We first met Karen Marks Mafundikwa at this year’s Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival. Well actually, we met her film first – on our first full day of attending screenings. Watching the film completed our full re-absorption into Caribbean life during our 2 week stay there. Fully exploring the ideas of reparations and repatriation, the film generated a riveted and heated post-screening discussion, keeping us all glued to our seats.

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The Price of Memory trailer

The Price of Memory:  When Queen Elizabeth II visits Jamaica for her Golden Jubilee Celebrations in 2002, she is petitioned by a small group of Rastafari for slavery reparations. For Rastafari, reparations is linked to a desire to move back to Africa, the homeland of their African ancestors who were brought to Jamaica as slaves. The film traces this petition, as well as a slavery reparations lawsuit filed against the Queen in Jamaica. We follow Ras Lion a mystic Rasta farmer who petitioned the Queen, and Michael Lorne; the attorney who brought the lawsuit. In the background are the stories of earlier Rastas who pursued reparations in the 1960s, revealing an ongoing demand that spans decades. Filmed over a decade, on location in Jamaica and the UK, the film follows the filmmaker on a journey into the past, during which the question of reparations reaches Parliament in both Jamaica and the UK. The film is an exploration of the enduring legacies of slavery and the case for slavery reparations in modern Jamaica.

The film will be screened at this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival, on Sunday, December 7 @ 2pm Columbia University, Teachers College, and Wednesday, December 10 @7:20 Quad Cinema.

About Karen Marks Mafundikwa:

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Karen Marks Mafundikwa is a Jamaican filmmaker and the director/producer of The Price of Memory, which explores the legacy of slavery in Jamaica and movement for slavery reparations. Previously, she produced and co-wrote the documentary feature, Shungu: The Resilience of a People, following ordinary people in Zimbabwe during economic crisis and political stalemate. In addition to international broadcasts, Shungu has been screened on three continents including IDFA and BFI London Film Festival; winner of Ousmane Sembene Award at Zanzibar Film Festival 2010 and Best Documentary, Kenya International Film Festival 2010. She has a BA in Broadcast Journalism from New York University and an MSc in International Development, Tulane University School of Law. She is currently at work on her next documentary feature which follows the people on the forefront of the movement to legalize marijuana and establish a medical marijuana industry in Jamaica.

In anticipation of the New York premiere of the film, we spoke with Karen and asked her to share her thoughts on making the film, and filmmaking in general …

CineCaribés:
Tell us about yourself – where in Jamaica you are from and a bit about your family life.

KMM:
I’m from Montego Bay, Jamaica’s second city. I was raised by my father and stepmother. My biological mother died when I was a baby and my father remarried. My stepmother has been my mother for most of my life, so I usually refer to her as my mother. I have 3 sets of extended family: my father’s family, my biological mother’s family and my mother’s family. My immediate family was small, just my parents, my younger brother and sister, and me. However, I have a large extended family. Our house was usually full of friends and relatives. I grew up surrounded by love and I had a happy childhood.

My parents are solid, Jamaican working-class people from humble, rural origins. They are Christian, Jehovah’s Witnesses and I grew up on “christian values”. However, I would say they are liberals, especially my father, who is a very independent thinker. My mother worked as a clerk for the post office and later the phone company. My father had various professions ranging from bookkeeper to small-scale building contractor to furniture maker. He is a bit eccentric, extremely bright and creative, somewhat short-tempered and very ambitious. He didn’t finish high school because he grew up in poverty but he learnt various trades: carpentry, plumbing, electrician.

I always felt surrounded by heroes and heroines.  My father’s extended family has a lot of opinionated people with big personalities. My parents, their friends, aunts and uncles were larger than life to me. However, I rarely saw people like this on TV and when they were on TV, they were often extras in someone else’s story. Given the environment that shaped me, I am often interested in portraying the stories about little known people who do extraordinary things. I’m very interested in stories from the African diaspora and Africa.

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CineCaribés:
How did you become interested in filmmaking?

KMM:
I was a TV addict and a book worm when I was growing up. My brother and I would watch a lot of TV and analyze the shows afterwards.I studied broadcast journalism at NYU in the late 1990s with the hopes of working in media. While I was a full-time student at NYU, I worked as a full-time assistant to Gene Searchinger an Emmy-Award winning documentary filmmaker, with a   career spanning about 45 years at the time. He was developing a series on Chinese Art and distributing his previous films. I learned a lot from Gene about the art, the craft and the business of documentary. Working with him, made documentary a real possibility for me.

