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New documentary explores masculinity and manhood

  • 'I's Man' also follows the story of Utah Taylor Rolle's search for his father.

Guardian Managing Editor

Published: Aug 31, 2013

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Masculinity is generally described as a set of qualities, characteristics or roles generally considered typical of, or appropriate to a man. It’s a simple definition for a word laden with baggage.

A new documentary by author, educator, playwright and filmmaker Ian Strachan, “I’s Man: Manhood in The Bahamas”, attempts to unpack the baggage in the context of what it means to be male in The Bahamas.

“The film explores issues of gender and sexuality in our society and tries to do it in as balanced a way as possible,” Strachan told Guardian Arts&Culture.

The 90-minute documentary looks at what it means to be a “man” in The Bahamas through issues such as education, family, media, attitudes and values, and fatherhood. It brings to the surface some of the prejudices and cultural values that encompass this notion of manhood and what kind of impact that has had on Bahamian society, and how our colonial past may have played a significant role in this definition.

“It’s a complex issue,” said Strachan.

“The assumption is that there is a problem, and that this is worthy of analysis. That there is a crisis, which many people believe. If you look at it in some respects, this research would suggest in some ways there is a problem but in other ways there is not.”

Strachan says that what he’s discovered in the years-long process of making “I’s Man” is that you cannot talk about masculinity and manhood without discussing feminity and womanhood.

The two go hand-in-hand in this society, he says.

“We are in an odd contradictory space,” explained Strachan. “We are still in a patriarchal society that privileges men, where men still control political power and economic power, but those are men of a particular class.”

But there is also the overriding fact that there is a problem when it comes to male achievement in education. For example, there are more women attending The College of The Bahamas – about 70 percent of the students there are female.

And then there are the numbers that show that 90 percent of the population at Her Majesty’s Prisons is male.

“We seem to be talking about a male problem, but it doesn’t mean all men are disempowered in this society,” argues Strachan.

Strachan interviews 20-plus academics, professionals and others to closely examine the subject of masculinity. He also uses the story of Utah Taylor Rolle, who is on a search to find the father that he never knew and establish a relationship with him.

Strachan is familiar with the potential impact of an absent father, and says it was certain formative experiences – as a man raised by a single mother, the youngest of five boys, as a “bookish” student in a hyper-macho public school environment, and as a father of three young boys – that ultimately led him to make the documentary.

“When I finished ‘Show Me Your Motion’, I knew I wanted to do a film about manhood and masculinity,” he said.

“I think a lot of it had to do with my own coming into fatherhood, which forced me to think about my place in the life of my children, my role. It caused me to look back on the difference my absent father had made, and how I could have been a different person if my father had been there.”

Strachan says he has always been sensitive to this issue of “what is man” and how masculinity is expressed.

He has the sense that being a man in The Bahamas can be associated – for men of a certain grouping – with a number of problems. They are not interested in school, they are hostile to authority and follow a code of behavior that is anti-social.

Strachan believes that a lot of these problems could be addressed if society could re-engineer or re-conceptualize what a man is.

He is not saying that all men are a problem.

“To me this is a fundamental problem, and no man or woman escapes these politics in a culture like ours, which is so misogynist,” said Strachan.

The documentary poses a number of powerful questions that deserve to be addressed with deliberate policies and plans.

Why do we have so many single parent and broken homes? Is it a problem that most children are being raised by their mothers exclusively? In education, why are males less engaged, less invested and less successful in the school system?

The school system, says Strachan, is not set up to maximize and respect how boys learn and how they want to learn, and then there are cultural experiences that explain the lack of investment in education.

Strachan says he’s not necessarily setting out to answer all of the questions, but is trying to start a conversation.

“If there are any definitive hard answers, I would think you have to come away from the film wanting to re-examine this code of behavior. It calls on us to look at more than womanhood and manhood, and if there’s a definite political position, it is that patriarchy is real and it is a problem – for men and for women. It oppresses both. Any concept of self which denies you the right to show vulnerability, to feel all the emotions you have is a problem,” he said.

The film makes a clear case that the education system needs to consider how it could best serve the needs of the male population.

“It challenges us to consider some of our prejudices and cultural values, that to be intellectual is feminine and to be intellectual is white, which are extremely harmful values in this country,” said Strachan.

“To think the foreign white person is smart and we are dumb. And it’s okay for us to be dumb because that’s how we stay black. That’s how you be a man. That message is a big problem.”

Strachan says it is satisfying to know that there are people in this country who have thought and are thinking deeply about these issues, but notes there is a sense of urgency to figure out how we can move to the next phase by putting in place policies and actions to address the challenges faced by Bahamian men.

He believes we are already suffering from the fallout of a social code of black manhood that is rooted in anti-authority and devalues women.

“I hope that the film starts a conversation because you can’t address something this deep and complex in 90 minutes,” said Strachan. “I hope it starts conversations between men, between women, between men and women, about who we are allowed to be, who we allow ourselves to be, who we allow others to be.”

• “I’s Man” opens Thursday, September 5 at Galleria Cinemas, John F. Kennedy Drive.

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