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Lights, Camera, Lift Off - JAFTA Propella 2017 Has Short Films With a Big Bang

City of Mine by Danielle Russell on fo the five 2017 JAFTA Propella films

One of the main criticisms levelled at the Jamaican film industry has been the repetitive storylines/themes. While in recent years there have been a few attempts to diverge from the trail blazed onto our collective consciousness by The Harder They Come, the diversity of stories offered up in the five short films which won the JAFTA Propella 2017 grants remains striking. These welcome additions to Jamaican film varied from the light hearted to the weighty touching on numerous experiences relevant to Jamaica - from the love of mangoes and patties through to the struggles in the underbelly of the scrap metal industry.

Danielle Russell, Nile Saulter, Kyle Chin, Gay Magnus, & Sarah Manley

JAFTA Propella, currently in its sophomore year, is coordinated by the Jamaica Film and Television Association, funded by CHASE and supported by JAMPRO. The 2017 finalists were: Mango Wars written and directed by Kyle Chin and produced by Mezan Ayoka; Code written and directed by Sarah Manley and produced by Darin Tennant; This City of Mine written and directed by Danielle Russell and produced by Analisa Chapman; One Patty written by Gay Magnus who shares producing credit with Karen Prentice and Rhodene Watson and directed by Eugene Williams; and Fever Dream written and directed by Nile Saulter and produced by Carleene Samuels.

Though they are not equal, all five films benefit from strong casts and speak to a creative team, keen to step outside the box. Notably, the shorts largely featured younger and barely known actors, with veteran Carl Davis (who gave a studied delivery in years of frustration in Code) as the rare exception. 

Mr. Brown (Marlon Walker) peers through his window protecting his treasured mango tree

Indeed, the shorts offered Odaine Clarke a chance to show the range of his acting chops as he appeared in Fever Dream, This City of Mine, and One Patty, playing significant roles in the latter two. Marlon Walker also pulled double duty in This City of Mine and Mango Wars, while Jeff Crossley showed that he is more than ready to step beyond advertising to take on more meaty roles. Shanique Brown’s performance in This City of Mine was a picture of pitch-perfect restraint.

The light-hearted comedy Mango Wars features Marlon Walker (Mr. Brown) and Camille Davis (Mrs. Brown). Convinced that his neighbour has been stealing his prized Julie mangoes and ignored by the police, Mr. Brown goes through Rambo-esque lengths to catch the thief. The film occasionally struggles under the weight of a little too much exposition, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously and provides an enjoyable look at how possessive we can be about our prized mangoes. 

Carl Davis (Ras Iple) and his son Judah (Kaleb D'Aguilar) butt heads in Code

Sarah Manley’s Code follows Judah Carpenter whose attempt to follow his dreams of coding and going to university seems to be leading him away from his family, his father, and his Rastafari upbringing. Code presents the classic struggle between father and son, tradition and the future. Still holding on to the trauma wrought on his family, Ras Iple, is adamant that his son should stay away from Babylon. Yet, his strict hold on his son threatens to strangle rather than save. In all that it achieves, Code is a stark reminder that although Rasta has long been included in Jamaican films and TV shows, we have barely scratched the surface. It’s allusion to the Coral Gardens Massacre, doesn’t dominate the film, but its continued haunting of Ras Iple is a clarion call to untold stories. The film’s only downside is the inclusion of a rivalry between Judah and an ‘uptown yute’ which feels forced, and instead of underscoring the hurdles that Judah has to face in Babylon, it comes across as ludicrous and deflates from the dramatic tension it was inserted to create. Even so, Code has interesting characters and has sufficient legs for further development. 

When all you want is just one patty

The majority of the films are visually commendable. But One Patty’s opening is particularly striking. Magnus’ One Patty benefits from a visually arresting opening sequence that underscores Gabrielle Blackwood’s skills as a cinematographer.  The sequence follows the production process for the patty. If it has been a while since you’ve had a patty (or even if it wasn’t) that scene might leave you with the craving that only the buttery, golden patty crust can fill. The rest of the film never lives up to the opening but fortunately, it doesn’t need to. The wittily written film delves into the frustration that builds up in a patty shop at lunchtime when the simple desire for just one patty can be thwarted by long lines, indecisive and chatty fellow customers and molasses-slow service. 

Despite the diversity of themes, there was notable underdevelopment of female characters, most of whom were hardly able to step beyond the shadow of the helpmate stereotype - the wife or partner who provides quiet counsel to her husband, helping him to see reason. The exception was This City of Mine, the only piece which featured a female protagonist.

Russell’s This City of Mine is a dismal look at Jamaica’s transportation system, especially for women. Julia’s (Shanique Brown) attempt to arrive early for her first day at a new job gets almost derailed by bad-driving taxis, threatening conductors and fellow passengers with no appreciation for personal space, believing a woman’s shoulder is just a handy resting place for a man’s wayward crotch.

Jeff Crossley in Nile Saulter's Fever Dream

Fever Dream and This City of Mine are the two most cinematically daring of the films. But where This City of Mine’s success is not completely even, Nile Saulter continues to show mastery of compressed, visual storytelling.

Interestingly, the two films share much in common, asking us to reconsider perspective and to take a more meaningful look at people we would pass by. Julia (This City of Mine) is the quiet kind of woman most of us would look through on the bus, appearing stand-offish as she is unable to comprehend the jungle of public transportation, Enry (Fever Dream) literally ekes his living out in the margins, living off of the discarded and ruined.

At the height of the local scrap industry boom, for most of the society, scrap iron collectors were little more than shadowy menaces who would run off with anything made of iron from rusting car parts to works of art. In Fever Dream, Saulter manages to humanize Enry (Jeff Crossley), who makes his living from selling scrap iron while dreaming of one day escaping the squalor of the Riverton dump where he resides and finding a beautiful brownin’ to share his new life. Despite the darkness that surrounds the film, it ends on a note of hope.

The inaugural JAFTA Propella produced films that are now on their way to second lives. At least two of them may become feature-length pieces, and another is in development to become a series. The current crop also has potential for expanded lives for these shorts. The call for 2018 films will be issued later in January. The cast and crew screening of the five films was held at the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre, the University of the West Indies on Friday, January 12, 2018, at 7:00 pm. With the Propella project injecting momentum into the industry, there are now clear signs that maybe, just maybe, a take-off is imminent. 


Previous version of this article spelt Gabrielle Blackwood's name incorrectly and misnamed This City of Mine as City of Mine.