From Doc to Documentarian: Dr. James Knight

March 2014 movie madness mona short shirt film dr james knight James KnightI wrote this article back when the film debuted in 2013,  published in the local press but also with the intention of posting it here; don’t know why I didn’t post it before now. But better late than never. Pictures above top – screening of the film in Jamaica; bottom – Dr. James Knight.

By Joanne C. Hillhouse

That the man behind the new Short Shirt documentary is Dr. James Knight, a man primarily known for his work in public health, may have come as a surprise to some. That he’d been building his skills doing screenwriting, animation and related courses at U.S. institutions such as Fordham, New York Film Academy, and the New York Film Academy’s branch at Universal Studios in Hollywood in preparation for this role, a bigger surprise yet. It took some doing too; for one, Dr. Knight noted, “I couldn’t get study leave because the things I went to study had nothing to do with medicine”. There were hurdles but such was his determination that he found creative ways to make it happen.

To those who really know Dr. Knight, it likely seems a natural evolution for the boy who became enamored with documentary films while running the projector on films out of Africa and the diaspora for the African Caribbean Liberation Movement while yet in his teens.

“We used to go to different school rooms to show films about the struggle for liberation,” said Dr. Knight. “I got to appreciate the very effective medium that the documentary film can be for transmitting information (while entertaining).”

That appreciation and the theory and practice he’s acquired in recent years come together in the skilled storytelling that is his film, The Making of the Monarch. It can’t have been easy but he was driven by a keen appreciation for things local, his love of the medium, creativity enough to craft a two hour film with very limited archival footage to pull from, and a determination to do it right or not at all. His promise to himself: “it’s either going to be good or it’s not going to be seen.”

That his first subject was Short Shirt, a legend of the calypso game, who had done a fair job of scrapbooking his life, was a bonus. “He had material that surprised me,” said Dr. Knight, referencing the Monarch’s old performance footage. “He came to my house with a whole set of them. He was very cautious at first, but when he realized that I was serious, he began to open up his archives.”

Even with Short Shirt’s archives being unusually rich, he still had to scout for key interviews and additional footage – the Star Black footage for instance, that’s courtesy of Mayfield who has lots of vintage Antiguan scenes on reel. Dr. Knight commented on the fact that in general though, whether due to economics or mindset, we, culturally, tend not to hold on to things; old images, old paraphernalia. “Without that tradition, documentary production is a challenge in these parts,” he said.

Still, he made it work, although it wasn’t always certain that he would. “I did not know clearly how I would have done this until maybe a few years ago,” Dr. Knight said. His stints in film schools and internships programmes overseas helped make this much clear to him: it’s all about the story. “Here is where you situate the character early, who he is, where he came from, what triggered…” and so on.

The challenge in having a living subject as the subject of your documentary is of course the conflict between the story you’re trying to tell and the story of their life as they see it. Dr. Knight did a good job of bringing balance to the telling of the life of a complex man and artiste, and, in the end, satisfying the subject as well. “I think Short Shirt was satisfied, after a while, that he would have to live with some things he didn’t remember or wish to remember; and there are some skeletons that couldn’t be sealed away in the closet,” Dr. Knight said. That said, from all accounts, the Monarch is “extremely pleased; this is something that he is going to leave behind that he is extremely pleased with.”

The film is set for screenings has screened in other parts of the Caribbean and the U.S. All who’ve seen it already can agree that it’s only the beginning. From school teacher to journalism to cartooning to medicine to public health education to filmmaking, Dr. Knight has proven himself to be a man of many interests; and these days his interest is in continuing to use the documentary medium to tell stories of Antigua. “I have several ideas in mind,” he said. “Having done that (the Making of the Monarch), I hope I’ve established myself as someone who can do a documentary of some worth (and) I hope they’ll be able to receive other (films).” Health issues and political issues are some of the sub-topics that appeal to him; a documentary on the life of Leonard Tim Hector perhaps. It’s one of many ideas he’s mulling now that he’s announced his arrival as Antigua and Barbuda’s latest filmmaker.

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Filed under A & B Lit News Plus, A & B WRITINGS

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