Sunday, June 08, 2008

BIFF: Panman

The drum has always held great spiritual significance beyond its ostensible role making music, particularly in the Caribbean. It inspired Duke Ellington to write A Drum is a Woman, the story of Carribee Joe and his personified drum Madam Zajj, for an installment of CBS’ the United States Steel Hour. It was a program that probably would have appealed to the lead character of Panman, Rhythm of the Palms (trailer here), which screened at BIFF this weekend.

The drum in question for Panman is the steel pan drum, which originated in Trinidad, but spread throughout the Caribbean, including the Dutch Antilles. It is the instrument that has given meaning to Harry Daniel’s life, but as the film opens, his traditional style of music has fallen out of favor. He labors through a demeaning resort gig, before his deteriorating body collapses, which cues a flashback of his musical rise and fall, told through the narration of his estranged student Jacko.

Though fictional, Daniel’s career follows a path recognizable to those who have seen a lot of musical biographies. As a young man, his musical talent initially makes him a star, but his business concerns are damaged by his troubled brother’s incompetence. Along the way, he meets the right woman, but his obsessive dedication to his music leads him to neglect his family.

Oddly, there is not a lot of steel pan in Panman. It seems more interested in using the instrument as a symbol—representing both the traditional music losing popularity to modern electronic forms, and African culture, as opposed to the Dutch, which many on St. Maarten persist in identifying with. Fortunately, Panman is relatively restrained when addressing issues of cultural identity. (It is considered the first film to be produced by St. Maarten, though directed by the Dutch Sander Burger.)

As a result, the individual drama has to carry the load in Panman, and to that end, screenwriter Ian Valz is quite credible as Daniel, giving the audience both rage and nuance. Frankly, the entire cast holds up well, considering there are not a lot of musical interludes to leaven the script’s trials and tragedies.

Although Valz’s Daniel avoided the cliché of self-destructive substance abuse, there is much in Daniel’s story arc which seems predictable. In a sense though, the lack of faith shown in pan music by the filmmakers undercuts their lionization of Daniel. However, things never get irreparably bogged down in melodrama, and Panman does convey a good sense of life on St. Maarten. Highly watchable, it still might disappoint hardcore steel drum enthusiasts.