The Director of Better Mus Come Talks New Caribbean Cinema
After apprenticing with Lil X and attending film school in Los Angeles, Storm Saulter returned to Jamaica to jump-start a movement that he calls “New Caribbean Cinema.” His first feature length film, Better Mus Come, is a gritty period piece is set within the politically charged turf wars of 1970s, when Kingston, Jamaica was on the front lines of the Cold War and poor ghetto dwellers were manipulated like pawns on a much larger chess board. The film tells the story of a young father who must choose between turning his back on the gangster life and making a better life for his five-year old son. It’s also a story of forbidden love that entices a boy and a girl to tempt fate and cross over the borderlines that crisscross the streets of Kingston. Loosely based on real events, the film courageously breaks an unwritten code of silence about depicting controversial events like the Green Bay Massacre—a landmark event in Jamaica’s political history during which government forces ambushed and shot to death a group of gunmen aligned with the opposition political party. This do not go unnoticed by the powers that be in Jamaica, who closely monitored the production and even sent spies to the set.
But all the drama was well worth it. After a successful run in Jamaica, Better Mus Come went on to win the Audience Award for Best Feature Film at both the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival and the Bahamas International Film Festivals. It’s been screened at the Toronto international film festival, L.A.’s Pan-African film festival and at Lincoln Center in New York. Tomorrow Better Mus Come will be seen for the first time in the UK at the British Film Institute. (The following day BFI will host the world premiere of Ring Di Alarm, a compilation of seven short films that Storm calls “a true experiment in guerilla film making in the Caribbean.”) Reshma B caught up with Storm to talk about his first film and how the movement is coming along.
RESHMA B: So we’re here in Storm’s hotel room—good morning Storm!
Storm Saulter: Good morning. [laughs]
Just to be clear, I haven’t woken up in here—thanks for inviting us up.
First of all congratulations on the success of Better Mus Come. It was a real pleasure to be at the premiere. For those who arent familiar with storm who is he?
I’m number 7 of 8 children from Negril JA and I’m a filmmaker you know. I’m a writer, I’m a director, I’m a cinematographer, I’m a visual artist—umm my ultimate form is really film making yunno. Directing a film is kind of my ultimate artistic expression, so to speak
We’ve made this film Better Mus Come and it’s pretty much being considered as the beginning of a new movement in Caribbean film making so I’m currently just trying to get the film out there to the world and make it happen and get it in front of the eyes that need to see it and I’m just excited to be part of a real movement yunno
Can you tell us this story of how you got the name Storm?
Yeah, well I was born in Negril Jamaica and when my mum was going through labour, close to the time I was born there was a freak storm that came out of nowhere. It was a serious storm. It blew boats into the road and all type of thing, but it just all happened in one night and that was the night I was born. And yunno, my parents are like that. When you come out they look around and see what’s going on and then assign your name.
So now you’re creating a storm?
Yeah, I guess so!
Let’s get into the movie. It was an incredible piece of work. What was the inspiration behind the film?
I’ve been a bit obsessed with the Cold War for a long time. I’m a bit of a cold war junkie and actually while researching the Cold War everything from World War 2, Vietnam and all the proxy wars in a way. I kinda stumbled upon information that Jamaica and obviously the Caribbean were really the front line of the Cold War in the ’70s in particular. Obviously I had known about Cuba and the missile crisis and so on. But I didn’t realise that there was a fully undeclared civil war in Jamaica based on the political tribalism. And yet all the history that I was taught was pre-independence. All our history was British history and this kind of post-colonial in history really says a lot about who we are and how we are 50 years independent now and there’s a lot that we could learn from this time. We should learn because we’re still living the legacy of the 1970s but we don’t even know it. Like my generation, I wasn’t even born in the ’70s I was born in ’83 but I just felt like what story I was telling was a key part of the Jamaican story—you know what I mean? And could help put certain things into context as far as what’s happening with the country now.
You said you are young. I don’t have great maths, but you said you were born in 83 so whatever it is you’re under 30. Why did you choose to focus on the Green Bay Massacre when most people your age would maybe talk about what Jamaica is going through now?
