Celebratory cake designed for Jamaica Film Festival
In the weeks leading up to it JAMPRO (a government agency whose role it is to promote trade and investment), promised that Kingston would come alive with the Jamaica Film Festival (JaFF) (July 7 – 11, 2015), “a dynamic cinematic and cultural event, featuring both local and international movies” and showcasing “the talents of the best and brightest in the Jamaican film industry.” Instead the highly hyped film festival, though occasionally (and quite erratically) hitting the mark, was largely a damp squib of an event, marred by shoddy programming, less than ideal venues and a complete failure to keep to schedule.
Just as with the JCDC’s Independence Gala of Galas (which according to the media failed to live up to its billing though JCDC’s Director and the Minister of Culture both deemed them more than satisfactory) JAMPRO and the Film Commissioner have declared the film festival a great success. Of course organizers of events (much like fond mothers) are notoriously, perhaps even wilfully, blind to the faults and shortcomings of their progeny but when public money and time are involved it becomes imperative that we demand not only accountability but best practices from those responsible for spending both. While the media raised questions about the quality of the Grand Gala it completely failed to do so regarding the inaugural Jamaica Film Festival, even lending itself to the myth of the event’s success. This needs explanation.
The Gala is reputed to have cost $47 million dollars to mount and though exact figures are unavailable the sum of $39 million was being bandied about as the sum needed to mount the Film Festival. It is unclear how much of this was to come from JAMPRO and how much from private sector sources or even how much of the desired total was raised. I’m sure some of the glitches experienced during JaFF may be attributable to funding that failed to materialize but others could have been avoided had a different mindset been adopted. Not everything is dependent on money–good planning, innovative programming, keeping to schedule, targeting audiences to ensure attendance–these are things that can be done even on a shoestring budget.
Films an afterthought at inaugural Jamaica Film Festival
For starters, even though Jamaica is officially entering the film festival circuit rather late (Trinidad celebrates its 10th edition next week) Festival planners failed to make use of the many templates for successful film festivals that already exist. Not only that, the organizers failed to grasp the basic fact that a film festival is about films–that films, actual films or movies—are, and should be, at its epicentre.
Regrettably films were an afterthought at the Jamaica Film Festival. One searched the JIS press releases in vain for any mention of the films to be screened. If you went to the festival website and clicked on ‘Schedule’ what you got is the programme of industry workshops and seminars that usually are a subsidiary offering at film festivals (while the workshop schedule was well laid out and readable the film schedule when you finally found it was poorly designed and impossible to read on any device even a desktop). Maybe JAMPRO was trying to break the established mold and come up with its own path breaking product on its maiden venture into film festival land but what JaFF turned out to be, was actually a series of how-to talks, workshops and panel discussions on film and TV production with a random selection of–mostly short–films thrown in for good measure.
But workshops, seminars and discussions do not a film festival make. The financing of films, scriptwriting, new technologies, distribution and marketing –the nuts and bolts of film-making–are all important but as one regional veteran in the film business said, “You can’t make good films unless you watch good films. The key to any good film festival is the quality of the films they show.”
Thus most reputable film festivals put films at the front and centre of their annual events using the opportunity to showcase new and innovative offerings particularly ones that have some connection to the location of the festival. A film such as Destiny which had already played in the theatres here (and which was panned by critics) would not have been included in the programming which would have been reserved for new films or outstanding films that had not yet been shown in local theatres. TTFF follows the standard format for film festivals showcasing new material and a choice selection of older classics chosen for their outstanding qualities. “There is enough good work from the entire Caribbean and the Diaspora to ensure a quality lineup of films every year,” said a spokesperson for the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (TTFF).
