentary practice(s)?
TL: We’re coming from very diverse backgrounds — musicians, cinematographers, DJs, ethnographers — and I think it definitely reflects the eyes of all of those different worlds, and I wanted that in the film. I run a film series at Spectacle Theater called Ethnographic Vid WWWorld, where I “VJ” a mix of YouTube videos, old academic documentaries, bootleg DVDs, etc. that focus on certain cultures or countries. I don’t think you can ever have enough perspective on something.
WG: This film hits a sweet spot for me in terms of my interest in culture as art and art as culture. In my work with Bubu (also a processional music) and Shangaan Electro, I was working with culture music. The Carnival in BK is further proof that some of the highest forms of creativity–especially collective creativity–happen in cultural spaces that are often ignored or simply not known about by people outside of those spaces.
As a multimedia journalist and artist, I also think this fed my interest and taught me a lot about the way that multiple media can be synchronized I find that journalists and academics today talk often about “the sound” of things that don’t make sounds — the sound of history, the sound of painting, of emotions, etc. Carnival is a place where that logic makes the most sense, where everything is alive and awash with taste and sound and physicality. It’s pure synesthesia and to me, that’s incredibly high-tech.
This project also fed right into my interest in audio field recording. I was able to make a few recordings during j’ouvert and I think I was able to capture not just the landscape of sound, but also the way that landscape moves and the way that we moved within it. That’s the opposite of recording instruments piece by piece in a hermetically sealed studio or on logic in your bedroom. It was one of the most live–the most alive–experiences that I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience and document.
LU: How does this creative, original film fit into the whole Islands series?
TL: I programmed it in the spirit of the night I mention above– many perspectives–from amateur/low budget bootleg horror movies to BBC documentaries.
LU: What do you want people to know about this film that we didn’t ask?
WG: That we’re thrilled you’re covering this–and that we’re a dream team of filmmakers, gracefully assembled.
TL: That we’re not making money off this film, and we’re actually in debt from doing so…. it’s all truly because it’s a labor (day) of love.
FRI 9/2 – MUSIC AND RHYTHM
8 – Below The Brain
10 – Caribbean Crucible (Diaspora music documentary)
12 – Land of Look Behind (Rasta documentary)
Dennis Marks, 1984, 55 minutes
“Caribbean Crucible focuses on the synthesis of West African and
European music, notably from Spain and England, and the way it is
expressed in the Caribbean islands. The film examines many diverse
forms of Caribbean popular music, from the Maroon (slave runaway)
communities and ecstatic Kumina sects, to examples of mento (Jamaican
folk music) and urban reggae/dancehall – each a unique blend of
African and European influences. Performers include Big Youth, Louise
Bennett-Coverley, The Mummies of San Pedro de Macoris, The Congos of
the Holy Spirit, Sarandunga Group of Bani, Talisman, and Mama Zeela
and the Kumina of Spring Gard.”
LAND OF LOOK BEHIND
Alan Greenberg, 130 mins, 1981
“Land of Look Behind is an overlooked poetic document by Alan
Greenberg from 1982. Filmed in Jamaica in May and June of 1981,
Greenberg’s initial intention. to my knowledge was purely to capture
Bob Marley’s funeral, and the impact of his death on the island’s
culture. But somehow, like an unusual tropical blossom, the film
unfolds into something more striking and beautiful than maybe even
Greenberg himself expected. It becomes an organic portrait of the very
soul of Jamaica, and the earthy, pervasive sub-strata or
Rastafarianism.” – Jim Jarmusch
SAT 9/3 – HAITIAN CINEMA
8 – Below the Brain
10 – Royal BonBon (Haitian art house)
12 – Rél (Haitian horror)
Charles Najman, 2002, 85 mins
“Royal Bonbon is the tale of a modern-day man who believes himself to
be Henri Christophe, liberator of Haitian slaves during the early
1800s. King Chacha (Dominique Battraville) declares himself a ruler
and his lady friend (Anne-Louise Mesadieux) a queen. When he is kicked
out of Cap-Haitien, he joins up with young boy Thimothee (Benji) for a
journey out of town. They end up in the abandoned palace of Sans
Souci, which Chrisophe had built himself. Gathering support from the
population of the next village, King Chacha lives out his dream as a
ruler. Before long, he becomes a tyrant and is overthrown in a revolt.”
