and Jason Benjamin

Trinidad and Tobago’s annual Carnival is much more than a party. Peter Chelkowski and Jason Benjamin’s colorful, energetic documentary opens with a quotation from VS Naipaul, which argues that for Afro-Caribbean slaves, the daylight workday was an illusion and the nighttime world of gods and demons was real. It’s a provocative argument that gets mislaid as the hubbub of Carnival approaches, overwhelming the film’s commentators, who speak in generally understandable (but helpfully subtitled) English. The filmmakers’ investigation of Carnival’s gods and demons isn’t as incisive as the opening remarks suggest, and it leaves some significant questions unanswered. (Because the account begins with the Indo-Trini Naipaul, here’s one: What has been the effect of Trinidad’s large ethnic-Indian population on the island’s African-rooted, European-inflected traditions?) Whereas Carnival Roots is less than definitive, it is much better organized than last week’s AFI music doc, the incoherent Neapolitan Heart. Chelkowski and Benjamin use the preparations for Carnival as a ready-made narrative vehicle, with soca and calypso as its fuel. We watch such traditional costumes as the Midnite Robber and the Dragon being made and modeled, with some asides as to their significance. We watch steel-pan bands practice for the annual competition and such performers as Gypsy and Lady Africa advance in the extempo contests. (Extempo is sort of like battle rapping, but much more laid-back and melodic.) We observe people so elaborately costumed that they collectively look like a homemade version of the Star Wars cantina scene. And we’re enveloped by scantily clad female dancers, one of whom moons the camera so intimately that it’s almost an eclipse. Such scenes—as well as the ritual slitting of a goat’s neck—may startle some viewers, but ultimately Carnival Roots is little more than a party. —Mark Jenkins