The Last Don: KOTE 09 Part 2

Word on the street has it that the Jamaican Security Forces have created a “Don Squad” which is systematically eliminating “Dons” or Ghetto strongmen around the country. Popular belief is that although the eliminations are staged as shootouts between rival gangs it is the police who are behind the killings. If this is true it would seem to be a clever strategy and might very well give an added resonance to The Last Don, at least in name, by the Rickards Brothers.

The Last Don was premiered to much acclaim at the recently concluded Kingston on the Edge in its Films on the Edge segment. The pilot for a putative TV series Last Don is an ironic, irreverent look at music promoter Josef Bogdanovich and the contortions he goes through in his attempt to corral and showcase Jamaican musical talent. I took the opportunity to quiz the prime mover behind the film, Peter Dean Rickards, about the process of making this comic documentary and his own history as a film-maker and photographer. Check out the priceless footage of Kingston Signals, the show that started it all, with Sean Paul before he hit the big time.

Q. So what are the origins of Last Don? How did the idea come to you? What are you trying to or interested in portraying?

The Last Don actually originated about 8 years ago when I began working at Downsound Records which was then in the basement of Globe Furniture on Constant Spring road. The boss was a guy named Josef Bogdanovich, an American from Los Angeles who had moved to Kingston a few years earlier to produce Jamaican music and concerts. Although the initial purpose of meeting Josef was to build him a website, I ended up working there for the next three years after we created Kingston Signals – the first live-to-broadband webcast of hardcore Jamaican soundsystems.

It was a great job and I quickly became addicted to the fast pace and unpredictability of the business; but what was far more interesting was the day-to-day hustle of running a music studio in Kingston and the personalities involved, particularly that of Bogdanovich who could be described as ‘constantly in first gear.’

Several years later when I began to think seriously about jumping into film, it occurred to me that the story of Downsound was something I really wanted to do because I had practically written the story in my head a thousand times; constantly explaining ‘episodes’ to people who would ask me what it was like to work in such a crazy environment with a person like Josef, who is often misunderstood by people who either don’t know him or are put off by his management style which goes something like : “Get it done or get the f*** outta here!”

Then, when you stop to consider that there are no guarantees in that line of work, and that each day can end in great success or terrible failure, the potential for a series or even a film becomes more obvious, especially when fused with the character of Bogdanovich himself, an unlikely underdog , a white guy in Kingston working in Jamaican music who does things his way, because, after all — he can.

As far as what we were trying to portray, it is simply a true-to-life observation of some unusual people in an unusual business, with Jamaica, and particularly Kingston as an interesting backdrop.

Q. What is your background in film/video? Is it true that this is your first attempt at film having experimented with music videos previously?

I have no formal training in film or video but just like my photographs I believe it’s all about a solid concept followed by framing and then ‘painting’ the story from the pieces. Although my cousin PJ (the other half of the Rickards Bros.) has been working as a video editor for over 10 years, I’m very new to video/film. After we got our first camera in late 2008, PJ came down from New York and we immediately got to work; creating two videos for Terry Lynn before jumping right into production of The Last Don. Also involved in the team is Jarmilla Jackson (another cousin) who writes, creates and participates in the meticulous editing process with me and PJ. The three of us are highly critical of our own work so hardly anything slips by without heavy scrutiny– but we like it that way.

Q. You’re clearly immersed in visual culture, who are your influences? (Weejee etc) is it true you have no photographic training? how did you learn to do what you do?

Weejee wasn’t much an influence you know. I only discovered him the other day but I can certainly relate to his ambulance chasing from the perspective that he had to sell his stuff. Photography is not an easy business to be in if you want to actually earn a living taking pictures of what interests you (unless you actually like taking wedding photos and talking about ISO settings). In my opinion, you have to have an angle and be doing something different from the other 50 million people who own a camera. I guess that’s why Weegee took pictures of murdered gangsters instead of that rusty boat down by the airport.

No I didn’t have any formal photographic training but let’s be serious here, how could you justify more than a week of ‘photographic training.’ You might as well go to school to learn how to put batteries in the thing and attach a lens. It’s just an instrument that anyone can operate. No school can’t teach you to be creative no matter how many years you study the work of others. Dentists need school, not photographers.

To be sure, I learned to make a decent photograph by simply shooting and looking at what I did, then adjusting to make it better. It can be fun but it also made me a lazy writer and so I’ve been drawn towards video and film because it combines the visuals that I enjoy doing with a return to storytelling.

My biggest influences are Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Tarantino, Coppola (and many others but those stand out). I’m a huge fan of SCTV, The Office (UK) and anything Charles Schulz did.

