Who: Storm Saulter is a Jamaica-based filmmaker who grew up in the town of Negril. His first feature film, Better Mus Come, opened in Jamaica this past October but has yet to be released in the United States. Saulter’s parents co-founded Jamaica’s Flashpoint Film Festival while their son has taken an innovative approach to film financing as co-producer with Michelle Serieux of the New Caribbean Cinema Series of short Jamaica-shot films, which feature a variety of directors working on low budgets with a highly-collaborative approach. Meanwhile, Better Mus Come is set in late-1970′s Kingston during a turbulent period of gang warfare between “posses” loyal to the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party. Factional violence culminates with the “Green Bay Massacre,” in which five men loyal to the JLP were killed by members of the Jamaica Defense Force.
Why did you make a film about this era, and why is it told from a posse member’s point of view?
I just felt like it seemed so explosive, and I’d known nothing about it and I’d been taught nothing about it. And so this was the most culturally-relevant thing to explore, because I’d been watching political thrillers from other countries, and about other countries and governments, and they were always some of my favorite types of films. And you know, I just felt like, whoa, we have a story here people don’t really know. People are affected by it, but they don’t really understand the source of it or the area where it was coming from. Another real reason was for the same reason a lot of films come out of Jamaica — whether they’re good or bad, quality-wise — a lot of them focus on the badman element. And in Jamaican culture, it’s very big on holding up the badman in a high place of respect, just generally. And I felt like, even though there are so many badman films that have come out, it’s like no one really put it in the correct context. It’s all about celebrating the badman like he’s a hero. And I really wanted to put it in a context of, no, we’re not just born like bad people. Jamaicans aren’t just born badasses and dangerous and whatever. You know, we were made this way and it’s become a part of our society. And I wanted to go back a bit more to the roots of why we are the way we are, and how that culture of gangsters got ingrained into our society. You know, before the politics started to really introduce it, we weren’t a particularly violent society. We were always very creative culturally, musically, and arts and all of that. But the whole violent element was very much pushed. The real guns firing was pushed by the political thing and the real guns coming into the country was pushed by the political thing, and I kind of wanted to express that. Because, in a way, it’s dancehall music. It’s all about being bad for being bad sake. Like, being a gangster’s a virtue. Being willing to like kill somebody is a virtue. I wanted to approach that subject from a different angle, put it in a certain context, and do it more justice than I felt it was being done. And it is on everybody’s mind too. Crime in this society’s on everybody’s mind.
Why did you decide to use the Sandy Park section of Kingston to double for other city ghettos?
Sandy Park is a ghetto, but it’s like an uptown ghetto. So, it’s a ghetto surrounded by somewhat uptown neighborhoods, so it’s a bit more of a calm place. And there is political division, but it’s the type of community where people aren’t really at war. It was the type of community where, yes, it’s a ghetto, but the elders still have a certain amount of respect and say. And it was a neighborhood where there was guys running away from much worse neighborhoods and staying there, but there is still political division. And the thing that was very interesting with the film is that the main character, Ricky, the yard that he lives in — where we place him and some of the other characters in — he was a guy affiliated with the JLP. So, that was in the movie a JLP yard. All the scenes are JLP, the character, the color green, everything was. But in reality, that yard is the yard of the biggest PNP people in the community – and the same big PNP people we had dressing up in green outfits. It was just the project at hand was just so much more exciting and more current and real than your real political affiliations. So, instead of sitting by and going, “Oh, I’m not going to put on green,” people did it and got into it because it was like a new thing for the community. It was the most exciting thing, I think probably, had ever happened in that neighborhood. So, everybody was into it, and a lot of people had roles. Lots of the younger youths had key roles. So, we were also helping to develop the place, so they totally embraced us and put that stuff aside. But it’s funny, because at the time – and I didn’t realize until after – people would come up to me and say, “Yo, you don’t know that that’s the biggest PNP yard that you were just in.” And we did it in some ways in the reverse in other yards too, where all the Laborites are dressing in orange and jumping up and down. You can actually spot them in the film jumping around in orange, when people know they’re like die hard Laborites, and vice versa. So it was a real interesting social experiment, and it kind of pointed out the folly of the whole thing anyways. You know, it’s just a dress up. It’s really a desperation thing. The few really hardcore ideologists that really believe, it’s more now the remnants of that. And it’s like, which side of the fence do you land on, and who’s coming into power next, and how might you get a little small job on the side if you go one way or the other.
How does Better Mus Come‘s version of the Green Bay Massacre compare to the actual event?
