Behind the scenes of “We Love We Self Up Here.” Subject Henry Soolachan at his home.

Transdisciplinary film explores Trinidad and Tobago

We Love We Self Up Here,” a new documentary focused on the complex histories of labor and migration in Trinidad and Tobago, is a transdisciplinary collaboration between Tao DuFour, assistant professor of architecture in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning; Natalie Melas, associate professor of comparative literature in the College of Arts and Sciences; and filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam.

The film explores lived experiences of urban, agricultural, and industrial landscapes tied to colonial and postcolonial legacies of sugar production and hydrocarbon extraction in Trinidad and Tobago, through the intimate stories of a few people. As the filmmakers note, the spaces of narration – domestic, neighborhood, and landscape – emerge as themselves “characters,” architectural and landscape witnesses to long processes of social and environmental change.

Behind the scenes of “We Love We Self Up Here.” Cornell students Austin Lillywhite (left) and Afifa Ltifi (slightly visible besides) with filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam.

“A central theme of the film is what my collaborators and I refer to as ‘Carribean environmentalities,’ an idea that speaks to the manner in which people, landscapes and stories are interlaced in environmental experience,” DuFour said in a video about the project.

Melas said she and DuFour have been exploring how the term “environment” might extend beyond environmental sciences and politics to encompass the lived experience of people in a landscape, the works of intellectuals and artists, and the histories of unclaimed landscapes, “particularly those of the Caribbean whose modern purpose was pure economic extraction, whose immense profits derived initially from the depredations of enslaved indigenous and African labor.”

The film grew out of a Mellon Expanded Practice Seminar co-taught by Melas and DuFour in fall 2019: Atmospheric Pressures: Climate Imaginaries and Migration in the Caribbean. The course included a weeklong field trip to Trinidad, and the researchers obtained funding to bring Arunasalam along. Initially, this raw footage was intended to be used by the seminar students for their research, but in 2020 Melas and DuFour secured funds to use the 10 hours of footage to create a short documentary film.

While some aspects of the film were planned, others were accidental, DuFour said. “We didn’t have a distinct preconception as to what the film would be about, apart from an interest in lived experience and the narrativity of space and landscape,” he said. “We had in a sense to discover the topic through the accidental quality of the footage.”

Interview with subject Patsy Bansfield.

The film features an original score by the Trinidadian musician Jeanine Ruiz. The music’s theme varies slightly to convey each narrator’s different landscape, infused with African, South Asian and Indian rhythms, as well as those that reflect the islands’ shared traditions with Venezuela.

The film is a truly interdisciplinary project, said Melas, bringing three very different viewpoints to the project, each of which transformed the film in different ways: “That of an architect and spatial theorist attuned in a particular way to the landscape of the island because he grew up there, that of a student and critic of Caribbean literature and thought in comparative context and finally that of the fine-hewed aesthetic and technical expertise of the filmmaker.”

The filmmakers intend for the documentary to serve as an object of research as well as provide a medium for teaching about the Caribbean, extractive landscapes and migration and labor in these contexts. Melas and DuFour have already used the film this way in a presentation at the Caribbean Studies Association last spring.

The film will be screened Nov. 12 in Milstein Hall Auditorium at 5:15 p.m. The event will include an introduction, panel and Q&A with the filmmakers. The event is free and open to members of the Cornell community.

View the documentary film trailer here.

Linda B. Glaser is news and media relations manager for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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