Slow Jam, Experiencing Media as Love Letter in Jamaica or What I thought of the 'OnePeople' Documentary

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by Terri Francis
August 9, 2012 5:44 PM
2 Comments
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Media offers the means and material of an imagined community. Growing up a Jah-American, I always connected to Jamaica by rooting for Jamaican athletes during the Olympics. Motion pictures, radio, newspapers and the Internet have provided occasions for Jamaicans and track fans everywhere in diaspora to connect through watching our athletes over the last few days. Everyone comes home to this in-between territory of our collective imagination, to a rectangle of light, sustained by electricity, watching the unfolding projected narrative.

The instant Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the 100M Gold in London, I felt the electricity in Half-Way Tree, Kingston as shouts of joy erupted from every shop window and all along the streets. As I cheered on Usain Bolt along with my friends while emailing back-and-forth with my brother, who was back in the United States, I felt myself part of the temporary at-home-ness offered by the media presentation of these events. In homes but most especially in shops and every other kind of public space with a television broadcast, screens magnetized eyes and bodies. Several times at the supermarket I felt a sudden hush in the hustle and bustle only to turn and see a small audience framed in front of a television set to watch our athletes, us. BBC reports showed exuberant Jamaican fans in Brixton (London) and Half-Way Tree (Kingston)-- showing us to each other like on a videophone, allowing us to see and hear our British, American, Canadian and Jamaican countrymen abroad and a yard (What those in the viewing audience unaccustomed to Jamaican English understood from this I couldn't guess.); seeing those swiftly run races, footage of the crowd's reaction and the repetition of these images, connects us--I felt connected-- through the picture.

Motion pictures coming out of Jamaica are not merely reflective though, nor are they transparent windows of content. Film shapes as it frames. But for international viewers perhaps especially the diasporic Jamaican subject, characterized by dislocations, they do convey content as they catalyze an imagined family reunion. 

On Jamaica’s Independence Day this week I joined a global Kingston audience to participate in the country’s golden celebrations at the National Stadium but I began the day reading Dr. Carolyn Cooper's essay "Who is Jamaica?" in The New York Times. There she argues that the nation's 50-year old motto "Out of Many, One People" seems progressive but actually "marginalizes the nation’s black majority by asserting that the idealized face of the Jamaican nation is multiracial." See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/06/opinion/who-is-jamaica.html?_r=1 Read an expanded version of the piece here http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com/. I re-read a little bit of Dr. Deborah Thomas's Modern Blackness in which she explains how the motto "brackets" blackness, as suggested by the title of her book's introduction "Out of Many, One (Black) People."  http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=7797. One motto, many significant critiques.

Not just on Independence, but going back over the week to Emancipation Day on August 1, I reflected on the many meanings of blackness, of freedom, and of independence I passed through as I moved from town to country, neighborhood to neighborhood, household to household during my research visit to Jamaica. I came here to work on my manuscript, “Sounding the Nation: Jamaican Film History, 1900-1972” so I’m asking myself what is cinema? What is cinema in Jamaica?

As an industry and as a cultural site, the movies have long been an essential part of Jamaica's national identity overseas and at home. Music travels through records and CDs obviously but it circulates through and as visual representation such as publicity photos, music videos, concert footage on YouTube and formal feature documentaries. Jamaican music, perhaps the nation’s greatest cultural export, circulates through documentaries such as Roots Rock Reggae (1977), Deep Roots Music  (1983) and the recent Marley (2012). In each of these movies, the process of recording and editing content naturally polishes and softens, working over reality into cinematic truths.

The music industry is the subject of Jamaica’s best-known feature film The Harder They Come (1972). Starring Jimmy Cliff and co-written by Perry Henzell and the playwright Trevor Rhone The Harder They Come is many things. For me, it has always been more than merely a means to export reggae music. Totally new wave Jamaican in its visual language, Henzell’s film examines the conditions and costs of Independence through the protagonist Ivan’s experiences, staging a philosophical debate between him and his friend Pedro (played by the artist Ras Daniel Hartman). An individualist, Ivan seeks fast money through popular culture in contrast to Pedro’s community-oriented Africanity. The film is all about the allure and disillusionment of the music industry for Ivan. But this country-boy-come-to-town is not just an ambitious musician. He is music. Every note in the film is an amazing metaphor of the way Ivan’s music and spirit will endure to the last reel.