Well I felt like this part of the history could give us some context as to whats happening now. There was a state of emergency in Jamaica in 2010 and the circumstances that led to that situation were very much similar to the types of events that took place in a smaller situation like the Green Bay Massacre. Because under 10 people where killed at Green Bay—I think 6 people on the spot and other people died after—but the state of emergency they say was around 80 people. And you can pretty much assume if they say 80 then you can maybe double that figure. So it evolved to into a much larger scale of citizens dying in the hands of the state. But its similar equation in that a group of people or persons say “The Shower Posse” etc. They were empowered to be violent on behalf of a political party—and this thing happens with both political parties. I’m not singling one out. But empower people to do bad and then that street power gives them such energy to expand into a criminal world. And when they get to a point where they’re too much trouble you send the security forces to take them out. This is what happened in Green Bay and this is what happened again not even 2 years ago.
We didn’t make the movie knowing there was going to be a state of emergency in 2010. It was just coincidence. But it just goes to show people this is a continuing evolving equation. And maybe by knowing our history we can deal with what’s happening now and maybe move forward and move away from it.
You said ’80 people apparently died but we can assume that’s double.’ Is that the kind of thing you are referring to as a problem happening in Jamaica?
Yes, there’s a natural distrust between the people and the government and we kind of have the sense that they are really not telling us the truth. In a way it doesn’t really encourage us to get involved more and change that. It’s more like, “Fuck those people. Let’s just do our own ting.” We refer to the police as “Babylon” and yunno if something really goes wrong in my house I’m gonna call the police or if I’m anywhere I’m gonna call the police. So it’s not like you don’t really need the police. You do need them. But we have so much distrust and have been so wronged by them we just kind of avoid being part of the process. Like in our last election there was not much violence but the voter turn out was extremely low cause people are just not interested. People of my generation I feel are not really heard as a voice speaking. At least not from my point of view. It’s either dumbing down your message and being a very populist masses type of person or being very ignorant or homophobic or whatever. It’s still this base approach to rallying people.
Yes, but is that not just a way to survive through the system?
Yeah, but it’s just such a broken system and the citizens never end up on top yunno. Some of the scandals and stuff that our politicians are caught committing and they don’t go to jail. I don’t know if a Jamaican politician has ever gone to jail! And the level of fraud and things that have taken place… all you do is just step down and that’s just about the most. And usually you don’t really step down. You’re still there—bwoy there’s a lot.
Your film delves into some controversial subjects. How did you manage to tackle the subject while still showing the integrity of Jamaica? Cause it’s still a beautiful country.
I mean, look, I’m not out to bash Jamaica. But I wanted to make this film to put certain things into context. We do make a lot of films that take place in a ghetto environment and deal with these types of issues. It’s not like I just wanted to make another one. I feel like it was always misrepresented and glamourised in the same way dancehall culture really glamourises violent behaviour. I did not want to do that but I wanted to give that some context by saying ”Look, you know, this tribal mindset and guns and being pushed to fight against your own fellow citizen is a political game that was played on us that we’re still living out.” There’s still streets that people cannot go down. It’s gone from that PNP / JLP mindset of tribe against tribe. That has continued into even people that are associated with the same party fighting each other for turf. Yunno it set people up so we understand how to fight each other and will continue to do so cause there’s a history of it.
So we had to be careful. When I’d write the government to get permits or whatever we’d say it was a love story. We had shot and cut together a little film and shown it at a festival called Flash Point and it caused quite a stir. And it was leading up to an election so people kind of got the word that this was not just a “love story.” Yunno there were people spying on us. I think there was people listening to us on the phone. There where definitely moments when we realised people were paying us a lot of attention—but we had them in a mystery enough that nobody really knew.
There was one time when a guy came onto the set talking about Edward Seaga. He was saying, “Is this a movie about Edward Seaga?” “I want to play Edward Seaga.” He kept saying Edward Seaga over and over and nobody knew where he came from, or knew who he was. So what I thought was “I need a white man in my scene.” [Laughs] and he happened to fit the complexion, so I was like “Alright, you rass… You want come spy? Put on a suit and stand up on stage.” So i ended up kinda incorporating it. See now nobody has come out publicly and politician, and dissed the film.