REL: Halloween Se Gede
Godnel Latus aka Baby Love, 80 minutes, 2009, Creole and English (no subs)
“Idiosyncratic low budget Haitian horror film, procured via bootleg in
Flatbush, Brooklyn. A suburban family and their friends struggle with
Loa (spirit). Deeply steeped in Voodou, this verité thriller features
frantic visits to midget Priests, child possessions and a haunting
employment of digital sound design and visual effects that evokes both
Lynch and Tim & Eric. Worth it for the trailers and commercials at
the beginning of the DVD alone.”
SUN 9/4 – VOODOO
6 – The White Darkness and Le Vodou (Voodoo documentaries)
8 – Below the Brain
Isaac Isitan, 45 mins, 1991, French
“Is it a religion or witchcraft? A cult or magic? This documentary,
shot in Haiti, traces the history of voodoo and explains practices.
The film took two years to earn the trust of the followers of that
religion and, while avoiding the trap of sensationalism, the managed
to record genuine ceremonies and even a real zombie.”
THE WHITE DARKNESS
“In The White Darkness anthropologist and cult film-maker Richard
Stanley documents the practice and the oppression of voudou in
present-day Haiti. In the tradition of his descendent Henry Morton
Stanley, explorer and journalist who found Livingstone, but with the
advantage of the hand-held camera, he presents an unflinching look at
the often shocking practices of voudou. Richard Stanley sees his
journey to Haiti – the first colonised country to declare independence
– as a ‘closing of the loop’ of imperialist practices within his own
family history. In the course of this journey, modern Haiti reveals
itself as critically divided between opposing religious beliefs and
forces. What becomes apparent is the centrality of voudou to Haitian
culture, history, and politics and its ongoing importance in fighting
against everyday American military oppression.”
MON 9/5 – CARNIVAL COMEDOWN
8 – Below the Brain
10 – Lee Scratch Perry (rare short film) /Lion Of Judah: Haile Selassie (Rasta documentary)
LEE SCRATCH PERRY: Ich sende aus dem ALL (I am transmitting from the universe)
Peter Braatz, 1995, 30 minutes
“Very rare experimental film portrait of Scratch. Scratch waxing about
everything from his divine mission on earth to drinking his own pee.
Appropriately beautiful and psychedelic camerawork.”
LION OF JUDAH
Anthony de Lotbeniere, 56 minutes, 1960s, English
This rare 1960s BBC documentary tells the life story of Ethiopia’s
Emperor Haile Selassie via a fascinating political and cultural
history of Ethiopia. Via classic and excellent BBC style filmmaking,
the film traces Selassie’s bloodline back to King Solomon and the
Queen of Sheba, all the way into the “jet age”. A remarkable man – as
just at Prince in the 1920s, Selassie was the first African leader to
travel the world, forging diplomatic and financial relationships that
would modernize Ethiopia and change Africa forever. If you’re curious
why his regency inspired Rastafarianism, this portrait helps explain
why he is still so inspiring not just in Jamaica, but around the
TUES 9/6 – CHUTNEY CINEMA
8 – Below the Brain
10 – Jahaji Music (Indian Caribbean music documentary)
Surabhi Sharma, 56 minutes, 2007
“From the mid-nineteenth century Indian labourers arrived in the
Caribbean on boats, bringing a few belongings and their music — the
beginnings of a remarkable cultural practice. More than 150 years
later, musician Remo Fernandes travels to the Islands to explore
potential collaborations and create new work. ‘Jahaji Music’ is a
record of a difficult, if unusual and complex, musical journey.We walk
around Trenchtown with Bob Marley’s teacher and Rastafari philosopher
Mortimo Planno; accompany calypso and soca singer Rikki Jai to Skinner
Park; chat with visual artist Chris Cozier in the Savannah; follow
Dancehall Queen Stacey to Weddy Weddy Wednesday; groove to Lady Saw’s
lyrics; record a new song with Denise Saucy Wow Belfon and are guests
at an East Indian Hindu wedding. Endeavouring through it all, to weave
a story of memory, identity and creativity.”