Q. Ideally what would you like to be doing? What are the obstacles or constraints you face?

For once in a long time, I’m actually doing what I really want to be doing – making stories that can be shown on a big screen in front of many people…and watching as they react to the things they see and hear. It’s an incredible high to experience that, especially since I always dreamed of doing it. The goal is to constantly improve, both technically and creatively so that we can justify bigger budgets that will enable us to do bigger things.

As far as constraints are concerned, I suppose it’s the typical stuff: limited resources and the limited mindset of a rather stagnant television industry here. Considering the creative currency of Jamaicans, it’s sad that one has to look outward, not only for funding but for outlets to present your work without someone like Cordel Green telling you what is suitable for the eyes and ears of the adult population.

Thankfully, we have the Internet and Fed Ex to circumvent certain things.

Kingston on the Edge (KOTE) 09: UnCONVENTional Edges out Rest

Neila Ebanks

It was June 22, Day 4 of Kingston on the Edge and UWI’s Philip Sherlock Centre was full as the audience, mostly young folk, waited for Dance on the Edge to begin. I was with Deborah Thomas and Junior Wedderburn, the former a seasoned dancer (and author of Modern Blackness), the latter an accomplished drummer who performs with the Lion King on Broadway. As the lithe, young dancers pranced around on stage we joked and laughed to ourselves, commenting among other things on the full house and the meaning or meaninglessness of the various dances.

Then right after a performance that Junior dubbed Johncrow nyam Dove, the tempo changed and the quality of the offerings went sharply uphill. A video with the puzzling title The Edging of Sister Mitzie Margaret started playing, featuring the exciting young dance maven, Neila Ebanks. With a quirky, offbeat, almost Chaplinesque sense of timing and parody Ebanks completely reinscribed the idea of dance as it has been known in these parts as she fluttered, skanked and slid her way on film along UWI’s Ring Road toward the Sherlock Centre. Dressed in a nun’s habit the film opens with Neila in the character of Sister Mitzie Margaret, intently inserting earphones and plugging into an ipod. As the music begins Sister Mitzie responds by quaking, shaking and feeling her way along the ground as if afraid the road might suddenly be pulled from
beneath her.

As the camera follows Sister Mitzie’s comical progress towards the Sherlock Centre, it suddenly dawns on you that she is mugging her way up the path to the auditorium and as you see her hand reaching for the door you realize with a shiver of anticipation that the dancer is actually outside and about to enter. Loud applause broke out as the the film then morphed into a live performance by Ebanks and she entered the auditorium, slipsliding across the stage and out a door on the other side, the film taking over once again, showing her emerging from the exit as the credits started to roll. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Other memorable performances were by a group of tough looking chicks who took on the Broadcasting Commission and the recent ban on ‘daggering’ and what it deemed ‘lewd’ dancing. They lay the ground for the high-energy, wickedly creative male dance troupe, Shady Squad, who captured the audience with their imaginatively choreographed dancehall moves and style. At one moment they even performed a version of Michael Jackson’s anti-gravity lean. Superb. The audience screamed with delight at their performance and a mere one and a half hours after it began the show ended on such a high note that as someone said on Facebook the next day it was a pity there was no after-party to capitalize on the incredible vibes.

For me KOTE’s evening of dance was the most memorable of the week-long self-styled urban art festival. This is KOTE’s third year and it keeps getting better and better. The thirty-something organizers managed to bring out filled-to-capacity audiences for all the events. I’m only sorry that I missed the opening night at Red Bones and the premiere of the film “Why Do Jamaicans Run so Fast?” a production that has been attracting a lot of attention. A clip of video i shot of my office co-workers watching the 100m men’s relay in Beijing is actually included in the film but more on that when I’ve seen it.

An effervescent fizz fills the air at successful cultural events and there was plenty of snap, crackle and pop at KOTE this year. Theatre on the Edge was pretty good but only one production stood out for me (I missed the first of the eight offerings). Everyone had ten minutes to present their work and Amba Chevannes as playwright made the most of hers. Using just one eccentric character talking directly to the audience, Miss Burton Gets A Promotion was quirky, natural and best of all contemporary. No ‘folk’ dressed in turbans and bandana trotting around shouting at the audience, thank God.

Its not that the rest of the eight ten-minute productions that evening weren’t good, the audience was certainly appreciative, judging by the loud applause that attended most of them. It’s just that i like to focus on the really outstanding performances, artworks, music—the ones its worth telling the rest of the world about. There was at least one of these in every field except visual art, which continues to trail behind the other arts in Jamaica (and the rest of the region for that matter), the works either too conventional or pedestrian or just plain bad. The best of a bad lot was The Core Insight at Olympia Art Centre, an atmospheric art space if ever there was one.

