World Circuit: Inside Jamaica’s Growing Film Industry

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The cast and crew of 'Sprinter' pose for a photo op at the film's Jamaican premiere.

Though it may not be making major headlines, Jamaica’s film industry is currently having a significant moment in the spotlight. This month’s release of “Sprinter” marks the third film made by, or heavily featuring, Jamaican talent to be distributed in North America in 2019. Showcasing an array of filmmaking sensibilities, these films – Storm Saulter’s “Sprinter”, Idris Elba’sYardie” and Khalik Allah’sBlack Mother” – reflect the changing dynamics of the nascent Jamaican film industry. As “Sprinter” prepares for a unique theatrical run, AwardsCircuit.com caught up with some key figures of the contemporary Jamaican film scene to get an inside perspective on the factors that are fueling the industry’s recent growth.

A scene from ‘Black Mother’.

Much of the recent developments in Jamaican film can be linked to the work of the Jamaica Film Commission. Established in 1984, the Film Commission operates within the government’s Jamaica Promotion Corporation (JAMPRO), with a mandate to promote investment opportunities and export opportunities in the film industry. As Tristan Alleyne (Senior Sales & Promotions Officer) explains, “…all international productions have to come through the film commission. We also record all of the productions coming in and we facilitate in terms of helping with location scouting, getting location permits and generally to streamline processes and troubleshoot if necessary.” According to Alleyne, the commission handles approximately 150 productions a year, including local and international projects.

In addition to facilitating these productions and the overall business environment, the Film Commission is actively involved in assisting local filmmakers through three main programs. These include a Film Lab implemented in collaboration with the British Council, the JAFTA Propella initiative funded by CHASE and the Youth Employment in the Digital Animation Industry (YEDAI) Project, implemented through the Office of the Prime Minister. Through these initiatives, aspiring filmmakers are able to acquire training, funding and market access opportunities such as attendance at the Berlinale and the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival.

A national Film Fund is also under development, which Alleyne sees as a key component to unlocking the full potential of Jamaican cinema. “The Film Fund is a big factor because one of the gaps in the industry right now is incentives and that’s the language of the film and animation industries. This is kind of a tangible that could see the industry grow, through having a vehicle where you can source investment for productions.”

With a Film Fund in place, he expects to see more local feature film productions in the pipeline to follow in the footsteps of Storm Saulter’s award-winning “Sprinter”. Despite a well-received debut feature with 2010’s “Better Mus’ Come“, Saulter nevertheless encountered many of the funding challenges faced by other Jamaican filmmakers in his sophomore outing. But a fortuitous introduction to producer Rob Maylor put him on the right track.

Having studied both law and film, Maylor’s film interests led him to a stint as Director of International Sales at Magnolia Pictures, before starting his own production company Mental Telepathy Pictures. For his first project, he chose “Sprinter”, largely influenced by his family background (American-born to Jamaican parents) and his desire to “bring Hollywood to the Caribbean.” In Saulter, he found a kindred spirit with a similar vision for Jamaican cinema and the Caribbean at large. He explains, “…we met up for drinks and realized we had similar interests as far as wanting to create this wave of Caribbean cinema similar to the waves of cinema you’d see in Brazil or Scandinavia.”

To achieve this, Maylor realized the need for universal stories that would resonate worldwide. In the case of “Sprinter”, Maylor had already secured financing through his company and its financier Richard Jefferson. And with this in place, Maylor and Saulter were able to devote added time to rework and rewrite the script so it would have an appeal beyond just Jamaica and the Caribbean.

Having finalized the script, they began production on the actual shoot, which Maylor describes as “…amongst the best experiences I’ve had.” Although many of the crew were newcomers to a film production of this scale, he says, “…they all stepped up and would literally break their backs to make sure that this film came out great.” He adds, “…there was just a sense of pride about what was happening and what this could mean for everyone, that if I told someone to run through a wall if we really needed them to, I felt like that would actually happen.”

“There’s an audience for Caribbean film. They don’t necessarily get to see themselves on screen and they don’t have a lot of opportunities and they don’t have representation.”

Once the shoot was finished, the team faced another challenge in finding a distributor to bring the film to its target audience. Like most independent films, the original distribution offers were largely confined to New York and Los Angeles. Anticipating a meager one or two week run in the crowded marketplace, however, Maylor saw an opportunity in the unique Theatrical On Demand model pioneered by Gathr. “What was attractive about the conversation with FilmRise and Gathr, was that they were encouraging the idea that if we use the Theatrical On Demand model, we could have a run for the entire summer.” By allowing fans to request a screening in their local theater, the film would be able to reach audiences in traditional Jamaican hubs like Florida, which Maylor describes as “Kingston North.” As Maylor asserts, “…there’s an audience for Caribbean film. They don’t necessarily get to see themselves on screen and they don’t have a lot of opportunities and they don’t have representation.”