In public they are very happy but privately there’s people that are a little concerned and on both sides, there’s JLP supporters that refuse to come and watch better muss come because its PNP propaganda and there are PNP supporters that say the exact thing—so that to me is kinda good [laughs] you know what I mean?
Yes, you are not on one side or the other. And the film is very nonbiased. But still it sounds like a very scary situation to be in. Do you feel worried?
No, no. Now, no. But at the time I was a likkle worried. People were worried for me. Because obviously if people don’t know what it’s about then people can get the wrong idea and assume it’s about something. And yunno people hear it has something to do with the Green Bay Massacre—and no one has ever gone to jail for that, by the way. People who were involved in that are still in government. In fact the guy who said the famous quote “No angels died at Green Bay,” he was saying look, there weren’t nice guys that were killed out there. That became a firestorm situation because it was pretty much someone from the state referring to their citizens as “no angels” so don’t feel bad that they were shot dead. He died the other day and he was buried in JA on the same day that we premiered in Canada. He said that his biggest regret was Green Bay towards the end of his life. Some people even made jokes that the movie got him aggravated and led to his demise somehow. I don’t like to think so. [laughs]
I appreciated the fact that the film had such a good sense of humour. My favourite part was when Flames pushed up one of the local guys who put his hands up and flame says “Why do you have your hands up? I’m not the police!” There were lots of funny parts within a movie that is tackling a serious subject what was the process of working with the actors and actresses?
In terms of the humour what I strive for is to be a really good story teller but also keep your audience interested. It’s like a series of building up and releasing pressure, building up and releasing pressure and a great way is to build tension, build tension, build tension and then perhaps use humour to release it. And I felt that rise and fall, rise and fall. Its almost like a DJ playing a long party and the cyan just be da da ah da da all night. They have to kind of keep you on your toes. And of course Jamaicans are just naturally humorous and they make joke of every ting. And we’re just natural story tellers—so we kind of interspersed humour into a lot of it.
In terms of working with the actors, for almost all of these actors it was their first film. Some of the actors had done some theatre. In Jamaican Pantomine it’s very “over acting.” You are projecting to the back of the room so I did a lot of rehearsal and we did a lot of prep for this film. I spent a lot of time with the actors just toning them down and getting them to just calm down and put their energy into their internal motivation. And like the non actors like Flames and Dogheart just had so much natural talent so I worked a lot with just turning them up so everybody was kinda on a level. I love a character like Flames because he gave us something that could not be written cause he’s lived that life more than I’ve witnessed.
And just to be clear, Flames was not a professional actor at all. He came from a community that you decided to pick people from.
Yes. This community was named “Sandy Park.” and that was our main location. I’d say about 80% of the film was shot there. Our actors lived there for about 2-3 months before shooting and during and basically all the extras in the film are from that community. We wanted to audition everyone and see who has talent yunno. And also community politics in Jamaica is interesting. You don’t go to the city and get a permit, you go to the community leader and if you get the community involved in the project then they’re invested in it and they’ll move mountains for you. So that was a part of it, but then also you have all these rising stars. Flames has a film coming out this year called Candy Shop and he plays the lead role—a jamaican movie by a director named Joel Burke.
And Nicole, the female lead, has gone on to do a role in Restless City.
Yes, she has a key role and that’s her second film.
What would you like the audience to take away from the film?
I’d like them to realise that the Caribbean, and new Caribbean cinema in particular, we’re rising. We’re a voice to be heard, a force to be reckoned with. It’s gonna be an exciting place to watch because we are in a position to define something that has not yet been defined. I’ve always wanted to be part of a movement.
How is your credibility with women now that you’re on the international circuit?
That’s funny—my credibility in what department? [Laughs]. I’m just messing with you. Umm I don’t know man this world that im in, this world of creativity—it’s like because I’m an artist and we’re kinda dealing with serious work &a serious artists almost like people who are interested in this world are drawn to it. So I do find that you meet people a lot that whee you’ve almost filtered out whether they’re interested in what you’re doing or not.
Basically we’re just talking about how many hot girls do you you get now![Laughs] I have no comment.
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