The Jamaican film industry — still a mirage

By Barbara Blake-Hannah

Wednesday, April 23, 2014    

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There has been a lot of talk lately about 'the Jamaican film industry', but in my view there is no Jamaican film industry. In the eyes of the public officials in charge of managing a national film industry, and in the eyes of many of the Jamaican film workers who have gained technical experience working on foreign film productions, a 'film industry' is one in which major Hollywood blockbusters are filmed in Jamaica, giving employment to labourers, services and a high tourism profile for Jamaica's scenic beauty.

However, this is a myopic view that completely ignores the real possibility of creating a true Jamaican film industry, where work is constantly being done and income arises, as well as growth and development.

People come to Jamaica every day and make films simply and primarily because Jamaica is world famous as a place where the culture, music, scenery, and history provide multiple opportunities for films of all kinds to be made. As Jamaica's reggae music and the Rastafari culture from which it was born became more and more globally famous, more and more international reggae lovers have been making films about any and all aspects of Jamaican culture. They do this because they are aware that the global interest in Jamaica and reggae provides lucrative returns from sales of any and all products with that Jamaican cultural brand. So film products are continually being made by non-Jamaican film-makers who earn serious returns.

My Reggae Film Festival partner in England has an archive of hundreds of films featuring aspects of Jamaican culture and more come up on his radar every day. This is what inspired us to start the Jamaica International Reggae Film Festival, in 2008, to show some of them. And each year many others beg for inclusion and the resulting exposure they receive from showing their film in Jamaica to a Jamaican audience.

However, the lack of support for the creative products of Jamaica's own film-makers means 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. That they have succeeded in so many small and large ways is a testament to our creativity; the same creativity that made Marley and reggae music world-famous.

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. Documentaries are a specially fertile genre for Jamaican films. While Storm Saulter's feature film Better Mus' Come has been screened at several international film festivals and received critical acclaim, that film's festival screenings are outnumbered by Esther Anderson's documentary on Bob Marley's early years that has appeared at 37 film festivals and even been translated into Serbian for one event.

Documentaries like Bad Friday on the Coral Gardens massacre, and The First Rasta about Leonard Howell, both made by European film-makers, have been available for download purchase shortly after release. Documentaries on reggae's history, such as Japan's Ruff & Tuff: Founders of the Original Riddim, Brazil's Dub Echoes and Holland's Holding On To Jah all enjoy as active a presence in entertainment media sales as reggae albums.

Those who hope to improve Jamaica's film industry need to recognise this reality and turn our film focus on inspiring and assisting our indigenous film-makers to follow this trend and capture our culture on film, not just for historical reasons, but personal and national revenue. The Reggae Film Festival has recognised the work of our native film-makers by giving Jamaican films and film-makers exhibition space in which to meet and develop film ideas, and many film projects have been born from this encounter.

However, exposure is all we have been able to give at the moment. We wish that one day the powers that be — namely, Ministry of Industry, Ministry of Tourism & Entertainment, Ministry of Culture — could see the advantage of supporting the event and using it to attract major film-makers and investors to Jamaica. Other Caribbean islands use their film festival to bring potential investors to see their island's film industry at work and play in social settings that advertise the location. On the other hand, Jamaica continues to refuse support for our indigenous film festival — now six years old — which nevertheless has been able, with small resources, to unearth and showcase the work of many young Jamaican film-makers.

As the dialogue continues, I continue to make the same two proposals: First, have the annual JCDC cultural festival include a competition for film scripts, with the winner receiving production funding from the CHASE Fund. And, second, our island's cinema monopoly, which limits our film experience to Hollywood blockbusters, should tithe a portion of entrance prices to a national film fund.

I hope the current dialogue will not just be another nine-day wonder.

Barbara Blake Hannah is an author, documentarian and director of the Jamaica International Reggae Film Festival.





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