Road movie with a 94-year old to show next week at Caribbean Tales Film Festival
The Trinidadian Name Game: Nang by Nang
By Stephen Weir
I suggested to award winning Canadian filmmaker Richard Fung that his new documentary about 94-year old Nang could be called Travels with my Trinidadian Aunt. “No!” he said. “Everyone seems to think that Nang is my aunt, but, even though we are 30-years apart, she is my cousin!”
Fung – an award winning Trinidadian born filmmaker and a professor at the OCAD University in downtown Toronto – is premiering his 40-minute documentary Nang by Nang, next Wednesday evening (September 12) at the Royal Cinema as part of the Caribbean Tales Film Festival. Nine days later he will be premiering the movie again in Trinidad as part of their Film Festival. He spoke to me last week about the movie at his home in Toronto.
Fung’s film is the story of his aunt who now lives in the US and how they meet and travelled together back to Trinidad to explore their shared family tree. The documentary is told for the most part by Nang – Fung does jump in whenever a clarification about what his cousin has said on camera is needed.
Fung likes to say that his cousin has always lived outside the box and that she grew up poor, illegitimate, mixed-race and female, but has survived by defying convention. “My grandmother was part French and Negro,” Nang recounts in the film. “My great-grandmother was a Carib Indian from the Orinoco. She was a midwife for the indentured East Indian labourers. She was a medicine woman so she didn’t have to buy food -- they gave her everything!”
Nang’s parents didn’t marry -- she was brought up for many years by their grandmother and Richard Fung’s mother (Nang’s aunt), until her birth mother came back and took her away. Without a father and being raised by a number of different family members resulted in Nang having many names. So numerous are the sir-name changes that Fung uses dissolving identity graphics in his film to help the audience keep track!
“A’Nang was my Chinese name but my birth certificate says Dorothy”. She was also called Mavis by her classmates because she was born in the month of May and a talcum powder called Mavis was popular at the time – “they called me Mayvis Mavis”. She was confirmed as Lai Awa and adopted a last name of Russell to register in school. Russell was her spelling of the French name of Roussell from her mother’s side of the family.
At the age of 17 her birth mother threw her out of the house, to begin life on her own in Port of Spain. Over the next 77 some years, Nang married five times sometimes very briefly. Her first marriage in Trinidad lasted almost a year - she left him when he started cheating on her.
Alone with a child and with no formal training, she danced with choreographer Geoffrey Holder, who later won Tony Awards for the Broadway hit The Wiz. Then in her twenties, she went to work in the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela, and saved enough to buy a house. She started university in New York in her 40s.
|Richard Fung at home in Toronto - Stephen Weir photograph|
She took the names of at least three of her husbands (Mazzarino, Mathis and Henry). Nang made a conscious decision not to take the name of husband number three a NAACP integration lawyer named Greenberg. She was concerned that having a Jewish name on her passport could result in her getting thrown out of an airplane by terrorists!
Fung didn’t know about his cousin when he was growing up in Trinidad. Nang became part of his life only after his family had moved to Canada. Nang started calling his late mother in Canada back in the Nineties. She had a very generous long distance plan and they would talk for hours. Four years ago, Richard and Net met for the first time. He filmed her three times – twice in her home in New Mexico and once on a road trip they took together to Trinidad.
The Nang by Nang trip back to Trinidad is emotional. Although it has been some 70 years and most of the homes and family businesses are now gone, some of the old timers remember her and are glad to see her again!
“ This is the third film that I have made about my Trinidadian family, and I guess this will probably be my last because there aren’t many of us left.” said Fung. In 1988 he made a film The Way to My Father’s Village about his father looking at his roots in both China and the Caribbean. Two years later My Mother’s Place was filmed about his mother’s Trini roots.
“ I am fascinated by family relationships in Trinidad,” said Fung. “Because of our history I think it important to explore the formation of race, class, and gender under colonialism (and how that relates to the norms of the 21st century).”
Nang by Nang could well be called Nine by Nine, because it covers the nine decades of his cousin’s life. “She isn’t travelling much these days, so she won’t be in Trinidad or Toronto for the two premiers. She has seen the film though, and likes it,” said Fung. “She still drives a car in New Mexico and keeps herself busy singing in a choir that performs at funerals!”