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A date with ‘Babylon’ - Reggae Films in the Park opens hearts, minds and mouths

Published:Monday | February 10, 2020 | 12:00 AMStephanie Lyew/Gleaner Writer
Babylon lights up the screen on night one of Reggae Films in the Park.
Alrick Donaldson and Grace-Anne Golding get close at Reggae Films in the Park.

Picture this: being at the centre of the busy Emancipation Park surrounded by Poinciana trees with the night sky being the only thing looking down at you, decorated with the sound of children’s laughter in the distance, and the voices and music from a historic reggae film playing simultaneously.

That is how Reggae Films in the Park started last Friday. Heart-Shaped Box, an award-winning short film by Kevin Jackson, written around the story of a blind date that leaves one person bitter from rejection, was first on the screen. It was well received by the audience and even caught the attention of a few passers-by, opening much talk about scenes set on the Corporate Area streets of New Kingston.

The feature presentation, however, was Babylon, which tells the story of Blue (played by Brinsley Forde), a young ­dancehall DJ, and his friends’ struggles with xenophobia, racism and the ­discrimination of his career choice in South London.

Directed and co-written by Franco Rosso, it does more than highlight the sound system culture in the United Kingdom and the life of the Windrush generation living there, but exposes the views of the world on reggae and the voice the genre gave those who were familiar with it during that era.

Sounding the alarm

But unlike Heart-Shaped Box, the 1980s British drama might not have been the film a couple or a family traversing the park would have stopped to watch, but anyone with an interest in what the night’s host, Barbara Blake-Hannah, described as “real life” could appreciate it.

The screen lit up once again and the very long preliminaries were done, and an intimate and thought-­provoking ‘date’ with Babylon began. Reggae and dub are the pillars of the production, united with the music created by Dennis Bovell (a great Bajan reggae guitarist who somehow became immersed in Jamaica’s culture when he moved to South London) being played by sound systems like Ital Lion, at the centre of the story, but it is the script, for the most part, that has viewers sounding the alarm.

“There definitely needed to be a disclaimer or some advisory that every sentence was filled with two or more ‘bad wud’. Culture or no culture, it made my mouth open wide the way me shock,” said one discontented woman, who chose to cut short a casual evening in the park with her family.

And it is the truth – expletives echoed through the ‘emancipated’ space – as frequent and as loud as the reggae beats and Nyabinghi drumming that served as part of the film’s soundtrack. For others, like Alrick Donaldson and Grace-Anne Golding, out for an evening stroll, the event was “a refreshing surprise”, they told The Gleaner. Though having missed three-quarters of the film, the couple was already interested to know what would be shown next.

Ironic contradiction

At minute 80 of the 95-­minute-long film, “Listen man, watch them language man. Have some respect”, the lines of one character in the film, a sound system owner who is called out of a church service by Dreadhead (played by Archie Pool) of Ital Lion, ­resonated through the speakers on the platform, igniting snickers from some members of the audience.

It is an ironic contradiction of the entire script, but a passer-by who gave his name as Kevin Lawrence was sadly not as amused. He expressed his disappointment with the organisers of Reggae Films in the Park.

“A showcase of this magnitude should have considered a different film for the public park. If it is we say we have a problem with bad words and the type of language disseminated to our youth, Babylon is not the best selection. I don’t think the individual who chose this film, specifically, thought it through or even watched it and for someone who never watched it; before, they could not have anticipated so much profanity,” Lawrence said to The Glea ner before the film came to an end.

Producer, film director and animator Kevin Jackson stayed for the feature film. He said Babylon was a dynamic production of great quality, drama, comedy and history but agreed, the script was not suitable for individuals under 16 years old.

“I don’t know how I have never actually seen the film before tonight. Anyways, I enjoyed it even while it was not my expectation that there would be so many expletives. It was great, but for a mature audience. Sitting here with my friends, we actually humoured one another about counting the number of b@#%*c%@#*ts spoken,” Jackson shared.

In closing the curtains on night one of Reggae Films in the Park, the vociferous host, who herself has contributed immensely to the local film industry, expressed the need for a stable space to see cultural films.

To the question of whether Emancipation Park was the most appropriate or stable space for Babylon to be exhibited with its expletive-laced script, Blake-Hannah unapologetically said, “Well, if this is not the place to show this movie, therefore we should never show movies here, because there is always going to be an expletive in a film portraying adults and the way adults speak.

“That’s probably why a lot of films don’t get shown; if that is their objection, I can’t do anything. This is a classic movie about real life and it cannot be stopped. Likewise, when the children walk on the street, go on the bus, they hear expletives. Next week continues with One Love, which may have one or more [expletives] in it as well,” she added.