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No Bois Man no cry

Sunday, September 1, 2013
A still from the film.

Few English-speaking people outside of T&T may know that “bois” means “stick” in French; many in the non-T&T Diaspora attending the CaribbeanTales world premiere of Christopher Laird’s documentary, No Bois Man No Fraid, in Toronto on Wednesday coming—a day before the opening of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)—then, may be surprised to discover that the entity credited as the film’s co-presenter, the Bois Academy, is not an educational institute, but one dedicated to furthering the fine art of cracking heads open with sticks. The film will have its Caribbean premiere during the upcoming T&T Film Festival (ttff). Director Laird (who is also chairman of the T&T Film Co, which helped sponsor the film’s marketing) is a pre-eminent name in the T&T film and visual media industry. He was a founder-director of Gayelle, the excellent television magazine show that, a generation on, remains the benchmark for local cultural programming, and of the local television channel it spawned; and the very name of both these significant efforts is taken from the world of stick- (and cock-) fighting: the gayelle, the French word for the ring in which the action takes place. 


Laird’s substantial technical and artistic gifts—and only someone entirely ignorant of film would deny that those gifts would impress in both ttff and TIFF—endow most of all that is good about No Bois Man No Fraid. It is beautifully shot, and almost as impressively edited, by Laird himself. The visual storytelling is impeccable and the pacing never lags, a particularly admirable feat, considering how much of the runtime is taken up with talking heads; indeed, the only technical flaws a pedant might find in No Bois are that more of it should have been filmed in and around the gayelle, and that it could have been made more forceful by being made more gory. The film, then, is almost technically flawless; which means that its failings are conceptual; and the principal failure in that regard is that the film assumes what it ought to prove: that kalinda, or stick-fighting, is a legitimate martial art, akin to karate, taekwondo or judo. It is not. As much as we, as Trinis, may be proud of our cultural heritage—and Laird, the Bois Academy and the film’s protagonists clearly are deeply proud of “bois”—we ought to be able to step back sufficiently far from our appreciation of ourselves to concede that, as popular as it may be in Poui Trace, St Mary’s Village, stick-fighting is not likely to be the next new sport at the Olympics. 


The film’s worst moment comes when, without any feint at irony, it compares the antics of stick-fighters in Mayaro to the achievements of Sir Viv Richards, probably Test cricket’s most feared and respected batsman. No one can doubt that there is bravery in bois; but it’s a long way from Viv snapping chewing gum as he walked out to the middle in a cloth cap to slap English, Aussie—and immediately post-apartheid South African—pace to the boundary, as if, in the poet Ian McDonald’s words, “he alone would turn back slavery.” It is a pity the film allows itself such indulgence—much of the dialogue showering towering praise on perhaps not so lofty deeds could have been scripted by Rubadiri Victor for Emancipation Day—because, if the sound is turned down to silence the self-praise, the visual conveys, startlingly, all that the force-ripe words fail to: the courage of stick-fighters and the huge raw excitement the sport generates. For the pictures alone, No Bois is very definitely worthwhile; with the pictures alone, at many points, it would have been even better. “Playing stick” is thrilling, for sure, but, by allowing stick men a place they have not been shown to have earned, No Bois has not only failed to raise kalinda to the “art form” it would like it to be, it has raised the hackles of those who might, otherwise, have been willing, indeed, eager, to praise it.


(BC on TV returns next week.)


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