Jamaica’s film industry — 100 years on and we are still gasping for breath

Richard Blackford

Monday, January 02, 2017

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In 2016, Jamaica quietly closed out its 100th year since it became involved in the process of film-making. Yes, Jamaica’s dalliance in the film industry dates back 100 years with one of the earliest pictures shot in the island being the 1916 Herbert Brenon directed silent film A Daughter of the Gods, which starred the Australian swimmer Annette Kellermann. In 1939, Jamaica would host the Arthur H Leonard-directed The Devil’s Daughter, which starred Nina Mae McKinney. This opened the door for films such as the 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and the 1973 film Papillion, parts of which were filmed at Xtabi Resorts in Negril. Other major international films to have graced our shores included the 1958 Rudolph Cartier’s A Passionate Summer, the 1962 James Bond flick Dr No, which starred Sean Connery; and in 1965 Alexander Mackendrick’s classic film A High Wind in Jamaica, which starred Anthony Quinn and James Coburn. Coburn would return to the island two years later in 1967 to star in the spy thriller, In like Flint.


While snippets of some of the major international titles that have been done on the island provides a picture of the foundation of the industry, the most impacting film must have been the Perry Henzell (co-written by Trevor Rhone) written and directed
The Harder they Come in 1972, which starred Jimmy Cliff and Janet Bartley. Easily the best known and most highly acclaimed film to have been produced locally, this film provides perhaps the best ‘test case’ of the difficulties involved with trying to pursue film-making and development on the island as, despite the critical acclaim that the film went on to earn, our bureaucracy makes for absolute nightmares given the disconnect that exists between the members of the bureaucracy, the artists involved in the creative pursuits, and the Jamaican business community in general.


It was against this background that I drummed up a conversation last week with a young Jamaican currently engaged in the business of film-making back home regarding the opportunities for Jamaicans in the local film-making industry in general, and the business opportunities that exist for the island as a whole as far as the development of the industry is concerned. Keep in mind Jamaica’s consistent ranking among the top five of the most culturally important countries in the world, the significance of developing a film industry with its own language, its reggae music and dance should be of critical importance in harnessing the broader benefits of Brand Jamaica. Add to that is the fact that we are currently engaged in the struggle to move the economic needle in positive territory, a necessary exercise if we are to exorcise the demons of criminality that darken our social and economic doorstep.


The individual in question conceded that Jamaica’s long dalliance with film-making, while able to provide opportunities, suffers from a type of miasma that mires any opportunity for serious development. This is a view that is shared by many others engaged in the business locally. The consensus is that this is largely due to the disconnect that characterises the respective oversight agencies in the country and, even more, a lack of appreciation for the real value of the industry — not only in terms of its capacity for employment creation, but also its ability to transfer cutting-edge technologies in a rapidly changing social and economic environment.


Peter Polack is a Cayman-based writer and journalist who had been collecting research material for an upcoming book on the island’s film industry. According to him, "In Jamaica, film has been improperly positioned with a focus on regulation and profit engineering while neglecting the creative process. This has undermined an industry that has been mismanaged to its own detriment. There has been no major international film production in Jamaica since 2010 and none known on the horizon. Polack pointed to the move by the Australian officials which whisked away the
Pirates of the Caribbean, where an anticipated US$100 million, of scarce foreign currency was lost to Jamaica, and poured into their local economies."


Kim-Marie Spence, Jampro’s former film commissioner, admits that Jamaica has lost approximately 10 films to her knowledge — including
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, filmed in Puerto Rico (valued at US$250 million);
Blood Diamond, filmed in South Africa (valued at US$100 million);
Die Another Day, filmed in Cuba (US$142 million); and
Shottas 2, filmed in Dominican Republic (US$3 million).


Polack is not alone with his critique, as one of the country’s best-known film producers Lennie Little-White, who returned to Jamaica 40 years ago to start Mediamix Productions, likened the island’s film industry as a "one-night stand". According to Little-White, in an interview with
The Gleaner, "There is no long-term planning, with an umbrella perspective...and no parallel consciousness to think long term."


