Recently I saw a where the accomplished American Hollywood producer Joel Zwick told Jamaican film-makers 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 colonising. The irony was lost on many that he was encouraging film-makers to “think global” while reducing the prestigious art of film-making 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.
Film-making around the world happens in a range of economic, social and cultural contexts which use different technologies and techniques. Like any other products for distribution, films are targeted for specific markets. Self-respecting Jamaican film-makers should not digest any narrative that tells them that their language is useless in telling their story, or any story for that matter.
The assumptions made by the accomplished gentleman are similar to the presumptuous rancour inherited by the privileged class in Jamaica about Jamaica’s other cultural expressions like dancehall. They are reminiscent of the era when black American film-makers were told by Hollywood executives that “black films” — 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 film-makers 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 in the homes of those who are interested.
People are much smarter than they are given credit for. Film-making has progressed from the days of silent films for storytelling to now using language and high-definition images. The images and story content are the most important in communicating the message on film. Short-sighted producers and film-makers need to exorcise themselves from the normative.
If Jamaican films were proscribed from entering the real corridors of gentility and Hollywood’s English status, then 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.
The drop in the confidence of the actors is recognisable by the intelligence of the audience when a director does not remain true to the cultural context of a story on film. To shame the Jamaican language for commercial appeasement is the first step towards dismissing the Jamaican 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. In order for the culture to move forward creatively and economically, the next four years must see an increase in the images reflecting our authentic culture and humanity, instead of the stereotypes in our ethnicity. When that happens it will become clear that the language of the Jamaican people was never the hindrance in the first place.
I urge Jamaican film-makers to aspire to be less like Stephen Spielberg and more like Steve Jobs. Being innovative and expressing ourselves in an authentic manner, whether it be English, Spanish, or in your native dialect, will assist us in breaking down imaginary walls. Start from your comfortable place of script writing and develop the film industry outward.
I cannot imagine myself teaching students at a film school or at a 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 what they have, which is a magnificent imagination filled with rich language, stories, and culture as we further discover our potential.