J'can films for Smithsonian

H2 Worker among works to be showcased in Washington

Observer senior reporter

Sunday, September 30, 2018

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Jamaica will receive some exposure between October 24 and 27 when the Smithsonian African American Film Festival hits screens at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, United States.

At least four of the 80 films being showcased at the festival have some link to the island.

The line-up includes local director Storm Saulter's latest project Sprinter which has been entered into the competition segment of the festival. American film-maker Ephraim Asili's 2016 work Kindah — an experimental work — is a poignant cinemagraphic link between two African diaspora communities, one in Hudson, New York, and the other in Accompong, St Elizabeth. Sankofa, the 1993 film featuring dub poet Mutabaruka, has also made into the roster.

The 28-year old documentary H2 Worker which was produced and directed by American Stephanie Black, is being dusted off by the Smithsonian for this project.

H2 Worker, which won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990, reveals the systematic exploitation of Caribbean labourers by the Florida sugar industry from World War II through the 1990s. This is the first time in more than 25 years this film is being screened in the region.

Black feels very honoured to have her film be included in this project.

“They invited the film to be part of the festival, which is just amazing. The museum organised a screening in Florida in June and seeing it again there, it just resonated with everyone in the room after all these years, which is just great... although the film was shown on PBS Television nationwide, it was never shown in West Palm Beach as the sugar lobby was so powerful that they were able to not have it shown in that area, ”Black told the Jamaica Observer.

“The film stands on its own and I am so pleased that the Smithsonian has invited us to be part of this incredible line-up and it will be shown as a film... it is important for the audience to see it in the original format in which it was shot. This also gives the film a second life as it will now be seen by another generation. This is so important for a film that does not have enough commercial viability to be taken on by a distributor... so I am so pleased,” she continued.

Black was a film student at New York University, and she was seeking subjects for a competition when she stumbled on the conditions experienced by migrant workers brought into the United States to cut sugar cane from Jamaica and other Caribbean Islands.

“I first met some migrant stream farm workers and they told me about the conditions that they were working under. I was then introduced to a Haitian minister and he told me he could get me into the barracks in Florida. When we got there I would just feel it — that — to tell me about the hell they were going through but were afraid,” said Black.

Here in Jamaica, Black's film was met with mixed reactions. On one hand there were some who felt the film could ruin the programme from which many Jamaicans had benefited for years, while there were those who were pleased with the light it shone on the conditions under which the workers operated.

“I believe in using film as a tool for change. I believe in exposing wrongdoing and creating awareness through my work. The screenings did just that through the right balance of Jamaican and American perspectives. Issues such as the fact that workers could not collect their compulsory savings when they got back to Jamaica was highlighted in the film. I can't say the film was responsible, but the Minister of Labour JAG Smith would later be convicted of stealing the farm workers money,” said Black.

Jamaica has remained dear to Black since H2 Worker. She would later produce and direct Life and Debt, a piece on the effects of globalisation on small developing states like Jamaica. And she says there's more to come.

“There is another major project coming that is Jamaica related. I can't speak about it. I am just awaiting funding so until then I won't speak,” she hinted.

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