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Propella Films Take Flight: Five New Jamaican Films Screened

Shantol Jackson in Michelle Serieux Sugar, written by Sharon Leach

If nothing else, and there were many something elses, the Jamaican screening of the five films in the JaFTA Propella project speak to the diverse possibilities and massive potential resting in the Jamaican film industry, which over 40 years after our the first locally made feature, remains embryonic. However, if the filmmakers featured in Thursday night’s screening are a good indication, that embryo is about fully develop and take flight.

The five films screened were: Shoot the Girl written by Tony Hendriks and directed by Natalie Thompson; Shock Value written and directed by Adrian Lopez; Silent Hearts written and directed by Janet Morrison; Origins written and directed by Kurt Wright; and Sugar written by Sharon Leach directed by Michelle Serieux. 

Most of the films featured strong casts who delivered robust performances from both new comers and experienced actors but most intriguingly, several of the pieces brought different kinds of story to the screen, answering the call for a more diverse range of stories to come from the island, because as much of a classic as The Harder They Come may be, we can’t keep remaking the same story.

Peter Heslop plays a vagrant in Natalie Thompson's Shoot the Girl written by Tony HendriksSo, although Thompson’s Shoot the Girl explores the effect of crime in an inner city community, it takes a notably different spin on the story. Told largely from the perspective of a little girl (played by Rejalla Ellis) who is hunted by the big bad of her community named Satan (played by Glen Campbell) in the wake of her father’s death, Shoot the Girl shows how brain can overpower brawn and might and that social media can be effective if used for more than sharing selfies and cat videos. 

Hendriks is a little heavy handed in getting his message across, and Thompson needed to be a little more trusting of the film's visual power to impart this message, and lose some of the unneccessry dialogue. Even so, Shoot the Girl benefits from Thompson’s solid direction and there are some visually beautiful moments in the film. Shoot the Girl’s integration of gullies into the story telling also highlights the continued use of the feature in Jamaican films as a symbol of both strife and survival.

The story also benefits from a good cast, though Campbell takes his character a little over the top, a shame for an actor of his calibre. The story also featured Kadeem Wilson, David Crosgill, Joel Ellis, and Peter Heslop.

Aston Cooke and Jhada-Ann Walker in Janet Morrison's Silent Hearts

Morrison’s Silent Hearts, also has a social message and it too attempts to peer into the heart of the crime festering in Jamaica and offer solutions. The story follows a young girl’s adbuction, which is facilitated by those who bear witness to the crime but do nothing.  The story benefits from the performances of Aston Cooke (who is delightfully creepy) and Damian Radcliffe. Young Jhada-Ann Walker also delivers a solid performance.

Silent Hearts has a simple message, silence is allowing atrocious crimes against our children to take place and go unsolved. Alas, it is extremely heavy-handed in its imparting of that message but it is a message worth imparting, which allows for some forgiveness, even if the ending is a little much.

Lopez’ Shock Value, featuring Adrianna Bryan, Jean-Peal Menou and Crystal Porter-Jackson,  is striking and commendable for going the route of a thriller, a rare if ever seen from the local film sector. From its colour scheme, to its wardrobe and set pieces, Shock Value set itself up as a sexy noir thriller. Yet, the cinematography decisions rendered the two female leads, who from all other appearances a la the internet are beautiful women, as garish and a little scary in their angular unattractiveness. 

Shock Value also struggles under the onslaught of Porter-Jackson’s terrible performance, which beat out nails raked against a blackboard for being gratingly annoying. Adrianna Bryan isn’t bad, but Shock Value is a nuanced script which requires actors who understand meaningful pauses, timing and subtlety. Menou’s solid delivery to temper both women, was therefore a Godsend and highlighted the value of using talented actors. Lopez’ choice of a final twist at the end, also slightly undermined the noir quality of the story, which was initially its best quality.

The last two films screened, Wright’s Origins and Serieux’s Sugar were easily the strongest of the five films. 

Leonie Forbes is the enigmatic narrator in Kurt Wright's fantasy film, Origins

Origins is a fantasy adventure which pulls on Jamaican myth and history. It is beautifully shot and peopled by interesting characters (beleaguered by battles with the relevant accents) but engaging nonetheless. Origins is mainly the story of Three Finger Jack (played by Kevoy Burton) who attempts to restore the narrative history. Nanny, Dr. Lewis Hutchinson, Annie Palmer, and a Quashi of unknown origins also make appearances. 

With established actors Leonie Forbes, Tony Hendriks and Chris Daley and rising forces of talent Shanique Brown and Julene Robinson on its roster, Origins’ story is bouyed by solid performances. Even so, Wright reveals a little too much about each character, via the tale’s narrator. This possibly results because the ambitious story is being squashed into a single short. So, in order to not leave the audience with too many questions (which would create intrigue and mystery if it were a series) the back stories are filled in, robbing the tale of a little of its potential, but Origins has more than enough to spare, because if they get the characters right, this is the complex, multilayered fantasy film Jamaica deserves.

The full roster of writers and directors in the 2016 Jafta Propella short film project

Sugar brought the screening from fantasy back to reality, pulling the gauze back from the glittering tourism industry to produce a forceful narrative that takes a look into the life of young maid Sugar, who finds herself facing mounting odds and a great moral dilemma. 

The adaptation of Leach’s short story by the same name, Sugar is an engaging story that crackles with strong performances by its lead Shantol Jackson as well as the supporting cast including Karen Harriott, Carol Lawes, Sharee Elise, Shanique Brown, Jean Paul Menou, and Maylynne Lowe. 

The story has great potential for development into a feature film, and the short highlights that Serieux has the requisite skills to match the ambition.

The Propella project was created by the Jamaica Film and Television Association (JaFTA) in order to spur growth and development in the sector. It was coordinated by Justine Henzell, Gabrielle Blackwood (President of JaFTA), Kenia Grabrielle Blackwood, president of the Jamaica Film and Television AssociationMattis and Toni Blackford.  

The screening was held at Redbones the Blues Cafe on Thursday, November 3, 2016, hosted by Tony Hendriks. In her brief address, Blackwood pointed out that in addition to the funders, the support of the wider industry who helped the filmmakers by either working for free or close to it, was critical to the project’s success. Each film received J$500,000 (courtesy of the CHASE fund) and were shot over two days. 

The films have previously been screened in Trinidad and Tobago, the United States and South Africa, and the project is also supported by JAMPRO. Hopefully, this initiative will indeed allow the Jamaican film sector to 'tek off' and finally realize the potential it has been showing for years.