Jamaica's Reggae Film Festival Tells Island's Rich Music Story

While it's unlikely any of the movies presented at the recently concluded 5th Annual Reggae Film Festival (RFF) will attract the widespread interest generated by director Kevin McDonald's "Marley" documentary, many are just as significant in their chronicling of the ongoing, multifaceted narrative that is Jamaican popular music. Eleven feature-length films were shown at the RFF, held in late April at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel Gardens in Kingston, all incorporating the island's music within their storyline or soundtrack.

Studio Drummie One by American director Guy Ragosta provides a look at rocksteady, reggae's direct forerunner, and the seminal Jamaican label Studio One by focusing on the career of drummer Joe "Drummie" Isaacs of the Soul Vendors band. Showtime! from the London collective Heatwave, intercuts interviews and performances by intergenerational artists representing various genres in its emphasis of Jamaica's dub and reggae as the progenitors of UK derived jungle, drum 'n' bass, grime and dubstep. Acknowledging the initial global renown Harry Belafonte brought to the island's music through the inclusion of Jamaican folk songs on his 1956 release "Calypso" (RCA), the first album to sell over 1 million copies, the HBO film detailing Belafonte's life and career, Sing Your Song, by American director Susanne Rostock, was screened at the RFF's opening night.

"The Reggae Film Festival is a wonderful marriage between we the Jamaican people telling our own stories and non Jamaicans who have documented numerous aspects and practitioners of our music," explains Barbara Blake Hannah, a Kingston based journalist, filmmaker and the Director of Jamaica Media Productions. Hannah established the annual RFF in 2008 alongside Peter Gittins, the founder of Reggae Films UK whose catalogue exceeds 200 titles related to Jamaican music and culture.

Gold Sponsor RBC Bank Jamaica subsidizes the RFF's kick off event, the Make a Film in 24 hours competition. Contestants are asked to create a 5-minute film on a specific topic (this year Jamaica 50: Rebirth of a Nation) within a 24-hour period; those shorts are screened throughout the duration of the festival.

Silver sponsors include the Jamaica Tourist Board, and telecommunications company Flow who has partnered with the RFF to establish the Reggae Film Festival (cable) TV channel where several of the films that have been presented over the years can be watched.

A jury comprised of members of Jamaica's Film Academy (JFA) views all entries submitted for possible screenings at the RFF, their choices reflect a balance between features and documentaries and international and local productions. Founded by Hannah in 2008 to preserve moving images related to Jamaica's musical trajectory, JFA members include celebrated Jamaican actor Carl Bradshaw who has appeared in nearly every (CRAZY) Jamaican film production since his debut as the infamous Jose in the groundbreaking 1972 movie The Harder They Come, directed by the late Perry Henzell.

Academy members' votes also determine the winners of the RFF Awards, bestowed in nine categories. The career of Jamaican filmmaker Chris Browne won a Special Honor Award for his work on numerous Hollywood films shot in Jamaica including Club Paradise (1985) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. He is also the director of Ghett'a Life, the Grand Prize Winner of The Hartley-Merrill International Screenwriting Competition at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and the 1999 action crime drama Third World Cop. Propelled by a pulsating dancehall soundtrack, released on Palm Pictures, Third World Cop is the highest grossing film in Jamaican history, earning JA $21 million (about $500,000 calculated according to 1999 conversion rates) over a four-month period.

A 1992 film We The Raggamuffin directed by London based Dr. Julian Henriques earned the RFF's Sugashak Records Best Soundtrack Award. Shot in Peckham, South London, (home to many Jamaican immigrants) the film's anti-violence message remains relevant, while its soundtrack balances the era's rapid-fire dancehall rhythms with quintessential British lovers rock; Kingston based artist Mikey General portrays himself in a lead role and contributes the soundtrack's title song.

Sugashak Records' CEO Chris Kaufman believes an alliance between the island's film and music industries can only strengthen each entity. "Films need music and because the music industry has changed we have to find other ways to get our stuff out there and soundtracks are a great vehicle for that, The Harder They Come being a prime example of a great Jamaican movie with a great Jamaican soundtrack," says Kaufman.

The (adapted) soundtrack to The Harder They Come, dominated by timeless selections from Jimmy Cliff (who flawlessly portrays the film's pivotal character, aspiring reggae singer Ivan O. Martin) served as an introduction to reggae for many non-Jamaicans. Released on the Island Records subsidiary Mango in 1973 the soundtrack eventually entered the Top 200 Album chart in March 1975, where it peaked at no. 140.

With the RFF's upcoming summer tour including stops at the London Olympics' Jamaica 50th exhibition in July, and the Rototom Sunsplash (Reggae Festival) in Benicàssim, Spain and Miami's Broward County Library in August as well as possible dates in Toronto and Belgrade, Serbia, Hannah believes the globetrotting festival brand functions as "an international distribution chain for Jamaican films, film makers and musicians," she says. "Whether it is DVD sales, or direct to cable TV via Flow the Reggae Film Festival is helping these films get the exposure they deserve."