WED 9/7 – MELODY MASTERS
8 – Below The Brain
10 – El Accordeon Del Diablo (music documentary)
El Acordeón del Diablo AKA The Devil’s Accordion
Stefan Schwietert, 2000, 90 mins
This gorgeous, magical-realism inspired documentary tells the story of
Pacho Rada, one of the grand old men of Caribbean music. A
singer-composer, Rada first held an accordion in his hands at the age
of four, and spent this entire life traveling from fete to fete,
playing and singing for small change. Today at the age of 93 he lives
in a hut covered by a corrugated tin roof on the outskirts of the
Colombian town of Santa Marta, while his songs continue to dominate
the hit parade.
THURS 9/8 – GANGSTERS
8 – Below the Brain
10 – Ghosts of Cite Soleil (Haitian gang documentary)
GHOSTS OF CITE SOLEIL
Asger Leth, Milos Loncarevic, 2002, 86 minutes
TRAILER : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8Ow-Uh0ZtI
“In the slum of Cité Soleil, President Aristide’s most loyal
supporters were ruling as kings. The five major gang leaders were
controlling heavily armed young men; the Chiméres. The Secret army of
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. “Ghosts of Cité Soleil” is a film
about Billy and Haitian 2pac. Two brothers. Gang Leaders of the
FRI 9/9 – CARNIVAL COME BACK
9 – Ethnographic Vid World – Island Party with food and music
11 – Below the Brain (Filmmakers in person)
BELOW THE BRAIN
Sam Fleischner, Tony Lowe, Olivia Wyatt, Wills Glasspiegel, 2011, 59 minutes
Below The Brain is an experimental documentary that maps a journey
through the 2010 Caribbean Carnival in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Estimated
to be the largest parade in the USA, Brooklyn Carnival is an
unparalleled and kaleidoscopic explosion of Island culture. Four
filmmakers (Sam Fleischner, Willis Glasspiegel, Tony Lowe and Olivia
Wyatt), each with a different camera, followed the ebb and flow of
ritual, dance and celebration for over 30 straight hours. Fleischner
and Lowe then edited the material into an appropriately breathless
hour-long collage. Utilizing pure sound and image, the film takes a
visceral dive from the fringe of Caribbean communities deep into the
rhythmic trances of the all-night J’ouvert processions and finally,
the raw transgressive spectacle of bodies and color at the Labor Day
ABOUT SPECTACLE THEATER
In 2010 three friends took over a ruined bodega off Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg and turned it into a shoestring microcinema with 27 seats.
Focusing on daily programming of “lost movies” that are unavailable on DVD or Netflix, Spectacle has also hosted nearly 30 live soundtrack performances to classic cult films by noted experimental musicians, as well as serving as a hub for both local and traveling filmmakers to curate programs and test new work.
ABOUT ETHNOGRAPHIC VID WWWORLD & ISLAND FILM WEEK
One of Spectacles regular evenings is Akiva Saunder’s and Tony Lowe’s Ethnographic Vid WWWorld night, where rare ethnographic documentaries rub up against YouTube videos and bootleg DVDs in a captivating whirlwind. Regional foods and intoxicants are enjoyed in an atmosphere more like a tiny dance club than a theater.
In September they’ll take over the entire space for a week (9/2 – 9/9) to celebrate Caribbean Carnival in Brooklyn (9/5) and the release of a new experimental documentary about last year’s Carnival called Below the Brain. Local Caribbean chefs, Soca DJs and more will accompany programming that includes low budget Haitian horror, rare voodoo documentaries, bootleg Jamaican gangsta films and more.
124 S. 3rd St, BK
All Screenings $5 or Carnival Pass for $20