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Interview: Chris Strikes and Joella Crichton Discuss Carnival and ‘Becoming a Queen’

For many, Carnival conjures up images of carefree dancing in colorful costumes. But for some, the annual festival is a serious, competitive endeavor, with titles to be won for their performances. In Chris Strikes‘ latest documentary, the Caribbean-Canadian director takes us behind the scenes with Joella Crichton, an icon of Toronto’s Carnival as she aims to win her 10th and final crown as Queen of the Bands. Recently, Awards Radar chatted with Strikes and Crichton to talk the culture and journey of Becoming a Queen.

Shane Slater: What was your background and relationship to carnival before making this film?

Chris Strikes: So my background is Jamaican and Bajan. My mom’s from Jamaica, my dad’s from Barbados. And because of Carnival here in Toronto, I just grew up going to carnival. I’ve actually never played mas in Toronto, but I’ve been there most years. There’s some years that I have missed, but I’ve been there most years to be a part of the party and the celebrations. And then over the last, I think five years or so, I’ve been going there primarily to film. So that’s my relationship with carnival. And I was planning to play mas this year, except with the promotion of the film I don’t know if I’ll have a chance to.

SS: How much did you know about Joella before doing the film and what made you want to make a whole film about her?

CS: I didn’t really know Joella too much before making the film. I actually knew her sister Mischka before, and I didn’t know that they were sisters. It’s funny, I discovered they were sisters when I went to Joella’s mom’s house. But Joella and I had worked together on a previous short film and we did a table read at her mom’s house. When I was there, we saw all the costume displays, the headpieces and photos blown up on the walls of Joella in costume. And I was like, “I’ve never seen this before. This looks incredible, it’s like a little mini-museum. Has anybody ever told your story before?” And she said outside of a couple of little news features and some interviews, not really. Not in a film sort of dynamic.

At that time, she was going for nine queen crowns. And so I was like, “If you win this year, you’re gonna be nine-time winner. And then next year, you’re gonna be going for ten. That’s a huge milestone. We should do a documentary about it.” So we ended up sitting down and I just asked her a whole bunch of questions. And I was like, “Wow, this is a really incredible story here.”

SS: Joella, what was your initial reaction to making such a personal film and how did it compare to your usual carnival experience?

Joella Crichton: I didn’t really think we had a story. I know that sounds terrible. But like, who would be interested in this? I obviously trusted Chris and was like, “Okay, if you want to do something, sure.” But I didn’t really recognize the importance of telling that story and the importance of sharing the traditional aspects. Especially the art form, and what we have been doing as Canadians and as Caribbean-Canadians.

It’s different to do something like a documentary, because it’s not a performance. It’s your honesty and just welcoming somebody into your everyday life. I’m an actor in my career, so it’s not like I haven’t haven’t been in front of the camera. But it was kind of tough at first, just to be like, “Come with me wherever I go.” It’s sort of strange to be sharing those intimate parts of my life. But I also think it’s important, and I really care about those parts of the film. Especially in the community, I think there are people who know me as the queen but don’t really know the softer parts of me, or just the stuff that I truly care about.

So I really am happy that people can see the more intimate parts of me and my family and how much we love the art form. I think it’s really important for people to see people’s genuine, real life. It takes away that whole facade thing. It just eliminates it and really sees how hard we work and how regular we all are, and how much we care about carnival.

SS: In the Caribbean, sometimes we don’t document our history and culture as well as we should. What was your experience like in getting access to the photos and archival videos?

CS: It was actually quite difficult. So Kenny Coombs, the costume designer who also features in the film, has an incredible archive of photos that he’s been taking over the years. So a lot of the still photo images are courtesy of Kenny Coombs. But in terms of the videos, there’s not that much pre-2016.

