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Jamaica: Storm Saulter on Film & New Media in the Caribbean

The 2012 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival continues this week and one of the most high-profile regional attendees is Storm Saulter, the Jamaican director whose first feature film, Better Mus’ Come, received critical acclaim upon its release in late 2010. The film, which centers around the country’s political violence in the 1970s – specifically the Green Bay Massacremade quite an impression at last year’s Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival and heralded a new era in Jamaican cinema, which had never quite been able to match the celluloid accomplishments of The Harder They Come, a ‘70s crime film classic starring Jimmy Cliff. This year, he and his team at New Caribbean Cinema, a collective that Saulter started with St. Lucian filmmaker Michelle Serieux, has a compilation of short films in the festival, each with its own title but collectively dubbed Ring di Alarm. I sat down with him to talk about filmmaking in the Caribbean and how new media is helping to change the landscape, both technically and creatively…

Global Voices (GV): Let’s talk about Better Mus’ Come, which has really done its part to revive filmmaking in Jamaica. How did you get interested in telling this particular story?

Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter

Storm Saulter (SS): I’ve always been interested in politics, in the Cold War and espionage, so I found out about Jamaica being on the front line of the Cold War, not in a direct way, ‘cause they never taught that in film school. I found out about it by doing research on the proxy wars happening all around the world. I [also] started to research through the Jamaica Gleaner archives and I’d read Council on Hemispheric Relations reports and speak to people that were around at the time and gradually piece together the environment of the 1970s.

GV: But it seems that type of environment still exists. There was a similar situation in 2010 with ‘Dudus’.

SS: Right; exactly. It’s a cycle of violence that’s coming from a certain place and if we don’t get a bit more understanding of the origins of it and deal with it…it’s like people on the street talk about politicians…but to really present it in a visual and powerful format…to cement that…no-one had really been thinking of doing it.

Tivoli Gardens [Dudus’ territory], funny enough, was the centre of the underworld, but it was also a really good place to live for a garrison community, but it was a sub-economy supported by this gang and they became the government ‘cause there was no government. And they became their own mini-state and that’s why they had to be crushed so brutally. So it’s art imitating life; life imitating art because we made Better Mus’ Come before the Tivoli situation. And in Green Bay, 6 men were killed; between 70 and 80 were killed in Tivoli.

GV: In contrast, what is Ring di Alarm like?

SS: The films come from slightly dark humour, very art house stuff, to somewhat surreal stuff. Certain themes arose over and over. Like morality – a lot of the films are morality tales, people put in a situation where you test their morals and they have to make a choice. We have films taking place in the Blue Mountains, we have a film taking place entirely in a church, another film taking place on the coastline of Negril, another one in the ghetto, very radical…

Nile Saulter, Michelle Serieux and Storm Saulter of New Caribbean Cinema

GV: So you think we’re finding our voice. Because for a long time we didn’t see ourselves.

SS: Very much so. We didn’t think we were worthy and we thought we had to pattern it off of Hollywood. What we need to make in the Caribbean is universal stories and we wrap them in our culture, in our language, in our environment, in our experience. That’s the goal and that’s how we’ll succeed. It’s about ideas and execution.

GV: New media has revolutionized the industry because tools are accessible – and cheap compared to film. You can also use new media to promote. How is it changing the landscape of filmmaking?

SS: Well, for example, I’ve never had a publicity budget for Better Mus’ Come. So all of this has come directly out of creative marketing, use of Facebook and Twitter and we did a few guerilla things like in Jamaica during Fashion’s Night Out, we got a bunch of students from the drama school – 'cause during Fashion’s Night Out there’s swarms of people in the town – we got the students to dress up in Better Mus’ Come shirts and we figured this out like the day of. I got [placard] board and cut it out and painted it myself and we had them walking out like a protest group saying, ‘Better Mus’ Come!’

GV: So onlookers actually thought it was a real protest.

SS: Yes, because it was coming up to an election as well, but when they looked at the placards, it was like release date, Facebook address, Twitter handle…it cost us hardly any money, some paint and some wood, we gave 10 tickets to the kids to go to opening night and people are still talking about it. So using that and then capturing that and then putting the captured version of the video of that onto Facebook and you just keep building content, because content is king.

So for example, you have a film coming out, so what we’d do is interview the actors and create all this content around it so you create a culture around the actual piece and then by the time the piece comes, people are already involved. They already want to see it ‘cause they’ve gotten to see this guy talk and it didn’t cost much; it’s very self-sufficient and very lasting. In terms of new media and how creative the storylines can be, I love it! I used to do video art. What I love about the whole new media environment is that you’re kind of breaking that down.

GV: Yes, because people can reach it.

SS: People can reach it and I find that the work that tends to be labeled under new media is very experimental, it’s video art and kind of that blend between video art and proper filmmaking. And then transmedia is another thing, where you’re telling stories on multiple platforms. So you have a story where there’s episodes playing on television and then part of the story is not shown on television, so you have to join their online presence to see that. And then usually they build into the plot user-generated elements so it’s interactive. This is like the new, new wave of multi-tiered storytelling. And that’s a new world where Caribbean people really haven’t gotten a grasp on it yet, but with all these tools, you can tell multi-platform. For example, there’s a story called The Truth about Marika, in Sweden, I believe. It was the major, breakthrough new media thing. It was like Lonely Girl 15 which was on YouTube. In the Marika story, there was an investigative journalist that was following the disappearance of this high-society woman and…people got really interested and started to follow…and discovered this woman was brought into this…secret society that was running things in the underground. It was a created story but they did interesting things where they would put the logos of these firms that were associated with the secret society – [for example] they branded a security van and had it drive around major cities in Sweden and people who were following the story would see the vans and start taking pictures and uploading them.

A still from Nile Saulter's short “Coast”, part of the new film “Ring di Alarm’

GV: Basically bringing fiction into real life.

SS: Exactly. It’s really crazy. So you’re telling stories in the natural environment and you’re placing characters in their natural environment and once you get enough of a following, that’s going to start to interact and there’s this great opportunity to make money off of branded entertainment because if you have a lot of followers and you have advertising…so that’s a new, new frontier that I think we need to get into as well.

But I love the experimentation of what they’re doing here with the new media. I love video art. Art is at the forefront of everything. That’s the rawest of the raw and I wish the Caribbean had a big art-appreciating community.

Another still from one of the films in “Ring di Alarm”

GV: But who gets to decide what the narrative of Caribbean art or literature, for example, should be – and do we now have the same conundrum with Caribbean film? Does it always have to be gritty or conversely, sun, sea, sand and sex?

SS: It doesn’t and it’s funny, because after making ‘Better Mus’ Come, I’m not interested in making another ghetto film right now. My next film that I’m probably going to get off the ground first is a film called Sting Ray, which is basically an uptown love triangle happening on the back of a boat on an island off Kingston, happening in one day. It’s a study of race and class…this underlying racism [and classism] that permeates everything. So I am trying to tell a broad spectrum because I am trying to change the narrative. Ring di Alarm does play with that imagery. It’s totally varied and beautiful and folkloric and risqué. That’s what I love about [the film] as well, it’s an insight into something else besides gangsterism. I think we have an obligation to change that image. And people may say it’s funny that I’m saying that because I just made this breakout film, based in the ghetto, but that story had to be told properly.

The photographs used in this post are by Frederique Rapier, used with permission. Visit her flickr photostream. Movie stills courtesy New Caribbean Cinema, used with permission.

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