Mariel Brown’s short, Small Man tells the story of John Ambrose Kenwyn Rawlins, an ordinary man of modest means with a gift for making extraordinary, creative objects. With a skill that went largely unrecognized — outside his immediate family and friends — in his lifetime, Rawlins had the ability to imagine entire worlds, orchestrating scenes which afforded him a universe of freedom that eluded him in his real, day-to-day life.
Rawlins was a husband, father, grandfather and public servant. He lived inside the proverbial box. Obedient and a man of service, Rawlins came alive in the small workshop he maintained beneath his Caribbean home. It was there where Rawlings used found materials he re-purposed, re-imagined and reconfigured into 1/16th-scaled works of art and interest.
Representing a rupture from conventional notions of Black manhood, Brown’s tale presents the humble life, loves and heartbreak of this unexpected hero. Small Man offers an alternative look at the Black male experience, of one Caribbean man in particular.
Her latest film means to challenge assumptions about Black men, Brown said, but more importantly, the project means to tell the story of this unsung Caribbean-everyman.
Brown said she, “wanted to tell the story in a Caribbean context,” in order to debunk conventions and pop cultural myths that presume black men don’t have intellectual hobbies, pastimes that challenge the senses, and require the use and mastery of equipment, and the development of a distinct skill over extended periods of time.
“[Caribbean men do more than] play cricket, soccer and go drinking…” she said in a recent interview for AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange.
In England, Brown continued, such a hobby would be more typical. But “hobbies that have to do with making things, in particular,” Brown said, “is not something you see everyday in the Caribbean.”
She added: “I’ve not seen anything [like it].”
Incorporating music, tight and angled camera shots and pacing that seems to mirror Rawlins’ style of artistry, the short film is both exacting and enormously creative in its presentation.
“I realized in the process, “ Brown said, “that the heart of [this film] had to be told through the objects.”
Intricate and remarkably telling, many of the details Rawlins’ imbued in his objects were only revealed to Brown through the expanded focus of her camera viewfinder, which seemed to offer an insight into the soul of Rawlins’s body of work. In composite, Brown characterized her film chronicling Rawlins life as an “elegant film.” The movie is precise in exploring the narrative of a man’s efforts to build a life despite the disappointment of a dream that was never quite realized.
Small Man also illustrates the art and artistry of the film’s hero, a unique craftsman of unmistakable talent, while underscoring the ingenuity of the filmmaker in telling the tale.
The life core to the Small Man narrative has special resonance for Brown. The film is based on a short story written by Rawlins’ son, who is also a friend to the filmmaker. In working on the project, Brown said Small Man taught her how to make a film about a loved one without making it a eulogy.
Brown is the only documentary producer in this season of AfroPop shorts. She’s currently in production on a documentary film about her father, a well-known Trinidadian writer. A magazine feature writer-turned filmmaker, she is head of the Trinidada & Tobago-based creative and production company SAVANT Ltd., which launched in 2004. Her films to date include: “The Insatiable Season”; “The Solitary Alchemist”; and “Inward Hunger: The Story of Eric Williams.” (Click here to learn more about these films)
Brown’s projects have focused on the lives and labors of love of her main characters. Small Man’s look at Rawlins’ work is no exception. From simple push toys to elaborate diorama models depicting battleship and dockyards, to fully appointed miniature homes, Rawlings built everything from scratch, sometimes spending upwards of a year on a single model. The project examines the person and the process.
“It’s the story of a life in 10 minutes,” Brown said.
Ironically, Rawlins’ driving passion is not his greatest gift. That passion is unveiled in the film and forms a bittersweet and motivating chord within the greater narrative about Rawlins’ devotion to his creations which “had to do with control and order about the world,” Brown said.
“[His] was a small life,” Brown told Afro Pop, “but a fulfilled life, a happy life.” And in that regard, Rawlins’ life, like the film, was grand.
You can watch Small Man and other shorts in the AfroPoP Caribbean Shorts series here.