There’s a gentleman here in Toronto named Randy Massiah. He yearly has just set up a camera from the stands and has filmed king and queen and filmed some of the other events. And he just posted them on YouTube just for people to enjoy just have it there. If not for him, it would have been very difficult to get a lot of footage, because a lot of people just don’t have a lot of footage. There are some elders in the community who do have some footage, but they’re all on older mediums where it’s difficult to get a hold of them just because of their age. And throughout the latter stages of the project, we were going through the pandemic. Then just to be able to find a facility to convert and digitize the footage was difficult.

So one of the things that I’m hoping that this film does do is encourage people, not just in Toronto, but all over the world of Caribbean descent, to really document our stories and document our events. And not just Carnival, but just any celebration that involves our culture. Because you’re right, much of our history is orally told, and orally passed down. But in terms of presenting it on screen, or presenting it in exhibitions, and things like that, it does become difficult. So I’m hoping that projects like this and films like this can inspire others to continue to document our stories and our culture.

SS: Joella, you mentioned in the film that you started to realize that outside of Caribbean communities, people weren’t seeing Carnival as an art form. Has there been any improvement in that perception?

JC: Internally, there’s a lot of pride for what we do. But it just wasn’t respected and seen as something “valuable” through the white lens. And that caused us to just keep it close and keep it small in our own hearts. But we know what the value is. I think in some ways, when you get into a larger audience, you have to sort of mainstream things and make things okay for everybody. And so that can sometimes water things down a little bit. However, I do feel like when people actually are aware and actually know the history and come and see it, they’re pretty amazed at what we do. And to know that there’s this oral tradition that’s been passed down through people who are in these mas camps, making these elaborate costumes and the fact that people don’t know about it, that just blows my mind.

But it connects to the type of work that we have to do to spread the word and get the support from people in our own communities and other communities. I don’t know, when I think about a question like that, I just sort of think why do we need other people to ever understand, or acknowledge it? I don’t care if some person thinks it’s art or not. But I do, only because I want it to continue and I want the next generation to be able to take it in. And to do that in this country, we need the support.

It’s different if it’s in Trinidad or or St. Vincent, because it’s part of the culture. And people live with it, it’s their lives. But here, we need the government to understand. We need sponsorships, we need these sorts of things. So yes, it’s going in the right direction, and that’s good.

They recently acknowledged Emancipation Day here in Ontario and connecting the festival with emancipation sort of helps people understand a little bit more what it is about. That is what it’s about. It’s not just a party.

CS: I think they just announced it either at the end of last year, or the beginning of this year that 2022 is going to be the first time they officially recognize August 1 as Emancipation Day, and then tie the connection with Carnival. And what’s beautiful about that is that it helps to anchor Carnival in in more heritage and more history. In Canada, we have these kinds of heritage moments, these heritage minutes. So down the line, we could have a heritage minute that’s just Carnival and talking about the importance of Carnival as it relates here in Canada. So I think that was a huge accomplishment.

SS: What has the audience response been like, particularly from non-Caribbean people? Have there been any memorable reactions?

CS: I think there have been two in-person screenings. One in Toronto, one in Baltimore. And the response has been really positive toward the film. And some of the more memorable responses has just been how much people either within or outside of the community have learned from the film. That’s one of my favorite parts of the film as well. Just how much I learned in just making the film and talking to Joella, Kenny and really hearing from the elders an Mischka as well. And just really hearing about some of the more historical and cultural aspects of it, plus doing my research in it.

So I really appreciate just how much it has inspired people to say they want to play mas. I don’t know if they’ll actually get around to doing it. But just the fact that a number of people have said they want to play mas, or they want to attend carnival for the first time after seeing the film.

One of the funniest responses, and surprising to me, is I’ve had white people literally ask me “Am I allowed to go to carnival?” [Laughs]. Yes, Carnival is for all! And that’s actually one of my favorite parts of the film, when Joella and Mischka talk about the diversity in it. And the fact that Carnival is for everybody. Just sign up and get a costume and meet us on the road as Joella says. So the opportunity to be able to tell people that Carnival is for you too. Come and experience it.