Around 2001, I applied for a job with the legendary documentarian St. Clair Bourne to work on a HBO documentary as his associate producer. The money fell through and Saint didn’t make that film, but he became a mentor. He invited me to join a group he had recently founded called Black Documentary Collective (BDC).  Through BDC, I grew up in the indie film scene in New York City and I got all the support I needed from other filmmakers to immerse myself in filmmaking. I discovered great films and met renowned filmmakers who inspired me Jonathan Demme, Haile Gerima, Kim Longinotto and others.

I met Raoul Peck at a BDC event after he had recently released his movie “Lumumba”. I had recently started researching a documentary, at the time. He was cool and he encouraged me, while warning me about how hard it was going to be and how I should persist. After that, my attitude was “Hell yeah, I can do this!” “Lumumba” had a big influence on me. I had never seen a film like that before and I thought about it for weeks after I saw it. It was political, without preaching and it was a well-told story. This led me to Peck’s documentary, “Lumumba: Death of a Prophet”, which he made before the movie. It is one of my favorite films. It was very exciting to see what a documentary could be, as a work of art. I started my documentary “The Price of Memory” soon after that. I had grappled with the choice of going to film school but I decided to spend my money on making films instead.

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CineCaribés:
It seems clear you are a documentary filmmaker – what is it about documentary filmmaking that has your captured your attention?

KMM:
Documentary film is an art form. I love every phase of making a documentary.  You are capturing real life, which is exciting. I like capturing something as it unfolds, going along with the people in the film on their journey. However, you don’t have any control over what is going to happen. Not everyone can make this kind of film because you have to surrender control and make the story dictate your actions. You are dealing with real people and their emotions, so there is a lot of exchange and also you are building relationships as you go along. However, I find the experience gratifying.

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CineCaribés:
Turning to your film – share with us your impetus for making it.

KMM:

In late 2001, I learned that Queen Elizabeth II was going to visit Jamaica in January 2002, to celebrate her Golden Jubliee, i.e. 50 years as Queen. I remembered an earlier visit of hers when I was a kid when my teacher took my class to stand in the hot sun for what felt like hours, only to see her waving at us as she passed by for a few seconds. I mostly saw her on TV. I remembered a lot of pageantry and ceremony. When I heard that she was returning to Jamaica, I was in New York working in TV and I decided that I would go to Jamaica to make a short documentary film about her visit. While I was at an official ceremony I met a group of Rastafari who had come to petition the Queen for reparations. I thought this was a very visible clash of history. I thought it would be all over the international news since there was a core of international press following her. The international news didn’t carried the story. I was stunned. Anyway, it set me on a path to research reparations and it led me to begin the journey which led to the film.

I spent a lot of time researching and learning and interviewing and going back and forth to Jamaica from New York. The more I learned, the more I wanted to get the film out to other people, so I stuck with it although it took me over a decade to complete it. I finished it after I moved to Jamaica in 2012.

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CineCaribés:
What is the message you hope to share with viewers through the film?

KMM:
What I hoped to do is tell the story of Britain’s wealth from slavery and demonstrate the continuing effects of slavery in Jamaica. I did that through the story of the struggle for reparations in Jamaica which began soon after slavery ended and continued to be led by the Rastafari movement for much of the last century. I also wanted to show the personal motivations for the people in the movement who pursued reparations and repatriation, so that you could see the personal costs they paid, as well as understand the lengths to which they went to achieve their goals.

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CineCaribés:
How has the film been received – in Jamaica?  in the Region?  in the Diaspora?

KMM:
The film has been enthusiastically received in Jamaica. The premiere was extremely emotional for me because we Jamaicans can be very critical of our own, but the audience of about 300 people gave me a standing ovation at the premiere. I was moved. Many people have told me they did not know much of the history the film explores. I have had teenagers thank me and exclaim they did not know about the Rastafari missions to Africa in the 1960s. I’ve shown it four times publicly as I plan to roll it out in February during Black History Month. The response in Jamaica has been very gratifying. What surprised me was the diversity of the large audiences. It has attracted people of diverse ages, races, classes and religions. It is not only a Rastafari audience. Some people like the stories of the people. Some people like the older history. Some people like the history in Britain.