In Film on the Edge again one film dominated the rest, The Last Don, by the Rickards Brothers. A trailer for a proposed TV/video series the film depicts a typical day in the working life of music producer and promoter Josef Bogdanovich. Again the film is offbeat, quirky and brilliant along the lines of the innovative Brazilian documentary, Manda Bala (Send a Bullet). I plan to follow up soon with an interview with the conceptual force behind The Last Don, Peter Dean Rickards.


Meanwhile back to dancing on the edge: “Psychological, cathartic, layered. I rarely go for the easy or obvious” is what Neila Ebanks said about her work in an interview with Karin Wilson of Yardedge.

I asked Ebanks to tell me more about the birth of Sister Mitzie Margaret and how her KOTE project unfolded in real time. Who were her models or sources of inspiration? Was she trying to convey anything in particular? Why a nun? Interestingly The Edging… was conceived, planned and performed in a very short space of time with the dancer liasing with the film director, John DaCosta, at the Lit Fest Calabash in Treasure Beach a scant four weeks before Kingston on the Edge started.

Here’s what Neila told me:

My Sister Mitzie personality comes out of a love of classic goofiness —– think Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke, The Muppet Show, Mr. Bean —– and intelligent physical comedy. Her character has been inspired by my Catholic prep and high schooling and my wondering how much of themselves the sisters had to give up to serve (and sometimes not) as they did.

The piece is the second in what is to become a series of Sister Mitzie capers in which she tries to balance her whimsy with her duty as “bride of Christ” (said like the announcer for “Pigs in Space” from the Muppet Show ). The first in the series, UnCONVENTional, was actually premiered 10 years ago in my Improvisation examination @ the Edna Manley College School of Dance. The night before the exam I had a eureka moment when I thought of a striptease in reverse, and the most unlikely character to perform it. She wasn’t named at that time but she has been able to surprise and make an audience laugh everywhere she goes.

I often take my work back to the lab to tweak and twiddle and so in 2003, I revisted that first piece, called it A Life CONVENTtional and I created a 10 minute version of it which debuted @ the HIP Festival of Dance in London in. From that experiment I discovered that the effect was not as arresting when the piece was that long and so I returned to it’s original 3 minute format. The best thing about that trial, though, was that I got to really examine the character of Mitzie (@ that time still unnamed) and uncover her reasons for being and the layers behind her nuances.

Fast forward to KOTE and Mitzie’s edging… She wasn’t even supposed to appear! Lighting designer John DaCosta and I had a Calabash discussion about making a film for KOTE in which I (Neila) would be dancing off the edges of surfaces @ UWI until I reached into the theatre. I have always been interested in dance film, and John is making a foray into film-making and so we were both excited about the collaboration. We had further discussion about the concept with my right-hand man Michael Holgate but Mitzie only came into the picture the day before the shoot, after our rehearsal when we realised that the film needed another layer, the character needed history, a little complexity…. and rather than have us create a new character Mitzie raised her hand and said “Me please!” . We shot on the Saturday before Monday’s performance and as I improv’d John filmed while we tried to beat the inevitable sunset. The music was found (before we filmed) by my musicmate, Renee, who has the knack for finding just the right soundtrack for my life, but I didn’t listen to it more than once before filming, and not immediately either. In fact, as I danced I just made up my own music, because I couldn’t remember the melody. Editing was done in record time by Serchen Morris of Phase 3, and magically, even when he was asked to make things faster, the movement still fit the music perfectly. Sister Mitzie was obviously an idea whose time had come.

I don’t know if I was trying to do anything particular with Mitzie, except probably crack smiles and get to play with my audience and allow them to put the puzzle pieces together in a way which used technology and live dance differently. I mean, I know full well that in other contemporary dance circles the work might be described as too literal and simplistic, but as far as JA goes, not many persons are stepping into dance on film, and this is my starting point. It’s as I write this that I realise how interested I have always been in the illusions that film can help to create. The applause on entry to the theatre really surprised me, especially because I wasn’t sure how many people had seen the first installment (done most recently @ Jamaica Dance Umbrella in March 2009) and I was concerned that without that information the audience would not find it funny. Though the applause was great to hear and feel, I was most pleased with the engagement that I saw in the audience’s eyes when the house lights came on and Mitzie realised where she was. It’s a beautiful thing to realise you have been able to build that kind of connection with an audience in just a few minutes, without words.

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