The Jamaica Film Festival seems to have relied exclusively on submissions to its competition, designed mainly for new and upcoming film-makers, for its programme. The lack of a filmic intelligence at work to curate a compelling lineup was palpable, for in addition to submissions by aspiring filmmakers, there are films by established, even celebrated directors, that must be curated into the mix as examples of filmmaking taken to its acme, its most creative. If such films in addition to being excellent also happen to have a local connection, why then the stars are all aligned for the work to not only be included in the offerings but to have top billing.
The Stuart Hall Project
In 2013, a year or so before Stuart Hall died (please see my earlier posts on who Hall was and his connection to Jamaica), a film was produced called The Stuart Hall Project. Directed by acclaimed film-maker John Akomfrah the film skillfully captured Hall and the worlds he lived in and influenced. A review in the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine described the film in glowing terms:
…the overriding impression left by The Stuart Hall Project is of a sparkling meeting of minds and creative disciplines orchestrated by one of our most gifted non-fiction filmmakers.
So outstanding is John Akomfrah’s work as a film director (He was also Governor of the Board of the British Film Institute for several years and is generally considered a stalwart of Black British Cinema) that the TTFF headlined him as a special guest in its 2013 edition.
The festival events come to a close with a retrospective of the films of John Akomfrah hosted by Dr Gabrielle Hezekiah. Several of the acclaimed director’s works will be screened, including his newest film The Stuart Hall Project. Akomfrah himself will attend the retrospective and will discuss his career and films with Dr Hezekiah.
You would have thought that a film featuring the most distinguished intellectual Jamaica has produced (that even Trinidad considered important enough to feature. Storm Saulter, one of Jamaica’s best young directors who was conspicuous by his absence from the JaFF told me he was astonished to learn of Stuart Hall at the TTFF which he attended as a representative of New Caribbean Cinema), itself the creation of one of the most creative directors would have been high on the list of the artistic or programming director of the inaugural JaFF. But alas my most fervent efforts to interest the JaFF in premiering The Stuart Hall Project in Jamaica came to naught. Although the Film Commissioner, Carole Beckford, agreed to include the film in the JaFF line up, even featuring it on its programme, she only contacted the producer of the film on June 23rd, a mere two weeks before JaFF to make arrangements to acquire the necessary permissions and a copy to be shown at the Festival.
Needless to say this did not go down well with the makers of The Stuart Hall Project. Responding to the belated effort to include the film in JaFF, Lina Gopaul, the producer and a Jamaican citizen, wrote:
…it’s been a hard slog, five years of our lives trying to get this film made, trying to raise money to make a film on a Jamaican intellectual/cultural theorist is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, we did it out of our respect for him and wanting to place Jamaicans on the map in this vital and import arena and it’s baffling when we are treated in this manner, especially for me as a person of Jamaican heritage.
When belatedly contacted by the film commissioner the makers of The Stuart Hall Project insisted that the organizers of JaFF follow the normal protocols for acquiring a copy and rights to show the film at the festival, something JAMPRO was either unwilling or unable to do. I heard once again from the producer Lina Gopaul:
After much discussion here we will give permission for the screening as long as it’s not screened on dvd! I am waiting for screening formats – I do not think they realise just how much damage they have done by doing things in this manner- The Stuart Hall Project has agents, distributors – all of which I will have to smooth over – anyway let’s see what happens from here on… it saddens me that this has happened this way — but we have agreed only because of Stuart and a wish he made for it to been seen there.
Despite the express wishes of the film-makers that DVD was not an acceptable format the organizers were scrambling to find a DVD copy the evening before the film was to be screened (I even received a call the night before from the Film Commissioner asking if I had a copy) which needless to say did not materialize. No explanation or apology was offered for the non-showing nor was any announcement made to let attendees know that the film, although on the schedule, was not actually going to be screened. I had to personally inform parties who were asking for details on Twitter and Facebook, about the no-show.
