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British filmmaker focuses lens on Jamaican celebrity barber - Powis stars in award-winning documentary 'The Fade'

Published:Sunday | September 18, 2016 | 12:00 AMKimberley Small
Shawn Powis
Shawn Powis
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"When you cut hair, you will never go hungry. You can work anywhere as long as there are people."

That quote, taken from Offori 'Tupac' Mensah, a barber from Accra, Ghana, rings true when applied to the advancement of his own career and the careers of the three other barbers featured alongside him.

The Fade, a modern-day, observational conversation of the barber shop quartet, is a documentary that travels to the four corners of the world, with its lens focused on the intimate nature of and potential success in being a barber.

The film follows four barbers as they demonstrate the necessity of their profession - and how from that necessity, they have emerged men who are in demand and on the go, through the power of entrepreneurship and the mobility it provides for individual goals and status within their communities.

 

SUCCESS AND CAMARADERIE

 

This feature-length documentary, directed and produced by award-winning film-maker Andy Mundy-Castle (who is also the director and producer of Bronx Tales, the promotional films for Netflix's 2016 summer success, The Get Down) attempts to communicate a message of success and camaraderie, while applying the unavoidable elements of societal circumstances.

"I wanted to tie the continents and countries together," Mundy-Castle told The Sunday Gleaner. "It was intended to be a positive homage to the Trans-Atlantic map and key countries that were involved with the slave trade."

Traversing between England, Ghana, the United States, and Jamaica, the film shadows the four men, who Mundy-Castle identified as exceptional barbers in their communities, and navigates its way through ghettos, art galleries, and into the personal spaces of celebrities.

Offori 'Tupac' Mensah from Accra, Ghana, struggles to make ends meet but launches his long-time dream of being a musician, while enjoying being referred to as "Accra's most wanted on a Friday night".

Faisal Abdu-Allah, who the director describes as a very studious and metropolitan man, balances his time between his barber shop space in London and his continuous work as a fine artist.

Johnny 'Cakes' Castellano owns and manages a barber shop in New Jersey and sometimes flies, via private jet, to groom the likes of Jay Z and Pharrell Williams.

Shawn Powis of Kingston, Jamaica, who calls himself the 'mobile barber', is buffeted from coast to coast at the behest of his own high-profile clientele.

"So this was a very much layered quartet of sorts," the director said. "The social aspect of the barber shop is clear for all to see. Sometimes people aren't even getting a trim, but they will just sit there for the jokes and communion."

 

THE MOBILE BARBER

 

Shawn Powis told The Sunday Gleaner that he heard talk of a film-maker seeking a subject for the film, but he didn't take the news seriously. When asked how he eventually got involved in the film, he said it was a matter of research.

"Andy, that's the director," Powis explained, "he had the numbers of, like, 15 other barbers when he found me."

According to Powis, Mundy-Castle told him that everywhere he went, in all his interactions regarding the film, someone would tap him on the shoulder and tell him to find Shawn Powis.

Mundy-Castle told The Sunday Gleaner that he spent a week going to different barber shops and meeting various barbers.

"There were others that I strongly considered, but on the grapevine, many people told me that Shawn Powis was the main man. So I held out 'til I met him, and then we sat and talked for a while in my hotel, and I soon realised that he was the genuine article - a true first-rate barber, who had a real passion for his trade."

Powis started out in 2006, while living in his uncle's house. With a pair of clippers and his family chorusing the opinion of barbering being 'lazy-man work', Powis began his career, with CXC-level knowledge of art and a lot of determination. He created his first hair design while working in Bling Dawg's barber shop, which, unbeknown to him, would become his identifier.

"The design thing, that's my hair. That's my thing," he said laughingly.

Though his artistic interests were not heavily explored in the film, Powis told The Sunday Gleaner that he considered the head his canvas, and the razor his brush. Powis worked at two barber shops before branching out on his own as 'the mobile barber'.

"For the film, he gave me something that no other barber offered," the director said. "He was a roaming barber as Blak Diamond says in the film, 'He is like Pizza Hut. You just call him, and he delivers.' That was interesting, because it allowed me to show other sides of Jamaica that people rarely see in mainstream media.

"Even if they don't know Elephant, they gonna know because of the hair ... . Looking like a star," said the multi-coloured Energy God Elephant Man in a scene in the film.

Powis is responsible for the grooming of Elephant Man, Jidenna, Chris Martin, Aidonia, Kid Kurup, Supa Hype, and others. He takes appointments via phone calls, moving fairly frequently between Kingston and Montego Bay.

According to Powis, the film shows just a fraction of where Powis took the film-maker.

"I could go deep garrison I could go way uptown," he said.

"I don't think it's just a haircut," Powis offered, mimicking the conclusion of Williams and Castellano. "It's not just to go to a shop and get a cut. My clients are my friends."

Internationally renowned music executive Pharrell Williams makes a rare and unguarded appearance in the film, at the behest of his barber and friend, the 'Hollywood' barber, Castellano.

"If he don't do it, it's not happening," said Williams, noting the oxymoronic incident of valuing his privacy, while agreeing to participate in a documentary - a testament to the camaraderie and communion described by Mundy-Castle.

Kid Kurup demonstrates a similar trust in Powis, who pointed out during his feature in the film that the barber works with "no looking, no mirror, no scrutiny" and that he has yet to meet a barber with such "finesse".

 

POWIS PRO PRODUCTS

 

Revelling in his success, Powis told The Sunday Gleaner to anticipate the extension of his brand through the development of his own product line.

"You're going to see Powis Pro products on your shelves," he told The Sunday Gleaner. Pomades, capes, disinfectants, face mists, and hair-oils are among those Powis said to expect.

"Two years ago, in Tivoli [Gardens] with Rvssian, we trimmed 80 kids free, and I'm planning to do some more like that very soon," he added. "I want to do some training sessions in art and pop-up seminars," he said.

The anecdotal documentary moves from the inner view of a robot taxi in Kingston to the barber, who flies to Wall Street for a trim, to a wooden shop covered in graffiti for signage as it demonstrates how each man has challenged himself, and subsequently each gaining his own version of celebrity status.

The Fade has been screened at the Austin Film Festival, the East End Film Festival, Africa the Eye Film Festival, the New Voices in Cinema NY, the British Urban Film Festival, the London International Black Film Festival, and many others.

The documentary won the award for Best International Film at the San Francisco Black Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Nashville Black Film Festival and is now available on Vimeo On Demand.

entertainment@gleanerjm.com