Well, it was totally inspired by it. I mean, the numbers of guys that went out there, the numbers of vehicles that went out there weren’t exactly the same, ’cause we tailored it to the characters in the film. But, other than that, they were quite similar. There was an infiltrator into a group of guys in a certain neighborhood. The group of guys in the neighborhood were given some trouble, and the trouble related to a construction site that was very important. They were basically shutting down the site because they couldn’t get jobs because they were Laborites. And they also were getting in trouble attacking a political rally, and all type of things. So, there was an infiltrator sent in. I mean, we pretty much cut it very close. It was like being there, without saying, “This is Green Bay.” It’s like, we have a guy playing a character — we don’t say he’s Michael Manley — but when you watch it, you don’t really have to ask who he is. And it’s interesting because it gave us some creative freedom, but at the same time you watch it and you go, “Shit, that did happen.” You know, it wasn’t twisted to any major degree. There’s a scene where they firebomb a tenement yard and stand outside the tenement yard, and when the people run out, they just shoot them up. And that happened, and it happened recently too in Jamaica. But there’s a very famous fire similar to that back in the day, back in the ’70s, the Orangeville Fire. So, it was very close to Green Bay, it was inspired by that, and we kind of stepped back and just wove our characters into that reality. So, we basically took all these scenes and these situations that actually happened, that I read about in newspapers and in interviewing people and so on, and we created characters that were the type of guys that would have been in the situation at the time, and we wove them through all these real situations.
Did 2010′s Tivoli Gardens violence help Jamaican viewers connect with the Green Bay storyline?
Well, it’s interesting, because a lot of people don’t know about Green Bay. You know what most people know? The tune, “Green Bay killing a murder.” That’s kind of a classic tune. So, if you grow up in Jamaica, you would have heard it around the place. It’s the type of tune, like, it’s kind of odd. So, it sticks with you. When I ran into Green Bay again in literature, I was like, “Oh, this is what that song is talking about.” And that is for most people — especially the generation that weren’t around then — their biggest link to the Green Bay Massacre, is that song. Which is an interesting thing, because they do not teach Green Bay in school. If you want to find out about Green Bay, you have to research it. You might have to do the Gleaner archives, something like that. And every once in a while there might be a newspaper article that comes out that mentions it, but there’s no real study. And it’s convenient for the government, ’cause when something like the invasion of Tivoli happens — and that type of thing happens often — you think that it’s like a new phenomenon. You think it’s a new type of situation and there’s no reference point. I think Tivoli was just an evolution of what happened in Green Bay. Green Bay was a much smaller situation than what happened in Tivoli, whereas you had some gangsters that were, you know, empowered by the government to be gangsters and to be violent and dangerous. And then, when they started getting in too much trouble, for whatever reason, you turn from their patron into their executioner. And that happened at Green Bay, and obviously that happened in a large extent for this year. And, of course, we didn’t know this was gonna happen when we’re making a film, but it was just poignant that the cycle just continues and continues.
What was your in-point for learning about the posse violence in ’70s Kingston?
I didn’t really grow up in an environment of that because my parents were totally kind of out of that. My parents were real hippies, you know, Rasta at the time I was born. And they pretty much were in Negril ’cause it’s as far away as you can get from Kingston on the island of Jamaica. But they had a lot of stories from the time because they both grew up in Kingston and lived and had their first kid in Kingston. And they moved out of Kingston, I believe, in ’71. But they have a lot of tight links to people there, and of course their families were in Kingston. So, I learned the stories through them, my initial introduction to the whole thing. And I’ve always been into political intrigue, the Cold War and these types of things. So, I was into that a long time before I even realized how much that had actually impacted Jamaica. I actually thought it was much more like a foreign thing — about the closest we ever came to being like a Cuban Missile Crisis and those types of events. So, it was more stories about interesting things about the times. And also, I always had a romantic idea about what the ’70s and maybe the ’60s were like, and I felt like maybe I should have been born around that time because it just seemed like a fair amount of freedom and movement and less just gentrified world. So, I was kind of already fascinated with the era in a certain way. But I didn’t really come to acknowledge what really took place in the politics until, I guess, I got into reading about the Cold War. And Laurie Gunst’s book [Born Fi' Dead] actually was a key piece of research for me. Once I came upon that I was interested in [the era], I started to research it in the Gleaner archives as much as I could, and then also read [Gunst's] book. And her book was a good in-point for then knowing what to look for in the archives.
How challenging was it for the film’s production designer, Khalil Deane, to recreate that era?