Naturally, as OnePeople: The Celebration, co-produced by Henzell’s daughter Justine Henzell, was the official film of Independence 2012, the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from Britain, I was very curious to see how it represented Jamaica, Jamaicans and Jamaican-ness. But the first thing that hit me when I reached the stadium, after much batta batta with missed calls, children being children, and bangarang over where to park, was the sound in the stadium. Man, Jamaica is a sound system. The speakers and screens were huge as they should be. I loved the sound and the sea of people from Kingston and from foreign, in black, green, and gold, each person cutting a figure more fly than the next.

The film embodied its OnePeople theme. I thought it was poetic, strategic and literally diasporic that it premiered at about the same time in London, Kingston and Brooklyn. In Kingston, spectators could watch the film on any one of several screens placed throughout Jubilee Village at the National Stadium. The rural parishes weren’t totally left out as the film was broadcast on Flow 100 and the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica. Within the film the cinematic geography extended to locations in Sri Lanka, London, Addis Ababa, New York, Dakar, New Haven, Kingston, and beyond. Interviewees’ accents were American, Jamaican, British, French-African and more. Jamaica is not just Jamaica. In the film as in many people’s lives, these faraway places got linked side by side through editing. Similarly statements expressed by different people were edited together to share the same utterance. Several different people saying the national motto “Out of Many, One People” were spliced together, repeating, chopping and doubling back on the phrase almost like a remix or dub.

OnePeople is a big up Jamaica event in two senses: it pictures a Jamaicanness expanded beyond the borders of the nation. But the more common sense of the term big up is to brag. The film was almost like a praise song but one you would write for yourself--on your 50th birthday. Is this a bad thing? I question but you thoughtful Shadow and Act readers would have to say. And experience the movie when you get a chance.

What I can say is that the film’s combination of archival photographs, historical film footage and excerpted interviews recalled the pages of a family photo album. Some sequences evoked nostalgia, curiosity, and reverence while others sparked surprise and humor. For instance the poet Kwame Dawes, who reads his poem “Jamaica” in the film, gives an irresistible analysis of Jamaican male bravado when approaching "Queenie" or we can add "empress" "babes" and other welcome or unwelcome advances to women going about their own business. (Rascal!) On the street the whole heap of psst psst can be annoying but hearing it from Dawes via the movie was awfully charming.

The film's oneness theme was implicitly and uniquely cinematic. Distant relatives returned. For example, using older footage, the incarcerated artist Buju Banton appears in the film as a free man, sitting outside in a setting that looked like home, possibly taking in the fresh Jamaican air instead of the stifling air at the U.S. correctional facility where he is currently held. In a second example, Prime Minister Michael Manley returns 15 years after his death with a message for the spectator-nation. This type of montage added to the sense of an idealized Jamaica, one that was distinctly cinematic. 

The idea behind OnePeople was to ask folks with a connection to Jamaica to send in videos responding to the question: “What does Jamaica mean to you?” The resulting film actually appears to be mostly formal interviews with splashes of amateur footage. Fitting its title though OnePeople pictured various Jamaican-born individuals and those who claimed a connection to Jamaica (often via a relationship to Jamaican exports and popular culture) together in a non-territorial sense of togetherness, of belonging, and of remembrance. The film offered viewers, and those participating in the project, a cinematic visa to meet up, one that was not bound by paper, accent, or location.

