An enormous poster of the movie “Casablanca” looms over a desk as film producers Kim Johnson and Jean Michel Gilbert speak, via Skype, from Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. The poster does not suggest any particular passion for Humphrey Bogart. Rather, it is a sly reference to the history of the steel pan, also known as the steel drum, the instrument invented on the island of Trinidad, and the subject of a 2014 film produced by Gilbert and Johnson.
According to them, the steel pan bands of the 1940s and 1950s took their names from popular movies of the day. “Casablanca was one of the greatest early bands,” says Johnson, a native Trinidadian and a leading scholar of the history of steel pan music.
That music is the subject of “PAN! Our Music Odyssey,” a docudrama they produced with Barthélémy Fougea. The film will screen June 14 at the AFI Silver Theatre as part of the 2015 DC Caribbean FilmFest, running June 12-14.
Directed by Jérôme Guiot and Thierry Teston, it’s no cookie-cutter documentary. “It’s a very peculiar hybrid movie,” Johnson admits, referring to the film’s blend of historical fiction, talking-head interviews and reality-TV-style chronicling of a contemporary steel band contest.
The fictional narrative evokes the history and prehistory of steel pan, focusing particularly on the period during and after World War II, when Trinidadians began creating percussion instruments from the metal drums that were used to store oil and other liquids on U.S. military bases.
In the ensuing decades, the music’s popularity spread across the globe. The film demonstrates that international reach with documentary footage featuring Japanese and French steel pan virtuosos who arrive in Trinidad to compete in a battle of the bands.
Initially, says Johnson, who wrote the screenplay, the film did not involve weaving together so many types of storytelling. “My original idea, when I thought of making a movie about steel pan, was a straight documentary — a National Geographic, Ken Burns, history-of-jazz-type thing,” he remembers.
But after creating a short film about steel pan for a museum exhibition he was curating, Johnson teamed up for a longer movie with Gilbert, a French music and film producer who has lived in Trinidad for over two decades. Gilbert brought on Fougea, a French documentary specialist whose credits include the César award-winning 2013 film “On the Way to School.”
According to Johnson, Fougea thought the traditional documentary format would be “boring.” At Fougea’s suggestion, the screenplay grew to encompass not just documentary but also historical fiction and battle-of-the-band segments. “We want people to be informed and to learn something,” says Gilbert, “but we want to do it in a way that is entertaining and that keeps the viewer completely involved.”
For the dramatic sections, Johnson wrote a story featuring a character named Stephen “Goldteeth” Clarke, a 19-year-old who plays in a band called the Maltese Falcons (get it?) in the years after World War II. Despite run-ins with the police, Goldteeth succeeds in creating a craze for converting 55-gallon oil drums into musical instruments. The historical information contained in this story line complements some of the recollections shared by the movie’s expert interviewees.
Johnson says that, all in all, “PAN!” is a notably upbeat film.
“It’s very fashionable in documentaries to focus on suffering and repression,” he says, especially when a film is “about third-world people and about black people.” But the tale of the steel pan is a “triumphant” one, Johnson added, incorporating artistic accomplishment, hospitality and openness. The sound of steel pan is so appealing that it has attracted practitioners from around the world. And Trinidad’s musicians welcome the influx, he notes.
“If you are good enough,” Johnson says, “it doesn’t matter who you are — your religion, your race, your nationality, your gender, your age. In the steel bands, and especially the large ones, there are represented every single human group. And that is quite a unique achievement.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
PAN! Our Music Odyssey June 14 at 4 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Tickets: $7-$12. 301-495-6700. www.afi.com/silver.