Tue | Jun 25, 2019

Donovan Watkis | Jamaican films must be authentic

Published:Friday | February 3, 2017 | 12:00 AMDonovan Watkis

Recently, I saw where the accomplished American Hollywood producer Joel Zwick told Jamaican filmmakers that they should only use English in their movies.

He said, "If the world can't understand what you are saying and you then have to use subtitles, which most people don't like to read, then it becomes a foreign movie. Jamaica should not be producing foreign-language films as an English-speaking country. There is no reason to tell your stories in anything other than English as the English-speaking world is vast."

He further stated: "When we write in Patois, we are locking out a whole set of people who want to understand."

I found those comments short-sighted and deeply colonial. The irony was lost on many that he was encouraging filmmakers to "think global" while reducing the prestigious art of filmmaking to the prejudices of non-reading English speakers. He also made the ill-informed, pretentious assumption that all Jamaican stories may be told in the Queen's language and keep their authenticity.

Filmmaking around the world happens in a range of economic, social, and cultural contexts. Like any other products for distribution, films are targeted for specific markets. Self-respecting Jamaican filmmakers should not digest any narrative that tells them that their language is useless in telling their stories. The assumptions made by the accomplished gentleman are similar to the presumptuous rancour inherited by the privileged class about Jamaica's other cultural expressions like dancehall.


Not sellable


It is in a similar way that black American filmmakers were told in the past by Hollywood executives that 'black films', i.e., films with black actors as the lead characters would not make any money because nobody wanted to watch a film with black people. That argument was shattered when Tyler Perry broke box-office numbers with his cash cow characters like Madea and others, which were identifiable across demographics.

Hollywood directors who create imaginary ceilings in their narrative such as "the Jamaican Patois language is not sellable" seem to forget their own history. Some of the early filmmakers in Hollywood, the likes of Mayer, Cohen, Selznick, and Thalberg, headed west to form Hollywood at a time when the entertainment business was regarded as disreputable. They often went to extreme lengths in their quest for social respectability. Jamaicans require the same respect for our stories and language.

If the gentleman is speaking on behalf of Hollywood, he would actually be doing a disservice to the global film industry by not looking to Jamaica for creative fusion. It is a shame that in 2017, a film could be judged as marketable or not based on the language when we are so interconnected and the technology is available to get any film into the homes of those who are interested.




If Jamaican films were proscribed from entering the real corridors of gentility and Hollywood's English status, movies told in the Jamaican language offer an ingenious option. Within the film studios and on the screens, Jamaicans can simply create a new industry, one where they would not only be admitted, but would also govern.

To shame the Jamaican language for commercial appeasement is the first step towards dismissing the island's culture as irrelevant to the global markets. The next logical step is to justify why a Hollywood director would not need a Jamaican to play the part of a Jamaican in a movie, thus further degrading our film industry.

I urge Jamaican filmmakers to aspire to be less like Stephen Spielberg and more like Steve Jobs. Being innovative and expressing ourselves in an authentic manner will assist us in breaking down imaginary walls. Start from your comfortable place of scriptwriting and develop the film industry outward. I cannot imagine myself teaching students at a film school or at the workshop how to make films in a language other than their own. That would be preposterous miseducation and borderline rude.

A better message would be to tell every Jamaican practising film to focus their energies on developing their humanity through scripts and make the films using their cultural values.

- Donovan Watkis is an award-winning filmmaker and author. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jrwatkis@gmail.com.