Film is alive in Jamaica. The lush Caribbean island is known for birthing reggae and its gorgeous mountains and beaches, but it’s also home to a burgeoning film industry with young filmmakers, screenwriters, and actors at the helm. Earlier this month, I traveled to the island to observe and be immersed in ScreenCraft’s inaugural retreat at Jakes Treasure Beach in Jamaica – but my education went well beyond the intricacies of screenwriting. Instead, I was awakened to an industry on the verge of breaking through.
Jamaica’s Film Commissioner, Renee Robinson returned to her homeland to begin building Jamaica’s film industry into one that could compete on a global level. It had been her dream job since she was 19-years-old. “I’ve been building other people’s film industries for so long, and I wanted to be able to contribute to the development of my own film industry,” she told me as we sat overlooking the saltwater pool at Jakes. Building up an infrastructure for film on an island that’s home to less than three million people isn’t something you can simply wish into thin air. Robinson has faced various roadblocks –especially in a country that leans on tourism as its main industry. And yet, she’s determined to bridge the business of cinema with the ambition of the filmmakers and artists on the island. “I would say there are three streams of things that I have encountered that I think are ripe for change,” she articulated. “First, is content. Being a part of [an] underworld is a real thing, but it’s not the only life.” In Jamaica, films depicting gangsters and street life are abundant, but other stories need a platform as well.
Robinson has sought to shift the narrative and has solidified a partnership between her office, Jamaica Promotions Corporation (JAMPRO) and The Jamaica Film and Television Association (JAFTA). Together they have created the Propella program. “Propella is a talent discovery and script-to-screen program,” Robinson clarified. Along with Jamaica’s national fund CHASE (culture, health, arts, sports, and education), Propella identifies five filmmakers each year they want to support. Each filmmaker gets a mentor — an international script development expert who helps them take their project from treatment to final script. Then, the filmmakers go through a production boot camp and receive about $5,000 USD to produce their short films. Their education doesn’t stop there. Once their film is complete – the filmmakers go through another boot camp, this time focusing on festivals and distribution strategies before their films premiere at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival and another international market of JAMPRO’s choosing. Jamaican filmmakers have a plethora of stories to tell – Propella is simply guiding them on the path to bring their narratives to life.
Diverse stories aren’t Robinson’s sole concern. Since Jamaica is seen only as a service destination – lack of tax incentives and technical expertise are the other streams that need some major adjustments. This past summer when Idris Elba was on the island shooting his debut film Yardie at the same time Caribbean’s Next Top Model was filming, Jamaica’s two A teams were stretched extremely thin. More often than not international filmmakers choose to set their sights on other locations when it comes to shooting their movies altogether. The diversity of voices, as well as the regulatory and legislative challenges, means Robinson has her work cut out for her. However, over the course of her short tenure as Film Commissioner, the industry is already seeing some massive transformations.
JAFTA’s President Gabrielle Blackwood has definitely felt the wave of change. On the way back from an exhilarating helicopter ride that took me over the entire island one afternoon we chatted about her vision for the industry. An artist for as long as she can remember, Blackwood has always been passionate about telling stories – but it hasn’t been an easy road. “I think for me I’ve always wanted to do films that are not cliché., “ she expressed to me. “I’ve always wanted to do a western here.” Blackwood went to New Zealand after receiving her Bachelors in Communications in Jamaica to obtain her practical Masters in Filmmaking. “I went to New Zealand because I know they have shot things there and used it as a virtual location for other locations in the world. I wanted to see how I could then do that in Jamaica,“ she said thoughtfully.
Still, wanting and doing are two separate things. Traditional, urban stories are still seen as more marketable in the international film industry, which can be stifling to creativity. That isn’t to say it can’t be done. Programs like ScreenCraft have been integral in connecting the Jamaican film industry to the international space. For their retreat, ScreenCraft provided two paid spaces to JAFTA members. Getting diverse voices from Jamaica into the international film space requires a solid foundation from the beginning. “It’s also a matter of writing those stories properly,“ Blackwood explained to me. “Developing scripts well, structure et cetera. I know one of the reasons why we resurrected our film association is because we never really had one per se.”
Filmmaker Kurt Wright — one of Jamaica’s most sought-after Assistant Directors and his partner Noelle Kerr a producer and actress, were eager to link up with ScreenCraft. They’ve been in the trenches of the film industry and seen first hand how it’s shifted and changed. Wright’s father was a photographer—but he was never inspired to pick up a camera until his work in animation began to give him migraines. His friend suggested that he take a camera course and the rest is history. “I find that Jamaican people and the crews that we have over here are very accustomed to hard work,“ Wright told me in as we sat on a bench at Jamaica’s infamous Pelican Bar. The bar sits smack dab in the middle of the Caribbean Ocean. “They’re really accustomed to doing a lot with a little, which is something that speaks to the nature of the people. I think what just keeps us going — everybody from directors, writers, PAs, grips, whatever, is just a genuine love for the industry and for seeing the stuff you create at the end of the day come to life.”
