Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : September 10th 2017 Contents 10 UWI TODAY -- SUNDAY 10 SEPTEMBER, 2017
"I heard a quote once from somebody," Amir tells me.
"You don't see the art on the screen. You only see the ashes."
He is conveying to me the level of research and planning
that went into the creation of his documentary lm "Who
"Ninety percent of the work that you do is before
you actually lm," he tells me. But in going back over the
interview, in transcribing the notes, it seems clear that
the quote works just as well as a description of the young
Amir Aether Valen Ali, age 22, a student of e UWI St.
Augustine Film Programme, gave a powerful introduction to
his work at the 2016 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. He
won awards for both Best T&T Short Film -- Documentary
and the United Nations T&T Award for Best Emerging
Documentary Filmmaker (see http://sta.uwi.edu/uwitoday/
It was an impressive victory but not as impressive as
Amir's true creative endeavor -- himself.
"People need to be more self-aware," he says. And he
practices what he preaches.
Writer's cheat. And a writer with a word limit is a
massive cheater. For a story like this, in the limited space
and time provided, you have to pretend you have the
essence of an individual. You construct your own narrative
about the subject, you take short cuts and hope it's accurate
enough. But how can you attempt to capture in brief what
someone has worked so hard to create? All I can say with
certainty is that I have encountered few people so focused
on understanding themselves and doing the work to become
a better person.
"In secondary school I heard a quote from Chuck
Palahniuk," he says. " e rst step for any young person
with drive and talent but no money to change their world
is to change their culture. To write the books, paint the art,
make the music, shoot the lms."
He says, "I always wanted to change my world. A er I
heard that quote I made the decision to go into lm to do so."
e most immediate display of what Amir calls "his
workaholic self " is in the short documentary. Beautifully
shot, "Who I Say I Am" is made up primarily of interviews
with a cross-section of people, asking them about their
names and their names' connection to their identity. Its
30-minute length is just a fraction of the time spent on
the project -- especially the research component, the 90%.
Academic papers on identity and the e ects of naming,
books on globalization, and even the Orisha tradition, all
form the references for the lm.
Identity is his grand theme. Like Hemingway's Old Man
with his sh, he has developed a universe around it, one that
is simultaneously personal to his life and experiences but
also universal in what he views as its capacity to improve
people, and by extension, society.
"Film is more communication and behavioural science
than art to me," he says. "From what I've seen online and
among my peers who don't know about lm they think of it
just as individualism and personal expression. If the person
on the other end doesn't relate to what you put before them
then it's just for you. It's not changing anybody."
And change is the goal. Film is just the medium.
Every topic we discuss -- from film techniques to
superheroes (Superman is his favourite because of his
adherence to his moral code) -- it's clear he has given great
thought to the things that interest him. e in uences he
cites, while including lmmakers such as Terrence Malick,
comprise an unorthodox mix of writers (Neil Gaiman),
psychologists (Jordan Peterson) and billionaire motivational
speakers (Gary Vaynerchuk). If anything connects them, it's
a muscular doctrine of self-development.
Filmmaker reinvents himself
BY JOEL HENRY
" at's what drives me, trying to make people better,"
From his appearance in "Who I say I Am" or in
photos following his lm festival win, Amir looks like the
conventional depiction of a lm student -- waves of green
dye in his hair, close-cropped beard and bright, smiling eyes.
But his life experience has not been conventional.
Initially he had no intention of even being a lmmaker.
As a student of Presentation College in Chaguanas, he was
required to work consistently towards academic excellence
with a goal of getting into a professional eld.
"Most people there were into medicine, engineering
or law. You had to fall into one of those categories," he says.
Amir started making short lms in Form 4 "just for
fun". It became his mode of self-expression.
"I never really acted up in school," he says. "I just didn't
follow the trend. I didn't follow the path they wanted me
to take. Teachers used to tell me all the time I could get a
scholarship in engineering or something else, but I found I
didn't really care about that. Making short lms did more
for me personally."
If there were oppositional forces at Presentation
College, the forces at home were much worse. Amir grew up
in rough economic circumstances in Warrenville, Cunupia
and there was anger and violence in the home.
"My mother had to go through a lot and when things
started to get really bad and she decided enough was enough
and that she was going to leave, they made it extremely hard
on her. During the height of the family breakdown I saw the
worst sides of everyone in my family. Some things people
did were unforgivable," he says. "I think I learned more from
seeing their mistakes. More of who I am is based on not
wanting to have certain qualities that they have."
It was this urge to distance himself from family that
partially prompted him to change his name.
"In 2015 I started reevaluating my identity and my life,
and what I wanted out of the rest of my life. I felt like the
name Amir Ali represented me, but didn't fully represent
who I was anymore, and certainly wasn't going to represent
who I wanted to be later in life. So I decided at the end of
2015 to add the names 'Aether' and 'Valen' and make the
documentary lm throughout 2016 about the impact that
a person's name has on their identity, and how it in uences
their sense of self," he says.
"Aether" has several meanings but the one Amir likes
best comes from Ancient Greece -- both the personi cation
of light and the air that the Gods breathe. "Valen" is a Latin
root word meaning "strong."
"I treat each of my names as a different entity.
Sometimes I talk to myself as Amir, sometimes I talk to
myself as Aether, sometimes I talk to myself as Valen. To
me, a name is not merely a conglomeration of letters put
together as a convenient way for someone to refer to me. I
treat them as part of my identity," he says.
Of all the labour beneath the surface of "Who I Say I
Am" this is the most crucial, the personal work. But in the
lm he is only one of several people asked to grapple with the
topic. Amir asked them the same questions he asked himself.
It's a striking blueprint for life and art: self-examination,
personal development and creative expression that uses the
personal for communal bene t.
"I think if everybody knew themselves better they
would be the best version of themselves. And if everybody
is the best version of themselves then the world would be
better. As they say, ' x yourself, x the world'."
FILM STUDIES IN CUBA
By the time you are reading this, Amir will most likely
be in Cuba, attending the International Film and TV School
in San Antonio de Los Banos. He will be undertaking a
three-year Master's programme in Documentary Direction,
all costs covered thanks to a scholarship from the Cuomo
Foundation, an Italy-based organisation that funds health
and educational projects in the developing world. It was
an unexpected gi in what has already been an incredible
season of success.
"I didn't even consider leaving the country before," he
laughs. " e rst time I was ever in a plane was earlier this
year. One of the prizes when I won the lm festival was a
trip to the Rotterdam Film Festival in Curacao."
Amir received the scholarship through the assistance
of author Anna Levi, who met him while working with the
UWI Film Programme.
" e Directing class was given chapters of my MFA
THEATRE OF LIFE
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