Little-White’s Mediamix company has productions to its credit such as
Royal Palm Estate, plus the full-length movies,
Children of Babylon and
Glory to Gloriana. In that interview with
The Gleaner, Little-White criticised that various governments continue to give the creative industries "lip service", a position heightened by the recent opening of the US$1.3-million movie,
Home Again, a Jamaican story which the country lost to Trinidad as a location and where Trinidadians were attempting to learn Jamaican accents to complement the Jamaicans who were flown into Port of Spain to help simulate the experience.


Jamaica lost this film for the very same reason that it lost
Pirates of the Caribbean. That reason is the lack of incentives to the production companies which forced Jamaican-Canadian Jennifer Holness, to take her film to Trinidad and Tobago, where she was offered a 35 per cent rebate.


Jampro claims to support tax credits but that introducing them has proven to be difficult. One of the challenges for Jamaica advancing tax incentives is the country’s agreements with the IMF [International Monetary Fund], which has restricted tax reform in order to maintain a level of fiscal responsibility.


According to Little-White, we are not thinking like Mexico, Australia and Canada that developed a vibrant film/television industry "someone comes in and spends some money in three weeks and then they are gone – there is no residual effect that benefits the Jamaican film community. The whole emphasis is reporting on the amount of foreign money made for the year. The film industry in Jamaica is like a one-night stand".


The consistent call for incentives was evident during a reported short interview with Delano Forbes of the Jamaica Film Producers Association, who admitted that if Jamaica did not offer the kind of incentives that are now commonplace worldwide, there was no way the country could compete as a destination for film production. It is instructive that Holness lives in one of the most prolific film-making capitals in the world — Toronto, and she is on record saying that last year, Toronto had CDN$1.2 billion worth of productions. According to her: "About 20 or 30 years ago Toronto decided they were going to introduce real tax incentives in order to stimulate its struggling film industry and attract the Americans away from Hollywood south of the border and so we put in the incentives and the Americans started coming to our shores. When they first came they came just to service their productions, because they had no confidence in the Canadians’ proficiency in film-making but, as time went by, the Americans would hire local people and our people started to get trained and move up in the ranks. Today, things are different, movie director, Giamo Del Toro, for instance, shot Pacific Rim in Toronto valued at US$250 million. The vast majority of the crew were Canadians and, obviously, all of the services were from Canadians. Giamo loved it so much he has now bought a house in Canada and now shoots all his movies there. This has come about because of the long-term investment the Canadian government put into Toronto," she noted.


It would appear that what Jamaica needs is to develop a paradigm shift in the current mindset (according to Pollock) from a film commission under a business promotion portfolio, which is in turn under a ministry related to economic development, industry, investment or commerce, and a move to an independent body connected to government departments only in fulfilment of a strong mandate: The return of Jamaica to being Little Hollywood. What is perhaps needed is someone at the policy formulation level, someone the ilk of former Prime Minister Edward Seaga who, according to Little-White, "generally understood the creative industries and was always out in the open celebrating Jamaica’s indigenous culture and folk forms. Seaga had an appreciation that the creative industries can be a change agent especially as it relates to the poor. Seaga had a vision for the arts to take pride of place in our social and economic landscape."


Lenny Little-White is of the opinion that if the creative industries were treated like tourism is treated, the net benefit would probably be greater than what the country now gets from the number-one foreign exchange earner.


Years after Perry Henzell’s passing, the same lack of serious support for the creative products of Jamaica’s own film-makers continues. One of the unintended consequences of this is that while Jamaica can boast of having thousands of films about its country and culture made by non-Jamaicans and Jamaicans living elsewhere, Jamaicans have to be extremely patient, hard-working and creative to get their ideas on film. Success becomes a function of tenacity and the accompanying patience that fires our creativity as a people. While we all hope for many Jamaican blockbuster feature films in the heritage of
The Harder They Come, we ignore our cultural reality and the opportunity to satisfy a global market for Jamaican culture.





Richard Hugh Blackford is a self-taught artist, writer and social commentator. He shares his time between Coral Springs, Florida, and Kingston, Jamaica. www.yardabraawd.com Send comments to the Observer or
richardhblackford@gmail.com.

   

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