Kerr has encountered different obstacles in her acting career. Though the industry is certainly revving up, diverse roles for actresses are still few and far between. “For me being an actress in Jamaica is that situation where I’m always called for the same roles,” she explained to me. “Or, I’m not called because there just is nowhere for me. There is a portrayal of Jamaica in the media –the tourist versions of it. That’s what [people[ picture when they come to Jamaica. So if they’re thinking of coming to Jamaica to tell a story [about] the Jamaican experience, or about women in Jamaica, I’m not the woman they’re thinking of.”
Still, Kerr has not allowed the lack of roles to prevent her from thriving in an industry that she loves. She just began to look at things differently. “I’ve started producing as well in order to pay the bills, but it’s something that I enjoy,“ she said smiling. Acting though will always be her first love. “There is an energy and a challenge of subtlety of film acting that inspires me and pushes me, “ she explained. “I could see there’s a shift in energy that’s been happening in the last year with more films — even with short films or television cause people are really really trying to make their own concepts again. So I feel that shift as an actress, there are more opportunities.”
One Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter has seen global recognition and acclaim. His 2013 debut film Better Mus’ Come was the first to garner massive global attention since Jamaica’s first feature film, 1972’s The Harder They Come. It also changed the game for him. “Better Mus’ Come has definitely opened doors for me, “ he said. ”The hunger for content and necessity for diverse voices in cinema & TV has changed the conversation a lot in the past few years and made clear the need for storytellers like myself. Also, Jamaica “sells itself” as I’m often told, so if you have a fresh, smart project and the ability to execute, you definitely have a shot.” For Saulter, this is why ScreenCraft and projects like Propella are so vital. “Programs like ScreenCraft are essential not only in helping to develop confident writers with distinct voices but in also exposing developing writers to people who have had real success,” he explained. “People that were in the same position at some point in their career. As simple as it sounds, this reminds us all how possible our dreams are to achieve.”
The desire for success in film is tangible on all levels for cinephiles in Jamaica. “The energy, the enthusiasm is different,” Blackwood told me grinning. “It has been different over the last few years.” Jamaicans who aren’t in the industry have also become increasingly invested. “People are asking about local films. We have a lot more people writing, developing and creating their own content, “ she explained. “Not waiting on somebody else to do it for them. Not waiting on somebody to hand them an opportunity. They’re asking questions. They want to know how to do this. They want to know where they can get assistance. So that’s really good. There’s a gelling of the film community.”
Saulter understands what it means to break through and find success first hand. “It proved that I have a vision and a voice that is relevant,” he explained. And the fact that I did so many jobs (writer/director/cinematographer/editor) on a period piece no less has proven that I am a force to be reckoned with. Once you have a project with some recognition under your belt, it’s a lot easier to get into the right rooms and start those convos about the next project.” Saulter’s forthcoming film Sprinter will explore the world of track and field through the eyes of a young man who believes that if he runs fast enough, he’ll be able to bring his family back together.
Another example of enthusiasm for different kinds of content is the project that Wright brought with him to the ScreenCraft retreat. His TV pilot Fairhaven is set in North Carolina. “This is the first thing that I’ve ever written that really went out of its way to not have anything to do with Jamaica whatsoever,” he told me as the sun set behind us. “It’s basically the story of a young man, Kyle Fairhaven, who has inherited his grandfather’s estate. So he travels from Maine to North Carolina to check out the estate. He grew up there as a child, [but] hasn’t been there in years. [He] discovers that his family has some really deep, dark secrets behind them involving magic and murder and all kinds of other things.”
Wright can already visualize the Jamaican film industry’s potential. “It’s a momentum that’s building. You can feel it, it’s tangible, and it’s something that I feel like I’m really looking forward to getting bigger, getting faster, that kind of thing because it’s definitely happening, “ Wright emphasized. “I just want to see the Jamaican industry reach a point where people can genuinely feel comfortable making a living as a filmmaker. At the end of the day we all do it for the passion, but we also have bills to pay. It’s nice to be able to pay those bills, [and] see your creations come to life and see your career fly. That’s what I want for everybody out here because the Jamaican film industry really is one kind of big, happy, dysfunctional family.”
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami