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Vice Blog

Blow the Brain with Below the Brian

What are you doing this weekend? Going to an over-the-top monster block party, soaking up rum through your conscience and feeding it codfish fritters and jerk chicken so it doesn’t throw up? Great. Why not watch a film about it, too?

by Greg Eggebeen
Sep 1 2011, 12:00am

What are you doing this weekend? Going to an over-the-top monster block party, soaking up rum through your conscience and feeding it codfish fritters and jerk chicken so it doesn’t throw up? Great. Why not watch a film about it, too?

Below The Brain is an experimental documentary about last year’s Caribbean Carnival in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The film tracks roughly 24 straight hours of the annual event, which is one of the largest parades in the country. Forgoing traditional documentary tropes, it’s an A/V diary of the night, a collage of heavy bass, costumes, face painting, cooking, drinking, drumming, dancing, partying, and dry humping. It plays like an ethnographic film that keeps forgetting it’s on acid.

The film premieres tonight at BAM and then begins a week-long theatrical run at Spectacle Theater tomorrow, where it will be paired with island-themed films ranging from voodoo documentaries to Haitian horror.

Let’s have a talk with the four filmmakers who made this thing. Quick background: Olivia Wyatt is a photographer and filmmaker who recently finished a project with Sublime Frequencies. Sam Fleischner’s last film was about a Brooklyn musician going on a Caribbean cruise. Tony Lowe makes beautiful experimental racket in the bands Zs and Skeletons. And you can thank music producer Wills Glasspiegel for discovering Shangaan Electro and bringing it to the US.

VICE: Did you guys dress up for the Carnival?
When we showed up, we weren't that decked out. But, throughout the night, we picked up a hat here, a flag there… we got sprayed and powdered and painted and fucked up.
Olivia: We all had matching hats so we could identify each other in the crowds. We were all representing different countries. Wills was representing Haiti.
Wills: Yeah, I rocked the Haiti flag pretty hard.

There's a great shot at about the 15-minute mark in the film where you're right in the middle of a huge crowd procession and the camera pans around to a group of guys wearing "Pray For Haiti" T-shirts. It reminded me that this was the first Caribbean fest since the Haiti earthquake. Did you detect a somber tone at the 2010 fest?
Sam: Haiti has a unique place in the Carnival because they're one of the only islands that doesn't speak English. So, they always have their own kind of unity and pride. Especially in the music, which has this French influence. And even though their music is melancholic, you really feel the catharsis for them. Because the whole calendar year is about Carnival. That's the one night that you get to go hard. Everyone is letting so much out in that Haiti sequence.
Olivia: I've been studying Haitian music for five years and I find that the lyrics when they're chanting are really sad, really depressing. But instrumentally, it's very uplifting. I like the juxtaposition of the translated lyrics on top of these rhythms that I find joyous.

Was there ever any attempt to do “man on the street” interviews?
Sam: We made a decision before we went out to have none of that. We just wanted the most visceral experience possible.
Olivia: I think it's more unique for the audience to be thrust into the experience. Sometimes when you include interviews, it takes away from the moment.
Wills: The character was the Carnival.
Tony: Someone said, "There's so many butts! Should we just shoot all the butts that we want?" And we decided to let our eyes shoot as many butts as we wanted. It’s also just an environment where it's almost impossible to grab somebody and interview them.

How does this New York Carnival hold up to other Caribbean ones around the world?
It's all the islands together. I know Miami has a really good one. Toronto has one. The UK has one. But Brooklyn is the shit. It's a love letter to Brooklyn. And Flatbush is also so maze-like that it's able to exist and hide in this great way.
Olivia: And I don't know if this is true for other countries in the Caribbean, but I know that New York has the largest population of Haitian immigrants of anywhere in the United States. Miami definitely has a lot, but I can say for sure there's more Haitians here than in Miami. The energy of everyone coming together because the populations are so large is amazing.
Tony: There's food everywhere too. Literally every store, every stoop, every business is grilling. It's insane.

Yeah, what did you guys eat while you were shooting? What are the good food spots?
We were eating a lot of Trinidadian chutney food. Curried goat. They busted out this corn chowder at sunrise that had dumplings in it and it was the perfect meal. We like Ali's Roti Shop for veggie roti. Peppa's Jerk Chicken is another spot. Scoops is the shit but it's closed during Carnival. The old rasta couple that owns it just chill out.

Has anyone from the actual festival seen Below The Brain yet?
We're planning on passing it out to everyone who is in the film. We called the organizers late in the game before we filmed and asked for press passes and they were gone. And they told us we couldn’t film without a press pass. So we just hopped the gates and the cops kicked us out four or five times but we kept going.

Damn. Did the cops ever get really tough on you?
They're really just looking out because the fest has had a reputation for violence in the past.
Wills: Working with Sam made me realize that you can get into places that you can never get into.
Tony: There's this one sequence where we're at a black-lit party during J'ouvert, which is the nighttime stuff. It was like this $45 ticket pre-carnival Jamaican party. And they were like, "You can't come in." And Sam was like, "Oh, just let us in for five minutes. We just want a drink." And it worked!

Sounds like a blast.

All of us had been to the parade before, but none of us had been to J'ouvert before.
Wills: I didn't even know about J'ouvert till Tony told me about it. And then it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Just a fully immersive experience. Everything happening.
Tony: It’s hard to describe how transformative it was for us. And the bond that it made among us. I mean, anytime you pull an all-nighter for something that's awesome, it always changes you in certain ways. But this was like the ultimate all-nighter. The same goes for those in attendance. There was a handful of people we talked to who were like, "Yo man, I've been up for four days! I'm twisted!" But they were doing great.

Below The Brain
Thursday, September 1
6:50 PM (with directors) and 9 PM
BAM Rose Cinema, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn

Various screenings September 2-9
Spectacle Theater
124 S. 3rd St., Brooklyn