People don’t ask that about other festivals. Like when we have Pride, people don’t ask. When we have Taste of the Danforth, which is a big Greek Festival in the Greek part of Toronto, people don’t ask, “Can I come? I’m not Greek.” So why is it that people are asking is Carnival for me? So that’s what I’ve really appreciated about the response to the film.

SS: How did COVID affect the atmosphere surrounding Carnival? Was it a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder?”

JC: Listen, summer in Toronto is really good. And we’re all desperate for warm weather because of winter and snow. The festival is a huge part of the city. So I think people did truly miss it and they tried to do a couple of little internet Zoom things just to keep the vibe going. The Caribbean community is so desperate to gather and so desperate to celebrate and to create and I guess people appreciate it more once you don’t have it. And for planning sake, I know on the other end of things, it’s a bit of a break for them to be able to plan and reconnect and get a little head start on what’s going to happen for this year.

CS: And I’ll also add that in terms of an appreciation point of view, it’s not just within our community, but from government levels as well because so many tourism dollars have been lost. And that’s right across many other industries and festivals and whatnot. So it’s not just carnival. But I think what the pandemic did was really help ignite how important Carnival is to Toronto, Ontario and Canada, from an economic standpoint. So I think that was like a blessing in disguise because there has been a thing of people taking advantage of Carnival. Hotels making a lot of money, restaurants making a lot of money, but that money not really coming back into community. The government’s making a lot of money, but it’s not really coming back into community and not being properly dispersed.

So I think this really gave the opportunity for Carnival to have some leverage to be able to improve and attract that sort of seriousness that we need the sponsorship, we need this funding. And you have proof here of what happens when this festival doesn’t happen. So this is the value we bring to the city. So respect us.

SS: There’s a sensitive question in the film that you were unable to fully answer at the time, about whether some of the negativity you’ve received played into your decision to stop competing. I was wondering if you had some more time to reflect on that, and what would you say to that question now?

JC: I have thought about that. And I was even just thinking about that a little bit today. Because I love this community. And I love this art form. And you know, it was originally never about that and became about that. I think sometimes, people have to lift other people up. And that’s what I needed from my community. I needed them to say, “We love what you’re doing. We love that you’ve won all these times, and we want you to get it again.”

For example, there have been other people who’ve tried to go for 10 wins, and they just can’t seem to get it. Even though their costumes are wonderful and great. And I would often wonder about them and I don’t know if it’s just like they can’t give it to somebody for 10. I don’t think it’s jealousy, I don’t know what it is. And I’m always going to feel that and I’m always gonna feel even if I were to ever play queen again, I’m just going to feel like there’s just something that they just won’t celebrate the person who’s done it. They just won’t give it to them.

And then you see them at like an event today and they’re all like, “Oh, we love you though.” But then if I were to say I’m competing again, it’s like second or third place. What is that in our communities? Why can’t we do that? Do you know?

SS: I’ve seen it throughout the Caribbean. In St. Vincent, in Jamaica. People are very supportive up to a certain point. Have you had any struggles with this attitude, Chris?

CS: I’ve not been as blessed to accomplish as much as Joella has. So we’ll see how that goes down the line. I don’t know what that is. I do know that in other cultures, and I’m trying to remember if these are British cultures, or Australia, where there’s a saying where they don’t want anybody to stand out too tall from everybody else. And I wonder if just deep down, there’s a deep-seated route that is connected to that saying. I wonder if that has something to do with that.

In the United States for example, people are really celebrated and uplifted for the most part, right? That’s basically what Hollywood is about. So I don’t know why we tend to not have that outside of like, Usain Bolt or even Machel Montano and a couple of outliers.

JC: I just want to add, I don’t want a free ride. And I would say that about Kenny and my mom, too. We want to put in the work to do it. We’ll give the best performance we can. And so sometimes, even if you do that, you’re still not gonna get it. And so it’s sort of doesn’t make you want to continue, you know?

It’s a good question. For my community and for the art form, I would always be willing. The competition part is the part I love. I have a bit of a competitive spirit.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

Becoming a Queen releases June 14 on digital platforms.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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