Jamaican director Perry Henzell, who famously made The Harder They Come, on left
Similarly Perry Henzell: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey, a biographical film about the father of Jamaica’s film industry, was listed in the schedule, but not shown for somewhat similar reasons; my understanding is that the JaFF failed to buy a copy designed for festival viewing (Needless to say the documentary has been invited to be an official selection, in competition for People’s Choice Award, at the 2015 Trinidad + Tobago International Film Festival which seems to be way ahead of Jamaica in recognizing outstanding films on Jamaican subjects). The non-observance of normal protocols and payment of required fees to show films in their optimal format make a mockery of JaFF’s much touted slogan: Where art meets business. It betrays a surprising lack of knowledge about how the film business works, about the fees that need to be paid to agents and distributors, about royalties and appropriate formats for festival showings. This is shocking especially considering utterances in the media from no less than the president of Jamaica Promotions Corporation (JAMPRO), Diane Edwards, in the lead-up to the inaugural Jamaica Film Festival:
“Film is a business. Players must understand the business behind the creativity, and that is why we have organised a really serious film festival. The creative side is not enough, what must happen is a full understanding of the industry to create long-term businesses,” she told the Jamaica Observer.
She said stakeholders must make themselves professional in order to create world-class standards. She further said an understanding of distribution, copyright, and intellectual property issues are also critical in moving the industry forward.
Yes, an understanding of distribution, copyright, and intellectual property issues are indeed critical but there was little evidence of this in the manner in which films were programmed and shown at the JaFF.
No Programming Director?
What JaFF badly needed was a programming director or someone with a deep knowledge of film and film culture to curate a compelling selection of films and ensure that industry protocols were followed in acquiring them. To have spurned or dropped through sheer carelessness, two films such as The Stuart Hall Project and Perry Henzell: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey, the latter about the pioneer of film in Jamaica, which would have anchored the inaugural edition of JaFF most memorably, is baffling to say the least.
Film Commissioner Carole Beckford with Hollywood film and TV professionals
For reasons best known to itself JAMPRO seems to have left the planning and execution of this important festival up to one individual—the film commissioner– who with the best will in the world was not equipped to deliver a high quality film festival on her own. Any successful festival whether film or literary or musical requires teamwork. The point of having a competent team, including a programming director or committee, is precisely to avoid limiting a festival to the conceptual map or limited resources of any one individual.
Carole Beckford, the film commissioner, is not known to have a background in film. Her specialty is public relations—most famously she was for a time Usain Bolt’s publicist. The appointment of an outsider to the industry, and one with so little experience or knowledge of film as film commissioner was a move that JAMPRO should be asked to explain. Predictably it offended the Jamaican film-making community who turned their backs on the Commissioner and her film festival.
Thus even though Beckford managed to pull together quite an impressive array of workshops and seminars, tapping Black Hollywood (such a pity Black British Cinema wasn’t also seen as a resource) for industry professionals, some of whom delivered good sessions, the turnout was sparse and the effort somewhat wasted because the film industry by and large stayed away and the students who could afford the steep ticket prices were few and far between. Sessions often started more than an hour late while organizers waited in vain for crowds to turn up. In some instances JAMPRO staff were asked to fill the seats so that the Courtleigh Auditorium could give an appearance of decent attendance.
Interestingly JAMPRO and the film commissioner did borrow certain features of standard film festival templates (although you might argue these were much less crucial or necessary components than the basic one of putting films at the centre of the film festival). So for instance there was a very large media launch, a grand invitiation-only opening ceremony, a glitzy after-party and a uniformly high price of entry to attend workshops and films of variable quality, with unpredictable timing and location. These are all elements that would have made sense if the festival was a top class, streamlined, beautifully executed one but a little ‘previous’ for a brand new festival stumbling its way into being.
