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The Price of Memory: Enlightening and Emotional

Price of Memory
The axe forgets but the tree that has been chopped remembers.
-African proverb

So begins Karen Marks Mafundikwa's 83 minute documentary, The Price of Memory, a stirring narrative of the Jamaican struggle for reparations from the British sovereignty for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Spanning the length of a decade, the film is at once a homage to early pioneers and an unflinching exposé of the political response their cause engendered. It explores the confluence of efforts from Rastafari, attorneys-at-law and professors of Caribbean history, providing much illumination on a topic often overlooked.

With expert attention to emotional detail, the film gels its broad histories of socio-political strife with the unassuming life of Ras Lion, a prominent reparation activist who has strong personal ties to the movement. He passes on the legacy of reparations, inherited from his great grandmother, to his infant son who grows up before our eyes.

Complementing the sentimental sphere with the logical one, Mafundikwa adds to her credibility with interviews from the likes of Professor of Social History Verene Shepherd, attorney-at-law Michael Lorne, former journalist Barbara Blake Hannah (now head of the Jamaica Reparations Movement), and the esteemed Philmore Alvaranga, one-third of the historic first Rastafari reparations delegation to the African continent in 1963.

The tragedy of the Middle Passage is by no means unique to Jamaican. Indeed when challenged on narrowing her focus to Jamaica, Mafundikwa could only reply that the Diaspora is so wide, too wide to tell a cohesive story, something The Price of Memory has skilfully achieved. Additionally, Mafundikwa tries to avoid an extreme bias by including an interview with Michael Lyons, an attorney arguing the case against reparations, as well as scenes from the British House of Lords, but these efforts to widen the ongoing discussion ultimately fall short of total objectivity.

On one level, Mafundikwa's film is an exercise in tugging at heartstrings. On another it flirts with profundity by posing an important question: what, exactly, is the price of memory Aiding her efforts at sensibility are the subtle yet effective visual effects. Mafundikwa's documentary seems to pride itself not on telling a faceless, fact-filled story, but on telling lives. From the outset, her camera angles are keen on capturing emotion - profile shots, close-ups and extreme close-ups work hard to garner our empathy for choice characters. So while stock footage of official meetings may make her documentary reliable, it is the charged silence of her silent full and medium shots that make it relatable.

The Price of Memory is also impressively well-timed. On the heels of modern-day ethical battles such as those surrounding Mario Deane and Michael Brown as well as articles like Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations, the film falls smack-dab into the middle of a conversation that is steadily picking up steam. The idea that slavery is responsible for present-day sociocultural injustice and the argument that restitution is well-deserved have perhaps never been so appealing.

Amidst the fervent zeal now surrounding the reparations movement Mafundikwa's role is akin to that of drummer boy, sounding the charge and rallying the troops. She reflects, regroups and reconsiders, a process designed to inflame the breasts of dedicated activists, but which also presents, with intriguing effect, enough salient details to cultivate a new cohort of reparation seekers. A crash course in reparations, if you will.

Nominated for Best Documentary at the 2014 Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival after its debut at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, The Price of Memory is poised to become a game changer in the field of socio-political development, at least on this side of the Pond. On its own it is a well-crafted and much-needed history lesson, but combined with the ongoing efforts of reparation enthusiasts, the film may finally provide the momentum they have been seeking. Let's see if it lives up to this potential.