It was screened at Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival and Antigua and I have invites to show it across the region. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

I am about to find out about the response in the US when I take it to New York. I did show it in LA at Pan African Film Festival to a very enthusiastic audience of mostly African Americans. Some of them wrote the festival requesting more screenings. It’s been shown in Scotland and I have some more invites there. I’ve been invited by members of the diaspora to do a UK tour, so I’m currently working on that. I intend to do a US tour in February.

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CineCaribés:
On the subject of Reparations/Repatriation – is this an issue on the minds of Caribbean people in the region?  the Diaspora?

KMM:
I do think the fact issues of reparations and repatriation, never completely go away, shows even if it is not in the forefront of the minds of Caribbean people, it’s present in the psyche.

Returning to Africa and reparations has been on the minds of Caribbean people of African descent from the time they first arrived in chains. If you listen to the folk songs, Jamaican people have been singing of going home since slavery. Bob Marley’s famous song “Fly Away Home” is his rendering of a Jamaican folk song.  As you may know, Alexander Bedward, Marcus Garvey and others have kept repatriation in the public imagination. When the Rastafari missions to Africa happened in 1960s, there were other groups pariticipating in the mission who hoped to return to Africa. Rastafari was just one of those groups.

There has been a resurgence of popular films about US slavery. Many people in the diaspora would have seen films like 12 years a Slave last year. I think in our learning more about slavery it raises the question, “What about reparations?”  The debate has reentered the news with Ta Nehisi Coates’ recent article about reparations for African Americans. Certainly many people in the region are focused on political and economic issues in their countries, but there has been a growing attention to the issue. CARICOM just had a conference about reparations in Antigua. A ten point list of demands from Europe by Caribbean governments has been disseminated, keeping the issue in the news.

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CineCaribés:
What was the most challenging aspect of making the film?

KMM:
The most challenging aspect was fundraising and staying with it over 10 years. There were times in the beginning when it was also challenging to find people in Jamaica to collaborate with who shared my vision.

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CineCaribés:
What part of the filmmaking process do you enjoy the most?  And the least?

KMM:
I enjoy every aspect. It’s hard to choose. I like the research and learning about a subject or person I didn’t know anything about before. I love production when you are getting to know the people in the film and going on their journey with them. It is a difficult phase, but I also like the stage in production when you realize who or what you have to drop by the wayside and what is going to drive the film because that’s when you’re clear on the story.

Perhaps the least fun is getting rejection during fundraising when you really need money or having people you think you need in the film turn you down. However, I’ve learned to not worry about people not wanting to be in the film.

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CineCaribés:
What are your views on the future of filmmaking in the Jamaica?  the Caribbean?

KMM:
Jamaica has evolved from being only a Hollywood film location to being a source of films, with local filmmakers telling their own stories.  There have been a few features in the past 2 or 3 years such as Storm Saulter’s Better Mus Come, Mary Wells’s Kingston Paradise. Jeremy Whittaker just released Destiny which is a romantic comedy, which is refreshing. I think Toni Blackford’s new short Cleaning House shows she is a tremendously talented director/writer. If supported, she will be a voice to be reckoned with. New Caribbean Cinema’s Ring Di Alarm had some strong work, demonstrating that there is no shortage of talent in dramatic films. However, there are very few local filmmakers making compelling documentaries. We need even more feature films and documentaries. There are documentaries being made in Jamaica all the time, especially about Jamaican music and culture, but very few of them are made by people based in Jamaica, although there is an active industry producing for local TV .

In terms of the English-speaking Caribbean, I think there are some very good initiatives coming from Trinidad. The Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival is excellent and the Caribbean Film Mart promises to move the Caribbean film industry forward.  Jamaica will have a major festival next year which of course will be good for the local and regional film industry as well.  I think for the region to become a force in film, collaborating across the region is important. There are some very talented directors in the region and the diaspora. I saw Kareem Mortimer’s Passage recently and I was impressed by that as well as Ian Harnarine’s  Doubles Wish Slight Pepper. However, there is a shortage of producers who understand the business of creativity in the region, so to build a strong regional industry, there will have to be collaboration across islands.

For more information on Karen and the film, check out the film’s FB page.