Update 3/14/2013: It's been two years since we interviewed director Storm Saulter about Better Mus' Come, a unique feature that mared a new generation of Jamaican film. Now with the help of the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement, the movie will screen in US theaters for the first time, on March 15th in New York and LA. See a show times and buy tickets here.
Previously: Director Storm Saulter (above) has no problem multitasking. For his new Jamaican film Better Mus’ Come, he assumed the position of editor, director, writer and cinematographer. While Saulter has a wealth of experience working in the North American film industry—he was a longtime assistant to video director Little X—it was his home of Jamaica that inspired him to create his first feature length film about bipartisan conflict, and jumpstart a movement in the Jamaican film industry. The film will be released in Jamaica this Wednesday, October 13th, before being launched overseas to the American film market in November. We spoke with him at his home in Kingston, where he served us tea on an overzealous rainy afternoon.
What is Better Mus’ Come about?
The film begins in ’77 and ends the first couple days of ’78 during the Green Bay Massacre. The Green Bay Massacre is kind of the punctuation point, and it’s loosely based on the type of guys that would have ended up in that situation. I took a fictional character and created a story that explained why this would happen. The main character, Ricky, is a community leader whose gang is aligned to the JLP and in his community, just one street over there is another gang that is aligned to the PNP, the ruling party. He meets Kamala one day, who’s from the PNP side, and they start up a natural energy. She sees that he is kind of a sad character, that he is intelligent but because he is a leader, that involves violence. Maybe someone got shot up, and a man like him and his crew might be involved. We often see these people as faceless, mad dog criminals, but you have to understand that these are real people with motivations. When you just think of them as a faceless dog, any young man of a certain age could be considered a criminal. It isn’t a movie glorifying the “badman,” like so many other Jamaican films, it’s really about the cause and effect of violence. I also wanted to show the roots of today’s gang conflicts in Jamaica, that the '70s were a starting point.
Why were the '70s a particularly powerful setting for this film?
What happened was a serious ideological layer came into play between the two parties. When Michael Manley won for the PNP in ’72 he was about uplifting the people, black empowerment and a certain amount of nationalism. This meant change for the masses. The upper class started to see this change and they started to worry that all the wealth would be shifted out amongst the people. With Manley in power and Cuba next door, America, not wanting the domino effect to take place in their back yard, got behind Edward Seaga and the business party, the JLP. So it became a communism versus capitalism, uptown versus downtown situation. Then the C.I.A. was in Jamaica and as were the Cuban operatives and a propaganda war began. So you have people that aren’t being educated properly– the ones firing their guns– and they’re being empowered in certain ways and feeling like it’s their time to take what’s theirs. It quickly became a cycle of violence. You started to see the guy next door as being a real enemy because of a difference in ideology.
You use some unconventional methods to publicize for the film. You staged a protest at one point?
I was getting these t-shirts printed for Fashion's Night Out here in Jamaica with the title of the film on them. I gave a few to a friend of mine and she said, “So what, you’re just gonna have a bunch of people down there making noise?” And I was like, “I don’t know, maybe…” then it just escalated into a full-on protest idea. We got kids from the Edna Manley Drama School and gave them shirts and placards and they caused a lot of noise. Police didn’t know what to do because they thought it was a real protest, people thought we were protesting about politics. It felt real. There is also this graffiti popping up all over the place. It feels like a real movement. I’ve been working with artists to develop posters that are open and original and now people are responding with their own thing.
What was it like filming in the communities?
Honestly, community relations is key in Jamaica. You can’t really go to a city office and get a permit and show up and shoot because the "Big Man" is who you must talk to. We learned that in Better Mus’ Come early, but if you know how to work that it can save you a lot of money. We hired a lot of the community to be extras, security and personal assistants and that is one way of avoiding conflict. When you give someone in these communities something to do, they’re down because you’re giving them pretty cool work and they feel like they’re part of the movement. Because of that, a lot of people in the Sandy Park community, where we mostly worked, are looking into film and working as personal assistants in art departments, shooting their own videos because they have been through the whole film with us.
Better Mus’ Come feels like a new generation of film in Jamaica, a step away from the Shottas era of Jamaican film.
I think things are starting to shift and the best way to do that is to develop the productivity to turn out more content. I’m doing this project called New Caribbean Cinema with other young directors that involves communal filmmaking. A group of us, all different experts, are shooting eight different films for free over a day and half each. Most of the equipment has been donated. We just pay for what is absolutely necessary and make high quality film.
What message do you want people to walk away with after this film?
I think with Better Mus’ Come I’ve tried to make people realize this whole situation in society where crime is aloud to fester and fester to the point where you have to be extreme about it and just go annihilate the situation isn’t new. It happens in small ways every year. You’re not giving these kids any options, anything to work with, so when they decided that they’re going to get bad, they get bad. And when they get worse and cross the line, anyone hanging out with them or around is just going to get [makes explosion noise]. If the police had some morality to stand up on, it might help their policing efforts, but when you see people getting beaten by guys in uniform, people just wanna buss their gone off because they think “the State gives me no options, has no respect for me, and looks down on me because I’m poor.” Meanwhile the wealthy are having these extravagant functions. As a filmmaker, you don’t separate yourself from anyone. The big picture is always more important. I’m not saying that a film can change it all, but I’m hoping that people will process it. It may be a startling way in which people have to analyze themselves.