“Caribbean history is more important now, in these times when we are dealing with Brexit and Trump and the concept of diversity, than ever before,” says filmmaker Jason Jeffers. “There is nowhere more diverse than the Caribbean. If you want to investigate diversity, the Caribbean, as a laboratory, can provide profound insight into what the modern world is dealing with.”
Jeffers is clearly passionate about his role in exploring diversity and sharing his discoveries, through film and music, with others.“I recognise the need to educate my audience about the art, music, and film of the Caribbean,” he adds. “There is a need to re-educate people’s definition of the Caribbean — to recreate the popular imagination.”
At the age of thirty-seven, Jeffers is doing just that, with an award-winning and internationally celebrated short film, Papa Machete (co-written with Keisha Rae Witherspoon), under his belt, along with production credits for two other recognised shorts, Swimming in Your Skin Again and Dolfun.
Born in Canada to Barbadian Margaret and Montserratian Hugh (now deceased), Jeffers moved to Barbados at the age of three. He received his primary, secondary, and tertiary education there, studying law, information technology, and English literature at the Barbados Community College. “I’ve always had this strong sense of justice, so I thought for a minute that I would be a lawyer,” he says, “but then I felt I could find more justice through the pen than in the courtroom. So I went to Florida International University and studied journalism for three years.”
After an internship with Rolling Stone magazine — quite a coup, given he was still in his first year at university — and a brief stint as a freelancer, Jeffers got a job as a reporter for The Sun Post, a weekly newspaper covering Miami Beach. “I wasn’t there very long, but through that job, I became a great observer of life,” Jeffers notes. “It was very difficult. I didn’t enjoy it, but it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me. It made me comfortable speaking to anyone. It gave muscles to my curiosity, and so many ideas based on events and characters I met — so many stories to tell.” He shakes his head and laughs, distracted for a moment by fleeting memories.
Jeffers’s interest in filmmaking began when, age twelve, he received a book about Alfred Hitchcock. “I was fascinated by film, and from that time it was the only thing I really wanted to do,” he recalls. “I was always into music, writing, telling stories. Filmmaking is just an extension of that expression.”
It was at a turning point in his life — five years after graduating from FIU, freshly laid off from his newspaper job, and about to return to Barbados — that Jeffers’s first love reasserted its presence. “I came across a cell phone video of the Professor fencing” — that’s Alfred Avril, one of the last practitioners of the tradiaitonal Haitian martial art of machete fencing — “and I knew immediately I had to make the movie. Given the importance of the Haitian Revolution to Caribbean and world history, I realised this story needed to be told and that my company, Third Horizon” — originally a small record label created to produce his music — “needed to be resurrected so I could tell it. I put every dollar into the venture. Everyone on the team contributed. I sold my furniture, maxed out my credit cards. My anxiety was . . .” He raises his left hand above his head to indicate how high.
“I remember thinking, many times, ‘This is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. This is ridiculous.’ But that didn’t stop me. It was at once the most important and yet the most foolish thing I’d ever done. A nothing ventured, nothing gained kind of situation.”
Despite doubts, Jeffers persevered. “That is one of my character traits, to aim big. To just do what I have to do to get where I want to be. I think that comes from my upbringing — some nurture, some nature,” he adds with a chuckle. “There’s a certain audacity that Caribbean people have. It’s an instinct. We needed it to survive what we came through historically.”
The result was Papa Machete, a ten-minute documentary about Avril. After the film was made came the difficult task of finding ways to promote it. So Jeffers set his sights on international film festivals.
“Before the film took off, we got rejected so many times. It was disheartening,” he admits. “Our first submission was to Sundance. At that time, it was a little different and was called The Professor. After that, we re-edited the film. It still got rejected again and again. It was on 4 July, 2014, with fireworks in the sky, that I got a call telling me the film had been accepted to the Toronto International Film Festival. My joy was surreal.” Jeffers’s beaming smile at the memory is testimony to that.
Since then, Papa Machete has played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, and at more than thirty other film festivals on every continent, most recently winning an award at the Zanzibar Film Festival. “One of the most heartening things is that Papa Machete has played all those festivals and is now online, and has had more than one million views. This means people are having to reconsider their views of Haiti — what it is, was, and can be.”
Jeffers notes that he found lessons in the many rejections he received before the critical acclaim. “I learned there was just not enough context for stories like ours. Because of their perception of Haiti, the western world expected and wanted to see Haiti shown in a different light, while we see it as a place of great power and legacy. As we travelled the world attending film festivals, we realised we were often the only Caribbean people in the room, and that there seemed to be a very narrow definition of a Caribbean person or experience.”
Out of this recognition was born the Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival: an annual festival of Caribbean film based in Miami, spearheaded by Jeffers and a collective of other creatives with Caribbean roots.
“The idea had been conceptualised years before, but the Miami community recognised the importance of stories like ours and spoke loudly, letting us know the festival is needed now,” Jeffers says. “Part of our initiative is to change the narrative of movies so that Caribbean people, particularly children, can see themselves on screen. My main area of interest is popular entertainment. Everything begins in the imagination, so if we don’t see ourselves adventuring and conquering those who oppress us in those imagined realms, how can we hope to conquer our challenges in real life?”
With the inaugural Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival in September 2016, Jeffers and his team, in partnership with the Caribbean Film Academy, aimed to — in Jeffers’s words — “build bridges from Miami back to the Caribbean.” During the four-day festival, Third Horizon seeks to “edutain” participants by telling a story through the programming as well as showing movies. “At the heart of the festival is our programming,” Jeffers says. “Last year, we got a write-up in Filmmaker Magazine, which was great, because it was our first year and the industry in the Caribbean is still in its infancy.
“That is part of our challenge,” he explains. “There is not lots to draw on when it comes to showing our own stories to those outside the diaspora. It means we’ve had to be creative in planning the festival with such a limited pool. We’ve found space for African film and Indian film as they relate to the Caribbean experience. We’ve also drawn from the French- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean.”
These days, between planning the 2017 festival, Jeffers is working with Borscht Group — a collective which has been instrumental in exploring the real Miami on screen — on a film directed by Jeffers’s Third Horizon collaborator Keisha Rae Witherspoon, and set in a Miami fifty years in the future. “It’s speculative fiction, examining the effects of global warming and rising sea levels on life and death in Miami.”
And as much as he views himself as a Caribbean man, it is clear Jeffers is very much at home in Miami. “It’s such a Caribbean city — a city built largely by Bahamian labourers — and it’s a point of entry for so many Caribbean nationals coming to this country,” he says. “It’s the meeting point for filmmakers in the Caribbean and filmmakers in Hollywood or New York. With this festival, we’re aiming to highlight the Caribbean from the perspective of Caribbean people and create opportunities for Caribbean artists.”
The 2017 Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival runs from 28 September to 1 October at venues around Miami. For more information, visit thirdhorizonfilmfestival.com