They really did an amazing job — the production designer and the art directors. Khalil, he called it treasure hunting, but there’s no real big prop house. Jamaicans don’t really save its cultural artifacts. So, there wasn’t like a place you could go to and just choose the old beer bottles that would have been at a little street bar or a bunch of radios. So, we literally had to find people that have caches of old equipment, old radios, old TVs. We had to find money that’s out of print now, and we just took a while. We took a few months to get our stuff together. But he just really went, met someone who knew someone else. You find the pack rat person who has like a whole room in their house full of stuff from the ’70s and early ’80s. And it was literally like we just found piece-by-piece-by-piece-by-piece, and either bought it or rented it or borrowed it, and eventually just built up a pretty large group of objects. And then we had the classic car club in Jamaica, which collects old cars, so we went to them and went to their members and found people with the right type of vehicles. It was quite a few months of searching, and there’s no directory. And even for the wardrobe for costume design, we had to, like, go to the old Salvation Armies and buy up all the old clothes and kind of build our wardrobe out of that. So, it was a period piece. That’s the thing about Sandy Park, too, is that we could control the community because of the size and because of the amount of traffic. If we tried to shoot downtown, it would have been very difficult because there’s so much signage and so many vehicles and so many people. But in Sandy Park — and we also shot a bit out in Port Royal, because of the architecture — they’re not heavily-trafficked places, so we were able to make it look the right way pretty easily. And real interesting is, a ghetto looks like a ghetto now the same way it did in the ’70s. Ghettos just look the same. They’re just crumbling and rusting, and you can’t look at a ghetto the same as you look at a ghetto right now and see that there’s a major difference. So, that took care of a whole lot of production design. If it were in an uptown neighborhood or a well-developed neighborhood, then it would have started to get way more tricky, but ghettos are timeless.
Given the film’s ’70s setting, why didn’t you use more of the Reggae music from that period?
It’s Reggae, but a lot of it is original music, and basically we wanted an original score. The easy thing would have been, you know, this is the ’70s, the golden age of Jamaican music — why don’t you just go through and handpick some classic songs that people love to hear and put them in a movie? Or, why didn’t you have Delroy Wilson or The Harder They Come as the lead song? It would have been too obvious. But I never really want to go that route. One, dealing with having to get licenses and rights for that. And two, I find Jamaican films, it’s like a soundtrack with a film attached, and I was not interested in that. I find score to be way more dramatic, and creating a soundscape just for the visuals to be way more cinematic, and nobody really takes that approach here. So, we aim to take that approach, and a lot of people have come out of the cinema saying, “we love the soundtrack, we love the music,” but it’s not what you’d expect. There is some original music that was made by Wayne Armond and Marlon Stewart Gaynor. They also composed the score. But then, there were a few original tracks from Chinna Smith and a few younger artists who were making music in the old style.
How has Jamaica’s Rastafarian culture changed since the ’70s?
Well, I have to say, the Rasta nowadays is interesting, because it’s not pure. There’s a lack of purity in terms of when you look at Rasta, the whole message and the whole movement, there are definitely some Rasta that have that kind of a guiding principle, and it’s very positive and they’re very upstanding people because of it. But there’s a whole lot of men that have locks that claim them as Rasta — there’s a whole lot of criminal in Rasta ranks. You know, I’ve had many experiences with guys who want me to do a video or something, and it’s pure Rasta Rasta talk they might give me, and when it come down to business it’s pure criminal talk they giving me. So, I find that there’s a confusion within it. And I feel the purity and potential of what Rasta could have meant for people and what it has meant internationally. Because Rasta, the message of it has gone out into the world and really positively impacted people’s lives — people with different maybe social realities — so they were able to take the positive messages and the positive lifestyle. But down here, I think that there’s been a lot of confusion because coming out of the ’70s and ’80s a lot of the people that were out at the forefront as Rasta turned out to be nowhere as pure and righteous as they claimed to be. And I think that helped to break the spirit of Rasta, where it was going. And also I think there are other methods like, you know, bad imagery, bad publicity where, “Let’s take away the purity of this movement. Let’s make it less of a religion, and more like a stoner option, a fad.” I feel like Rasta in Jamaica definitely has saved many young youths who could be going off the deep end. I do see many youths that have that option, and choose Rasta, and because of that can kind of hold on instead of going out there and doing bad things. So, it definitely does still play a positive role, but I do feel like over the years it has been weakened, it’s been watered down. And even modern Rasta that come around as like these young prophet-type vibes. The next thing you know, you turn around, you hear from a show this pure badman and gunman that they’re harboring, and war, and they have all these positive songs, and every once in a while they come out with real big guns. And it’s like, hold on, aren’t you mister peace and love and positivity? So, there’s been a confusion by the messengers, and it’s trickled down into it being a slightly confused reality.
What’s your take on the influence of Old West outlaw films on ’70s posse culture?