The comments on OnePeople’s Facebook page are very, very positive. One poster, Dionne Walker from the London premiere, described “a fully subscribed ... cosmopolitan audience” that was “riveted with early sequences on unseen archive footage to laughter from the likes of Elephant Man and Shaggy on the matter of favourite Jamaican food.” She went on to make note of the exhibition space writing, “During the film, a main hall suddenly became a cosy cinema as dialogue from the film gripped the attention of everyone in the space--bartender stop sell." In Kingston I observed a similar phenomenon. While at first it seemed odd but also appropriate to view OnePeople in a thoroughfare of institutional exhibitions, I noticed how the hall quieted as a small crowd gathered to watch the film, which many did while standing. Further comments on Facebook suggested that seeing the historical photographs and footage was educational. Christine Marie posted, “Awesome doc. I learned so much.

To my mind, OnePeople certainly leaves room for a broader critical engagement with Jamaica’s post-independence society. But I can see the point. Selector change metaphor: OnePeople is a love letter.

It’s just that, if not at Independence, as an outsider, yes, so I humbly wonder when or where more critical, skeptical public conversations can productively take place and who would moderate them (Muta Baruka!). So many of the film’s participants talked about and indeed exemplified a bold, brash, fierce-yet- elegant Jamaican character (rightly so I think!). Jamaica to me means reggae and reggae has informed that questioning, scholarly voice in my head. Jamaica for me is a sound system that is an epistemology, a way of knowing and a way of seeing. It makes me take a second look at any and everything, between independence and freedom” as Elizabeth Alexander puts it her “Jamaica Poem” (read by Alexander in OnePeople). When the time is right, we talk.

I concluded Jamaica’s Independence Day, with a cup of cocoa and the pleasure of an extraordinarily generous, free-flowing conversation about many of these issues among friends with varied connection to Jamaica – some born here and all of us chose to return. Conversation too common. This talk was improvised not televised. A solid sandbar. This listening. This laughter. This empathy. Sharing ideas, amid the seas of diaspora, family fractures, and the disorienting, branchless experience of being a person from somewhere, not at home.

OnePeople: The Celebration was executive produced by Kevin MacDonald and co-produced by Justine Henzell (producer of the Calabash International Literary Festival see http://calabashfestival.org/) and Zachary Harding. For information at http://www.onepeopledocumentary.com/.

DVD out in time for Christmas!

Terri Francis
Associate Professor of Film and African American Studies at Yale University
http://terrifrancisfilm.
wordpress.com
Terri.francis@yale.edu

JAMAICA - The Poem by Kwame Dawes from Drew Brennan on Vimeo.

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2 Comments

  • Ava | August 20, 2012 7:19 PMReply

    As it was, I had to rely on a somewhat unsteady stream to watch the Jamaica50 Gala at National Stadium but it was enjoyable nonetheless. I can only imagine the energy in the actual stadium, where it was 'Live and Direct...Cause you know what Live and Direct mean...?' That tribute to Miss Lou just reminded me of how much I miss the sound of her voice punctuated by that laugh, she was (and still is) an immense source of inspiration.
    It has been ages since I read an essay by Dr. Carolyn Cooper but I will be sure to bookmark this blog for future reference and reading. Thanks for that.
    In terms of the documentary, I await its distribution on DVD but I will keep in mind that OP-Ed piece in the New York Times. Interestingly enough, when I followed that link to her blog, the first page that opened up was her essay on Marcus Garvey, a very timely relevant piece and I must admit, I was surprised that JA was finally getting around to acknowledging just how much he means not just politically but culturally. In fact, hearing non Jamaicans acknowledge his Birthday further acknowledges his worldwide significance. Your article just served as another reminder that there is much to reflect upon in this Jamaica's 50th year of independence from Britain.
    One final note-- Although I've been to London and have had some great memories there while studying and subsequent visits, I must admit, my spirit truly stirred when I saw the Jamaican flag being hoisted in England, of all places during the Olympics during the medal ceremony on Independence Day.

  • Renoir422 | August 9, 2012 6:59 PMReply

    I can't wait to see One Love. This love letter as documentary places Jamaica in its rightful place as a cultural touchstone. Excellent post.

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