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Songs of Redemption - Stumbles on Its Good Intentions

Fernando Garcia Guereta, Heather Grant (left) and members of the production team

Songs of Redemption is a telling name for a documentary exploring a music programme amongst prisoners. Directed by Fernando Garcia Guereta (Why Do Jamaicans Run So Fast) and produced by Nice Time Productions, the documentary film is set in Jamaica’s General Penitentiary which houses some of the island’s most violent offenders.

Songs of Redemption was recently screened at the University of the West Indies. The screening was preceded by a string of musicians desperately searching for the illusive "buss" culminating with percussionist Bongo Herman who pulled numerous instruments (including a dented and chipped chamber pot.

Fortunately, the film itself was far more interesting.  The film's greatest merit is the prisoners who tell their tales. They are engaging and have interesting stories which pull you in. Chief among these is Serano, one of the first of the inmates that you meet.

"My reality today is that I'm a prisoner. It's not my dream to be a prisoner," Serano says, and despite his reminding me a little of Jah Cure, I find I like him a little. It is through him that you learn a ittle of the less pleasant aspects of prison life, but even so as he sits chilling on the stoop before his cell, he appears to have life reasonably good. Serano is a great story teller and quite likeable until you realize although he admits his guilt, he does not seem to recognize what he has done wrong.

 Indeed, a significant element of the film’s shortcoming is that Songs of Redemption doesn’t provide its audience with enough information to know if they are trust worthy.

The 1 1/4 hour-long film very badly wants to be a feel good film, and it goes after this goal much to the detriment of its own integrity. So in its thrust to ensure you believe these prisoners have been redeemed through their encounter with music, Songs of Redemption uses far more tell than show. You do not see great details on the prisoners life, most of what you see is what they tell you.

So, for  a film that surrounds life in prison, it fails to provide great insight into prison life. Additionally, the prisoners profiled seemed to have particular privileges, such as being able to fully “bling” out that one would hope all prisoners do not have access to. This is never explained, and in a way being in prison appears to be reasonably similar to hanging out on the street corner.  Interestingly, in its single montage that provides any details about prison life, the film uses Vybz Kartel’s ‘Back To Life’ and the song itself provides far more visceral details than the film ever does.

The film is well-intentioned, and that is its down fall. Rather than being simply true to the situation, it tries to hard to tint it a nice shade of rose pink.

Nice Time Productions has also produced Hit Me With Music and Why Do Jamaicans Run So Fast. Songs of Redemption earned the Best Feature Film award at the Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles. The company intends to pursue several screenings at the UWI, Trench Town an high schools as well as festivals. It will later explore online downloads.