The Prohibitive Price of Entry
As it was, University of the West Indies Film Studies lecturer Rachel Mosely-Wood had to buy a season ticket and share it with some of her students, none of whom would have been able to afford to attend otherwise. I spoke with two of Rachel’s students. Demi Walker, an enthusiastic young visual arts major with a minor in film studies, who attended seven of the workshops said she found the festival “extremely informative and entertaining once you got past the high cost”:
But this… might not have been the general consensus. I was mostly grateful for the new experience. The prices, like the staircase leading to the screening area, were noticeably steep. The theatre itself, from what I was able to observe, had many vacant seats during the workshops. Perhaps some more university/film students could have benefited from the gathering if there was a special offer in place for them.
So eager was Demi for film-related information that she was willing to overlook the numerous repetitions during the workshops she attended that had many others exclaiming in annoyance. “I didn’t exactly mind the repetition because I was eager for opportunities to commit as much as possible to my memory. I got the impression that others wanted the most for their money & repetition of questions directed at the panel (though structured differently and often arising in separate sessions) was seeming to take up their valuable time.”
Another student, Cornel Bogle, a Literatures in English (Major) and Film Studies (Minor), missed most of the workshops but attended a screening on July 9th. He said the only reason he decided to go that day was that:
I had been eagerly anticipating the Derek Walcott film by Ida Does, and The Stuart Hall Project by John Akomfrah. However, to the best of my knowledge, neither of these films were screened at their scheduled times.
Note: I say, ‘to the best of my knowledge’, because according to the schedule The Stuart Hall Project was scheduled to be screened at the JAMPRO Business Auditorium.To be honest, after the realization that the Derek Walcott film would not have been screened for the time that it was scheduled for, I was far too despondent to make the trek to JAMPRO to see if The Stuart Hall Project was being shown. (Apparently the Derek Walcott film was shown after I left, which was quite late and not the scheduled time.)
I actually believe that screening The Stuart Hall Project would’ve been an amazing act considering the ignorance of many Jamaicans of Stuart Hall’s very existence. I actually came to know of him by means of your blog. I then went on to read his work, and watched and listened countless video and audio of him. My personal favorite is his interview with the BBC’s Desert Island Discs…Anyway, my point is that this was a great opportunity that was missed.
Cornel was particularly disappointed not to see two of the films he wanted that evening because this time he had paid for his own ticket:
As for the cost, I believe Demi’s quip about the staircase is the best way to characterize it. If it were not for Dr. Wood’s offer to share her tickets, I would not have decided to attend. Moreover, Demi and I both purchased tickets for the Thursday screenings (we couldn’t share the tickets that night because Dr. Wood was in attendance), and as I mentioned, the only reason I chose that night was because of the two aforementioned films.
Do I feel as though it was a waste of money? Not at all. It gave me an opportunity to enjoy a night of Jamaican films and enjoy the company of friends. My only regret is that more friends who were equally interested in attending were unable to because of the cost. A film festival, especially in a region that does not have a strong market, should be aimed at creating and expanding a community of individuals interested in filmmaking as opposed to creating added barriers.
Inadequate venues and overblown promises
Another sign that the JaFF and JAMPRO had lost the plot was in choice of venues. Two sports bars were pressed into use as screening locations despite their obvious unsuitability for such events. This was another instance when it became clear that JAMPRO and the film commissioner were making it up as they went along instead of sticking to tried and true festival best practice. Predictably the directors of films shown in these noisy settings were not happy with such conditions. One of them expressed his ire on Facebook:
My film was shown in a sports bar with patrons sitting at tables eating, some watching sports on other screens, the lights were not dimmed, there was talking and eating going on, you could hear the blenders mixing drinks, the sound was atrocious so that people couldn’t hear part of it.
All in all it was an insult to filmmakers. I had suspected things were not all right from up front, when there was a level of disorganization about the preparations. Established Jamaican filmmakers were ignorant about what was going on, and the organizers preferred to pay for foreigners to come down to hold workshops rather than use those more experienced Jamaicans who helped out in the preparation.
It seems to have been just another exercise in the worst of Jamaica, which is croneyism and nationalistic and class bigotry….Come on Jamaica. You have a rich tradition in film, tremendous talent and experience residing in your country, which you have turned your back on. Come on, you can do better than that.
