Gemmar McFarlane directing his own path - Bipolar director not defined by his mental health
CEO of Gemagination Studios Gemmar McFarlane suffers from a touch of imposter syndrome because despite pre-conceived notions of film directors, the young film-maker readily admits that he is not very good at handling cameras. “I didn’t go to film school. I hired talented people. I feel like a fraud,” he laughed. “But it gets the job done.”
Music fans may be familiar with McFarlane’s latest feat, the Differ music video featuring Chi Ching Ching, Sean Paul, Spragga Benz, and Agent Sasco. The video is fun and energetic, leaving trails of bouncy drum patterns coupled with images of some of Jamaica’s favourite dancehall entertainers having a good time.
But how did an ‘unschooled’ film-maker with rudimentary camera skills become the top boss on a music video set filled with dancehall stars? And how did he navigate the potential harrows of type one bipolar disorder to become a productive member of the fledging local film industry? Perhaps by divine design or serendipity.
McFarlane established his production company, Gemagination Studios in 2013. In the midst of this, he was also pursuing his first degree. “I actually dropped out of the business programme at the University of Technology to protect my mental health,” he told The Sunday Gleaner. “I was diagnosed with type one bipolar disorder in sixth form. Most creative geniuses are, apparently,” he said. Still, everyone has their limits, and he had to decide between focusing on school or on his production company.
“Doing both was pushing me over the edge especially school – as I do better on my own terms.” So McFarlane chose entrepreneurship.
He sustains high functionality with a robust support system and by doing what makes him comfortable. “I may feel like a bum compared to my peers, but I know it’s for the best. After every big project, I lay low and just breeze out from work for a bit. You have to find your own method to your madness. It’s all very subjective, but as a general rule of thumb, you must have some form of organisation and control to your life and work. Even if you make it up out of thin air, find a system that works for you. And my family and friends also watch me like hawks. Lovingly, of course. It’s important to have people around you who are for you.”
The film bug
Admittedly awkward with a camera, McFarlane strengths in other areas like writing and directing. As he understood the parameters necessary to sustain high functionality with his health, he also learned the parameters of production – and that producing well came from effective delegation.
“I’m terrible with a camera. I was doing a lot of the work myself and I learnt a lot along the way. I learnt that you don’t have to be a good camera operator to be a good director. Directors think that they have to burn themselves out, but you can be a director and not a shooter. You can take a step back.”
McFarlane’s interest began while attending Ardenne High School. “I used to write and do scripts for social media. I did that with a camera my dad gave me.” There, he joined the school’s photography club – which, at the time, was led by Cevan Coore – today a highly sought-after local photographer. But his focus was film – an interest that was nurtured by a teacher who noticed and asked him to apply his developing camera skill by covering school events. Through the school, he was recruited to be part of Junior Achievement Jamaica, an organisation dedicated to educating students about work readiness, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy. Select Junior Achievement programs are specialised for deaf or hard-of-hearing student.
“I was working, making professional videos for the deaf community – educational videos. They gave me $100,000 for the job, just for editing. It was the most money I had seen in my life!” That encouraged McFarlane to approach videography professionally – and the start he needed was a car accident.
McFarlane’s serendipitous journey to leading his own production company, filming star-studded music videos and writing sketch comedy was catalysed by a car accident in 2010. Seven years after, he was approached by Bignall Law (who handled litigation for his case and knew of his pursuits) to film a commercial for the law firm – the first televised commercial for a law firm in Jamaica. McFarlane was then hired to do another comercial for the firm for the Christmas season, then New Year, then Black History Month – and the list carries on with subsequent major holidays and seasons.
McFarlane is currently a screenwriter and actor on Jamaica’s first international sitcom, Bigger Boss? starring Ity and Fancy Cat. “I used to write skits and comedy material for the Ity and Fancy Cat Show, with a few acting cameos,” he revealed. He has been hired to the production since 2015, while still enrolled at UTech.
He met Ity at a film festival that same year. “He was sitting behind me in a writer’s workshop, asking for fresh young writers to revamp his sketch comedy show, and I entered some sample scripts,” he told The Sunday Gleaner. McFarlane reports that he beat out a significant number of Jamaican writers for the spot on the team of five writers under Blakka Ellis’ mentorship.
McFarlane has been working closely with Ellis International ever since. “They produce all of Ity and Fancy Cat’s shows. I even acted in a play they produced called H e Said She Said.”
His celebrity work also began by happenstance. He was hired by the personal trainer of popular disc jockey DJ Bambino to film a parody video for social media. Then, Tessanne Chin needed a videographer for a YouTube video. He also was pulled into a project shooting Agent Sasco for a commercial.
“Now we get to Differ. At first, I didn’t realise how big it was. I thought it was a little music video, but when I walk into the studio, I’m seeing Chi Ching Ching, Agent Sasco, then Sean Paul came in ... and Spragga?”
McFarlene is taking all that comes his way in strides, prioritising his mental health. He advises, “Seek help. Seek therapy or a psychiatrist. Talk to someone. Isolation only makes it worse, which is why I want the stigma removed – so people can seek help without shame. If you’re on medication, take them religiously. Manage your stress and sleep sufficiently. You have to realise your brain is not like everyone else’s, and you shouldn’t try to live like them, no matter how tempting. You have a different set of rules, like any other illness. A diabetic needs insulin, I need my quetiapine.”
The mental health advocate added, “I just want young people to know they need to prioritise their mental health.”