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'Africa Unite' projected through Bob's eyes

Published:Friday | October 28, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Stephanie Black
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Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

There are many images, video and still, of reggae singer and Rastafarian Bob Marley. However, for Africa Unite, the documentary which records the Marley family's celebration of Bob's 60th birthday in Ethiopia in 2005, director Stephanie Black makes a striking claim.

Black notes that while the film does not have a heavy Bob Marley presence, it is replete with what was important to him - the continent of Africa, his family, Haile Selassie and the concept of African unity. "I feel those are the ingredients in the film," Black said. "We are looking through his eyes. I felt that is was all the things he loved."

The centerpiece of Africa Unite is the concert in Meskel Square, featuring Bob's performing sons, among them Stephen, Julian and Damian, Bob Andy, and a number of other artistes. However, Black points out that there were a number of other activities, including a conference with youth from all over the African continent.

And, she said, she was "very lucky" to get involved in the project, although at very short notice. The H2 Worker and Life and Debt director was contacted between the end of December 2004 and early January 2005 to document the trip, which centred around Bob Marley's 60th birthday on February 6.

Historic approach

She approached it with a sense of history. "I knew it would be a very special event. I was excited they were going to Africa to celebrate Bob's 65th birthday," Black said.

The equipment had to be transported from the US, with most of the crew coming from the US and Ethiopia and segments in Jamaica shot by a local contingent, which included Chris Browne. Africa Unite, released in 2008, was recorded at a time when there was a deficiency in the required standard of equipment in Ethiopia.

"We had to carry everything at that time. I have been back to Ethiopia since then and it (the availability of top-end equipment) changed in a short time," Black said. That happened because a lot of people went abroad, studied film and came back to Ethiopia with equipment. Now, Black said, there is a push for domestic film production in the country and "we can look to Ethiopia for much more films than before".

She got to Ethiopia 10 days before the main concert and is still impressed with the high level of cooperation she got from the general public. Armed with a pass from the government, Black was allowed to go into churches and other desired locations. Wherever she went, the residents simply left her alone to do the project. "People look at you like that is your job. People are not trying to hog the camera. Anywhere, we understood that was your job. That was amazing - that there was that understanding," she said.

Camera crews went to different locations - the conference, Jubilee Palace and Shashamane, where there is a Rastafari community. A crew also accompanied the Marley family on their aeroplane flight. Naturally, a lot of resources were required for the concert, which Black said attracted 300,000 persons.

Among her more cherished moments from Africa Unite are American actor Danny Glover speaking to a granddaughter of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, telling her about the significance of Selassie's pre World War II speech to the League of Nations.

Unintended effect

It took Black about a year to get Africa Unite edited, procure the required archival footage and access funding to complete the documentary. The first public screening was held in the Jubilee Palace in Ethiopia and Black recalls that it was attended by a wide cross section of persons, including the country's president and Rastafarians from Shashamane.

Africa Unite opened in Jamaica at the Palace Cineplex, Cross Roads, in Jamaica, February 2008.

There has been an unintended side effect of Africa Unite which has pleased Black tremendously. "I have seen the film shown in different places. Recently, there was a screening in Ghana and they had never seen some of the footage of late president and prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, because it had been destroyed. It was rewarding to see the response and excitement of the young Ghanaians," Black said.

Stephanie Black