Jamaican culture, we’re like the ultimate remixers. How would I say it? We’re very, like, show off-y, but it’s just a part of our culture. It’s not like a bad thing. I mean, Jamaicans are very good at taking in something that’s popular and excitable and giving it a Jamaican spin, and regurgitating it. We do it with music all the time. The Harder They Come was a good clue into that. You know, like they literally sat there and watched a spaghetti western, and then got the gun and then started imagining themselves as a spaghetti western. A lot of people are fans of that stuff, but not everybody gets an opportunity to become the real cowboy. And I think certain elements seized on the opportunity, because it was kind of in our nature to be like, “Oh, you wanna be a cowboy? Well, here, be a cowboy. There’s your enemy over the next street.” You know, it was encouraged in a way. So, my thoughts on it is just that it’s part of our cultural intake. We take in everything that’s kind of cool and interesting and fresh, remix it within our society, and then spit it back out. And I think those films have a big influence that just rubbed off in a way. When there was encouragement to be a gangster, then there was a point of reference to make your gangsterous deeds seem more heroic, I guess.
What’s the film financing situation like in Jamaica at the moment?
There is not a real infrastructure for a solid local film industry. The tax incentives are very backward. Even for outside productions coming in, I think Jamaica’s lost quite a few big potential productions to other islands because of the lack of incentives. I guess that there’s so much on the minds of government in the immediate sense, that something like spending for films seems so, like, maybe unimportant. Whereas in a country like the Dominican Republic, the president himself is pushing and guaranteeing that there’s infrastructure for filmmaking. So, there’s not that much in Jamaica. I had a relationship that I was developing for a long time with a good friend of mine, Joshua Bratter, who’s an executive producer. I had even written a script for him when I was a lot younger. And he knew he wanted to produce a film. And we knew that we wanted to work together. And we were just, I guess, trying to find the right story and waiting for me to be prepared to make a film. So, I was very lucky. I have a private investor who put up the money. But there are signs and semblances of our ability to raise money locally coming together. As in, you know, Chris Browne’s new film, Ghett’a Life. I think they raised a good maybe over 50%, maybe over 60% or more of the budget locally from private sector investment. You know, they set up like a pitch with potential investors and pitched and sold shares and raised a good chunk of money. So, that is starting to happen. And I’m definitely gonna try to raise money for my next film locally, because there’s definitely a lot of strength in everything coming from your country, including the investment. You know, when the quality’s high, the story is Jamaican, the crew is Jamaican, the direction is Jamaican, and the money is also Jamaican, or Caribbean — I’m kind of looking at it as a regional thing, more than just a Jamaican thing. There’s lots of strength in that. It’s starting to happen right now.
What kinds of issues inside the Jamaican film industry led to the New Caribbean Cinema Series?
The problem has always been the amount of projects being completed and shown. We have a film coming out maybe like every five years. And a lot of people blame it on money, and blame it on various things. But when I looked around at the young filmmakers that I was working with, and the people I was working on sets with that were like the directors of photography and camera people — you know, people that were wanting to become a director, but maybe hadn’t had the opportunity — I realized that if we were to change the model and not try to sit around waiting for a ton of money, but create short films that set the parameters — as in, let’s try to finish filming in one day, maybe a day-and-a-half — therefore we can get all these people that are passionate about trying to make films to work for free. And we can make our expenses too, and then we could get quite a few things done. So, it’s kind of like a round-robin style. We have a bunch of very talented people that work on all the sets out here — big budget, low budget — and work on each others short films. And in the end, for the first one, we’re gonna have eight short films, eight different directors, because we had a lot of good will as well. We work with a lot of good crews, we treat them very well, so when it comes time for someone to help, people are willing because everybody wants to make films. So, this is really a formula that for some reason nobody else could pull together, because everyone is so clique-ish out here that no one wants to really work together. You know, if you’re gonna help someone to make a movie, you wanna own all of it, or something like that. This is an effort to get some stuff done with little or no resources, and to make a big statement. Because, instead of it just being one feature coming out, it’s gonna be eight short films that kind of exist individually, but we’re also gonna put them together as one feature. So, you go into the cinema, you sit for an hour and a half and watch a feature consisting of eight different shorts that all are about modern Caribbean life. It’s just a broad shout. It’s a push to get production up, but it’s also a push to really show that there is a genuine movement. And there is a movement happening right now, and Better Mus Come‘s basically signaling the beginning of it. Better Mus Come dropped, and then Rise Up came out soon after. The Candy Shop by Joel Burke is gonna come out very soon, New Caribbean Cinema is gonna drop, Chris Browne’s movie will drop. Then, we have other films in the works right now that will probably be able to drop by the end of this year, early next year. So now, it was a film every five years, we’re looking at multiple films every year. And also, I imagine New Caribbean Cinema is probably what the genre is gonna be called. Because all over the Caribbean, from Trinidad to Jamaica, because of HD technology and how easy it is to make a film, there’s all these people that are opening up to the possibilities of filmmaking and are really looking into it and really wanna make films. And there’s a lot of film festivals sprouting up, so I figure this was a good way of establishing a movement and also a method of people getting stuff done with no money.