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Baby Doll Kadrell Batiste

Trinidad Carnival and New Orleans Mardi Gras are very different but share some related traditions. Anyone wanting a window into the vibrant tradition of Baby Dolls in New Orleans must-watch You Can’t Stop Spirit, a short documentary directed and produced by Vashni Korin which is being shown at the virtual Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival(TTFF) on Saturday, accessible all day.

This experimental short is a documentary but almost in the form of a music video where the music and interview pieces are tightly integrated with the visuals.

The film starts with an entry into the city and the black masking and music traditions at Mardi Gras, not just the Baby Dolls, but also the Mardi Gras Indians and the Skull and Bones as well as second lining, voudou practices and the underlying spirituality of these black masking traditions in New Orleans.

An aerial shot brings the viewer into the city and you land in Congo Square home of traditional Sunday dance and drumming and you are quickly placed in the hands of Baby Dolls with the strong voices of Cinnamon Black (Voodoo Baby Doll Queen), Shannon Paxton (Queen Chocolate), and Kadrell Batiste (Renegade Rebel Baby Doll) celebrating why they choose to be Baby Dolls.

As one said: “I am a queen every day when I put this dress on!”

For others, they are transformed into a Baby Doll.

“You are like a diva in your community.”

“I mask because it gives me energy, it gives me life.”

The film focuses on the celebration of the Baby Dolls on the streets, the creation of their costumes, and stunning fashion shoots of the bands at the Marigny Opera House, a converted church in New Orleans.

Mardi Gras Baby Dolls wear satin dresses, have elaborately decorated parasols and gloves, and often carry baby bottles.

The Trinidad Baby Doll traditions of carrying a doll and confronting men on the streets claiming paternity is not part of their history.

In Trinidad, Baby Dolls tend to be individuals; in New Orleans, the Baby Dolls are in neighbourhood bands. The Baby Doll tradition had been fairly underground in New Orleans for decades but has recently become much more visible.

In part, this is because of the work of Dr Kim Vaz-Deville who created an exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans in 2017 and wrote the first book on them and has more recently edited an anthology of academic pieces on the tradition.

Baby Dolls are also getting much more press coverage in New Orleans. There are about a dozen baby doll bands in different neighbourhoods in the city and while that is small compared to the over 40 Mardi Gras Indian bands with whom they often mask together, the Baby Dolls presence in the city is on the increase and they are invited to participate in more events outside Carnival or St Joseph’s Day, more young women are drawn to this tradition.

You Can’t Stop Spirit is the first film by Vashni Korin, a young filmmaker who grew up in New York City, went to school at Xavier University in New Orleans and now works in the film industry in Los Angeles.

At Xavier, who was pursuing a journalism degree when a documentary film class her senior year led to her being involved in a school film under guidance from Dr Vaz-Deville and Dr Tia Smith on Baby Dolls. Working on that film, changed her career focus.

“For some reason, it turned on a light in me. Working with the Baby Dolls, I was drawn to them …They bring joy to their community.”

After finishing school and working on the school film on the Baby Dolls, she worked around New Orleans and did a music video for the Hot 8 Brass Band.

Meanwhile, she had moved to Los Angeles to pursue work in the documentary film industry in Los Angeles. She has been a production assistant for reality TV shows, a camera operator for others and a cinematographer for an upcoming Lizzo documentary.

But her love of the Baby Dolls led her to create her film.

“I wanted to do an artistic film from my point of view.”

She also wanted to focus on the renegades of the Baby Doll tradition.

“There’s Shannon Paxton of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Baby Dolls. I love her so much, she is so honest, so unapologetic and free-spirited. She’s not concerned about what others think and to me, that’s completely inspiring. She’s taught me life lessons that I couldn’t extract from any text.”

Korin is a jazz fan, especially free jazz and spiritual jazz, and she wanted the voices, the interview pieces, to be in conversation with the jazz music.

She sought out a young jazz star Angel Bat Dawid out of Chicago to compose for the film and used other jazz pieces to create a unique soundscape for it.

Besides being shown at the TTFF this weekend, You Can’t Stop Spirit, has been and will be shown at other festivals, already Third Horizon, Caribbean Tales International, and Camden International and is scheduled for the upcoming New Orleans Film Festival in November.

As Cinnamon Black reminds you in the film: “You can’t stop Spirit. Spirit doesn’t have a name and neither does feeling. For what is real, is!”

Go watch it!