Thanks to Nina Rothe for this wonderful review in the Huffington Post!
Highlights of the Dubai Film Festival: Jason Carter’s ‘Grain of Sand’ Is the Soulful Documentary the World Needs Right Now
Countries around the Gulf have grown at dizzying speeds, and yet how does that Marcus Garvey saying go… “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” We can connect to our electronic devices, drive the fastest cars, don the latest fashions and eat nouvelle cuisine, but our soul needs the grounding power of knowing exactly where we came from to fuel where we are going.
Carter’s voyage focuses on Bahrain, a country he’s been traveling to since 1993. “Twenty five years ago, you could smell Khaleeji culture at the airport,” he utters on camera, and I knew precisely what he meant. Yet as a musician, it is through the music that Carter continues to connect to modern-day Bahrain, because, although hidden away in dusty corner of the country, there are still hints of those traditional sounds present it turns out!
‘Grain of Sand’ screens this year at the Dubai International Film Festival, as part of their screenings on The Beach, on December 8th — and it cannot be missed. Following is my chat with Jason Carter, who could be described as an understated rockstar, which proved insightful and illuminating.
There is an interesting motif you bring up in your film, the idea that culture and our identity only exist when others care about us/it. Was this something you discovered through the making of ‘Grain of Sand’ or an idea you consciously started out with?
Jason Carter: This was one of the main reasons for making the film, if not the main reason. I feel that culture and identity are closely linked and when development takes place on a rapid scale, as it has in the Arabian Gulf, then the identity or in this case, the heritage of the region is challenged. I have been coming to the Gulf since 1993 and witnessed first hand the changes that have taken place in the region. Any culture that undergoes such rapid changes in such a short period of time, will ultimately become confused. We have our individual (personal) identity, the identity of our social groups, our collective or national identity and then our identity in how we see ourselves globally. I feel that culture is the lifeblood of society, the beating heart of a nation. The music and culture of the pearl divers was crucial to the existence of the peoples of the Arabian Gulf for years and ‘Grain of Sand’ is an attempt to shed light, for a moment, on this magical culture and heritage. If we connect with where we come from, we become more secure in where we are heading.
How many years did it take to film your personal documentary?
Carter: I first had the idea for the film in 2013 and initial filming took place in the UAE in the autumn of 2014. The footage we shot at this time was not sufficient to warrant a film, so the project stalled for the moment. Then I decided to shift focus to Bahrain so this segment was filmed in February this year by Toby Watts and Ray Haddad. Like any creative process, one has to go through various ups and downs to get to the point so this autumn has been a time of editing, re-editing, stalling, then finally shaping what we had into a story. The film has turned out to be slightly more personal that I intended, but it was my personal passion for the theme that has driven the project all along, so in a way, it has turned out as it should.
Also, I would like to thank composer and flautist Ahmed Al Ghanem and Dar Burshaid Shabab Al Hidd as this film would be nothing without them.
Was there something you had to leave out which is a personal favorite moment? If so, what was it?
Carter: Ah! The art of ruthlessness in any creative process is paramount, meaning that one has to be strict in knowing what to keep and what to discard. There was one scene where I sat with a bunch of Bengali fishermen on a boat in Bahrain Bay singing the National Anthem of Bangladesh. This scene really empathized the power of music and how this brings people together. I tried SO hard to include this scene and wherever I put it in the film, it seemed to stand out. It seemed to detract from the deeper theme of the Gulf and pearl diving. Maybe I should have kept it in, but it always seemed to stand out for some reason, so in the end I had to discard it.
How much does knowing our past, our identity, our cultural heritage, help in making the right decisions for our future?
Carter: Very good question. I was an orphan, and eventually adopted into a wonderful family at the age of two. I met my birth parents, separately, a few years ago and it is hard to explain, but in meeting them, something “clicked” inside me. Like I knew where I came from. It was more of a “sense” than a conscious acknowledgment, something felt complete, Meeting my birth parents somehow completed my identity. I feel the same goes for society in a collective sense, if we know where we come from, then this only adds to our identity as a culture, and in turn, helps us form intelligent decisions for the future.
You say at the beginning of your film that you went looking for the last pearl divers of Bahrain but were too late. And yet, you managed a film which takes us back in time while also showing us the beauty of our present, if we live in the moment. How important is living in the moment for you?
Carter: Ultimately, this moment is all we have. In Western Culture, we tend to focus on tomorrow and the future and whilst this is important, it is quite a luxury. There are many regions of the world that have to focus on the now because tomorrow is unpredictable. I have performed in more than 100 countries including places such as North Korea and Afghanistan. I would describe Kabul as a place of relentless hope, despite tragic circumstances. This relentless hope was infectious because there was a sense of celebration amidst devastation. These pearl diving guys have a very similar attitude, they live in the moment, which I find inspiring and life – affirming.
Music is of course the great unifier. But does cinema also hold similar powers?
Carter: I feel that the arts in general, is a place where people come together naturally, despite cultural or social differences. This is my first (but not the last) step into cinema and what I love about film, is that stories, especially personal stories can have a lasting impact on an audience. I personally love films that challenge my thought processes, I am addicted to film. It is an amazing medium that can reach audiences across the globe either via cinemas or via the internet. So yes, cinema can reach people in a way that live concerts cannot and vice versa.
If you had been born in Bahrain, in the mid-1900s, what do you think you would have been doing in life?
Carter: Wow. I would imagine that I would have been a fisherman! I love the sea, I grew up by the sea, I could not imagine life without the sea. So I imagine I would have lived in a hut on the beach, working as a fisherman.
One message you hope your audience will take away from ‘Grain of Sand’?
Carter: In a world that seems increasingly divided and global identity in a state of confusion with Brexit, conflict in the Middle East and threats of conflict on the Korean Peninsula, I see ‘Grain of Sand’ as an antidote to this current sense of unbalance. The film shows, quite simply, if you wish to reach out to another person, another culture, then you can. If you are curious, go. Take a step towards the other. Go and find out. Talk to people with an open mind, an open heart.
And finally, how do you describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?
Carter: I would describe myself as a relentless peacemaker. Whenever I engage in a creative process it always seems to culminate in some kind of “bridge building”. It never starts out that way but always ends up so. It seems to be at the core of my nature. I am an ambivert. Sometimes extroverted and sometimes introverted. I either love being at the centre of things or I need to be totally alone. I am equally at home on stage in front of thousands of people or standing alone in the desert. I need both. One day I will find the balance, but not just yet. Or maybe this is the balance and I am just not seeing it. Maybe I have arrived.
I hope not. It is only in the traveling that we arrive and the journey that it is most important.