That connection to the diaspora is embedded in the film’s plot, which follows a young Jamaican track star who hopes to reunite with his mother by making the national team for a world championship in the United States. When the film played the festival circuit, these immigration themes resonated strongly with audiences. Saulter recalls, “…when i find people crying in the cinema, it’s usually because they know it has affected their families somehow.”

Saulter also credits the film’s impact to the personal touches which came from his own perspective and that of his leading man. While Saulter was inspired by his own memories of the early loss of his mother, his lead actor Dale Elliott connected to the role on even more personal level. Saulter discovered Elliott on Instagram and thought the young actor’s look and personality would be a perfect fit. And when he finally met Elliott, he learned that “…his real-life story was so similar to that of the character he would playing, that we felt he would express a certain level of truth, beyond just performance.”

“The energy has shifted from this mythical thing that only some crazy artsy people are trying to do on their own, to something of more national awareness and importance.”

With its universal themes surrounding family and relationships, “Sprinter” signifies the evolving approaches to storytelling in Jamaican cinema. Saulter praises the formation of the Jamaica Film and Television Association and its Propella initiative as a major catalyst in revitalizing the film industry. “They’re making 5 new short films every year, pretty much new directors every time and unearthing great talents and great stories. The energy has shifted from this mythical thing that only some crazy artsy people are trying to do on their own, to something of more national awareness and importance.”

Jamaica’s all-female delegation at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival.

Notably, the evolution of the film industry has largely included female voices. Currently, Jamaican cinema boasts two women in major positions in the roles of Film Commissioner Renee Robinson and JAFTA President Analisa Chapman. This involvement of women is reflected throughout various levels of filmmaking. As Chapman indicates, “…the majority of the 2018 Propella films have been primarily female.” She further cites Jamaica’s all-female delegation to Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and the recent presence of a Women in Film chapter in Jamaica, as examples of a concerted effort to promote female perspectives in the industry.

Associated with these efforts is a push to include perspectives from a broader spectrum of Jamaica’s socioeconomic classes. She says, “…filmmaking in the past was thought to be associated with a certain socioeconomic class and I think it’s expanded beyond that. It’s also not a Kingston-centric skill. So we’re also trying to expose the rest of rural Jamaica.”

While these filmmakers have shifted Jamaican stories away from the country’s reputation for violent films, the influence of Hollywood blockbusters and TV series such as “Game of Thrones” is still apparent. As Chapman states, “…there’s been a shift to a lot more fantasy.” Additionally, she notes an increase in comedic submissions to JAFTA’s Propella programme.

Through the emergence of these fresh perspectives and female voices, it is expected there will be increased opportunities for actresses like Shantol Jackson. With roles in “Yardie” and “Sprinter”, Jackson has arguably become the face of Jamaican cinema in 2019. As is the case with most Jamaican actors, she made her way to the big screen via the stage. She fondly remembers her school’s drama room as “a space of truth,” where she could escape from her own realities and be as expressive as she wanted to be.

Shantol Jackson in a scene from ‘Sprinter’.

Jackson believes this sense of truth will continue to be important for the future of cinematic storytelling in Jamaica. When she landed her role in “Sprinter”, she instantly related to the protagonist’s immigration storyline as a self-professed “barrel pickney,” a common Jamaican practice where parents will seek work abroad and “…send back a barrel with goodies because they can’t be there in person to show the love.” And as the film traveled the festival circuit, she realized the universal relevance of this experience, which brought audiences to tears. “Everywhere this film has gone and people have watched it, the thing that they connect to the most is the immigration problem, which is an issue in America currently and has been for a while.”

Looking ahead, Jackson hopes to continue delivering similarly authentic portrayals of Jamaican women and their way of life. When asked if she intends to stick to the headstrong female roles she has played thus far, she adamantly replies, “I never want to place myself in a box. And don’t place me in one.” She further states, “I believe that everyone has a story and everyone deserves to be heard and have their stories being told.” As this complex array of stories are placed on screen, Jackson believes Jamaican audiences will find it refreshing. She adds that Jamaicans are the most critical of themselves. And with their approval of more nuanced and complex representations like those in “Sprinter,” the sky is the limit for Jamaican films. “If we can accept it, then the world can accept it.”

Ultimately, Jamaican cinema still has a way to go to achieve the same level of prominence as the country’s thriving music scene. However, a common feeling of optimism prevails among its stakeholders. From the business side, Alleyne remarks that in addition to Jamaica’s proximity to the North America, “our cultural connection to the UK and parts of Africa makes us very strong and there’s a lot of potential there. That’s why the industry is excited right now. We’re starting to see some of that potential come into fruition.” And from a creative standpoint, Saulter sums it up in saying, “The need for the content has shifted everything. We’re in a good place and we just need to make our stories as great as they can be.”

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