If only the ignominy ended there. In a textbook case of over-reaching the JaFF had grandly announced in February 2015:
Thirteen top Jamaican Directors/Writers have been selected by The Jamaica Promotions Corporation (JAMPRO) to screen their films at the Jamaica Film Festival 2015, scheduled to take place July 7-11 in Kingston.
The list of filmmakers include well-known music video and film director, Gerald ‘RasKassa’ Hynes; award-winning writer/producer/director, Chris Browne; Theatre writers/directors/actors, Dahlia Harris and Aston Cooke; educator and producer Franklyn St Juste; make-up artist extraordinaire/director, Cecile Burrowes. The list also includes talented newcomers, Kyle Chin, Donovan Watkis, Sabrena McDonald, Audrey Williams, Kevin Jackson and Alison Harrison. Jamaican & Hollywood actress, Shauna Chin, who made her recent debut on CBS’ Criminal Minds, has also made the short list.
The festival will include 15 pieces that will need a collective investment of US$200,000. Both private and public investment is welcomed for the 15 pieces. The project will create some 300 temporary jobs and will include Jamaican actors.
All entries will make their first appearance at the Jamaica Film Festival and will be a part of the international circuit from as early as September 2015.”
Four months to raise funds for film-makers to produce films in time to be shown at the Festival? Really? Surely JAMPRO was jesting. Anyone could have told them that this was a completely unrealistic timeline. Instead eager young film professionals were strung along with promises of funding which partially materialized for some a week before the Festival, far too late for them to produce anything. Is this any way to encourage and foster film production in Jamaica, one of the stated goals of JaFF? What message are you sending young Jamaican film professionals with this kind of bungling?
“Film industry benefits from film festival” trumpeted yet another JIS release portraying JaFF as the success it wasn’t. Reading the release reveals that the so-called benefit is “an opportunity for Jamaican practitioners to participate in FOX Audience Strategy Group’s Writers and Directors Intensive Programme”. This is laughable. This merely allows Jamaicans to compete with about 400 others for a place in the Fox programme. It would have been far better if JaFF had asked the Fox Audience Strategy Group to help them boost their workshop audiences if this is the kind of pitiful drop in the ocean JAMPRO is claiming as an achievement of their inaugural film festival.
Anything but world-class…
So in conclusion, one or two hiccups in a festival’s maiden edition are only to be expected, but there is no way a seemingly endless series of miscalculations and hubristic over-reaching should be overlooked or given a bligh by the public. In the wake of the recently concluded World Championships in Beijing, the outstanding performance of Jamaica’s golden athletes aroused a much needed discussion at home: why can’t the country replicate the successes of its atheletic team? How can the excellent example set by the athletes be applied in every sphere of life in Jamaica? Alas the discussions were all too brief, lasting no more than a day or two but in my opinion the JaFF is an excellent case study or illustration of why there is such a divergence in performance between our athletes and some of our national endeavours.
Jamaican athletic success is predicated on raising the bar of human speed globally whereas national institutions such as JAMPRO are allowed to get away with setting the bar low enough to accomodate their own lack of expertise, knowledge and competence in the area concerned. The inevitably shambolic product that ensues is then declared a success and the mess covered up with the assistance of a compliant media that seems disinterested in asking the right questions or offering the necessary critiques.
Jamaican athletes got to where they are today by following international best practice and then setting it. They perfected something they were already good at by working extra hard, competing against the best and responding to critiques of their performance. But you can’t excel at what you don’t know and what you’re not willing to invest the time and effort in learning. This is an elementary rule that is ubiquitous. When you blatantly and systematically flout that simple fact you’re not going to achieve even a millionth of what Jamaican athletes do–the inaugural JaFF could have been launched with a lot less fanfare and a lot more substance, and that is just the plain and simple truth of the matter.