Caribbean Film Maker: JENNIFER HOLNESS

By :- Janette Brin


Born in Jamaica and raised in Canada, Jennifer Holness easily feels comfortable in the islands as well as in Toronto, in spite of the cold weather there during winter.  This one very busy lady directed the exciting and touted new film Home Again that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013.  At the time of this interview she and the cast had just returned from their UK premiere. The movie, that has a Caribbean influence, not just a Jamaican feel, talks about the tragic story of the diaspora of Jamaican deportees who are sent “home” to the island from Canada, England, and the U.S.  Diaspora, according to the New World Encyclopedia, refers to “any people or ethnic population forced or induced to leave its traditional homeland, as well as the dispersal of such people and the ensuing developments in their culture.”

Holness witnessed first hand the plight of young Jamaicans who are often convicted of petty crimes in their adopted homeland, only to be deported without the benefit of any support system.  Working with some great agents, the actors selected to play the lead roles - Tatyana Ali, Lyriq Bent, and Stephan James - represent the Caribbean influence since their own roots go back to the islands.  Holness first approached the National Film Board in Canada to make a documentary about the diaspora problem, but was turned down.  Not willing to give up, she joined the Caribbean Film Industry.  Asked what advise she could offer to those wishing to break into the film industry, she suggests that the challenge is always dollars, and secondly being on set and learning everything one can to break into success.  Further advice is taking film studies courses and perhaps starting with documentaries, would be the key. 

Her own break came in Toronto, where many U.S. films are shot, and where American film companies spend millions of dollars annually.   Having met the director of Home Again, Sudz Sutherland, at the University where she was studying Political Science, and watching his film career progress, they decided to join forces to tell film stories.  At that time, black director and producer, Spike Lee also became a huge influence to Holness.  He showed her that it was possible to tell the stories she and Sutherland were interested in telling.  Not only Lee, but also Oprah Winfrey whom she admires greatly and would like to work with someday, encourage her to continue her path to produce and write black film genre. “I was at the right place and the right time,” she says.  That sense of great pride in herself and her work can be heard in her voice.

Asked about her next project, she enthusiastically explains about Operation Red Dog, a film that also has roots in the Caribbean.  It is s story about a young journalist who wants to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.  It involves gun running, bad politicians, a coup, and Neo-Nazis; drama, action, and excitement that should not to be missed to see how far one goes to get that big scoop.  Holness insists that tapping into new genres is a necessity in the film industry.  She would love to do an ultimate action adventure as well, or a great Science Fiction film with a fantastic crew of actors.  One action adventure theme she vehemently says she would, “Love, love, love to produce” would revolve around the famous historical figure, Harriet Tubman, the African American abolitionist and humanitarian.

There are always obstacles to producing great films and of course, the budget thing always becomes the first huge hurdle.  Finding Caribbean countries that have an understanding of the value that filming brings in, and who will work with film companies to give them tax incentives - and will actually follow up and invest in them - is also a huge issue she claims.  For example, Jamaica would have been the natural place to film Home Again but Jamaica was the least responsive.  In fact she says, “Not one soul spoke to our company.  Even after the film was done, there was still no assistance to show the film in Jamaica.  It was a shocking experience for me, to say the least.”  Interestingly enough, 1.7 million dollars was spent in Trinidad instead!  Trinidad funded $300,000 for aiding with production of the film, but received a windfall return on their investment.  She compares the influence Hollywood has globally and says that Hollywood tells the quintessential American story.  The islands need to learn from them and reinvest into the local talent – be it actors, tax incentives, or other services used by film companies.

Asked which actors she would like to see in her future films, she says that the British actor James MacAvoy, Matt Damon, Sam Jackson, and Viola Davis would be terrific.  She is also very fond of the talented Emma Thompson.  It goes without saying that for Holness, the entire cast of Scandal wouldn’t be too shabby either!  Because she is such a fan of Scandal, she was asked if she would ever get into reality television.  Her responses to this query were interesting: “It is a lucrative genre, but I am committed to telling dramatic and powerful stories.  As much as the ‘scandalicious’ themes excite the viewers, and juicy stories make juicy movies, they aren’t really for me.”

She weaves into the conversation a book entitled Polished Hoe by Austin Clark, who became the cultural attaché of the Embassy of Barbados. It is a Caribbean set story that tells of a slave master and his mistress, a topic of historical significance that Holness can see becoming a fabulous and interesting movie.  She is however, currently working on an Inkheart series that is somewhat “scandalicious” with a multi-racial cast that will take the viewer into some darker world drama “stuff.”  It is based on an island theme too – color-class, sexuality, and the possibilities of it becoming a mini-series keep her busy with it.  To use her turn of phrase: “So many things go on in real life that could become great movies.”

Not only is Holness a real force and talent in the film business, she also sits on the Regent Park Film Festival Board as a member, helping raise money for the poverty stricken neighborhood in Toronto.  Using her film Home Again and donating money from the showing gives her a sense of philanthropy that will grow with commitment.  Asked why people should see the film at all, she ticks off several important things:  “Home Again is a good film that is written, produced, and directed by Caribbean people.  Its story is authentic, hard, harsh, sexy, and fun.  It is unapologetic in the sense that most films apologize for the people that are depicted in the movie.  It is a movie that moves fast and keeps you on the edge of your seat.  It sees deeply into humanity.”

This film will also be shown in Africa as well as the Caribbean and will impact not just Jamaicans, but everyone around the world.  She is hoping that the film can act as a force to let governments know that they must act to remedy the deportation issues before they simply say that it is some other country’s problem.  In a final comment, Holness offers, “If we don’t support this film as black people, the rest of the world will not find it worthy.  Vote with your dollars and view the film and whatever you do…don’t bootleg it!”  

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