DVD Reviews – July/August 2010

The new films that are reflecting the region right now


Catching the festival on film

The highlight of the year for many Londoners, Notting Hill Carnival takes place over two days at the end of August, when hundreds of thousands of revellers transform the streets of west London into a pageant of colour and sound. Now the largest street fair in Europe, the Notting Hill Carnival has undergone numerous transformations during its half-century of existence. Although the British media have often depicted it in a negative light, countless London residents, including myself, hail the event as one of the greatest things this city has to offer, a joyous celebration deeply rooted in Caribbean culture.

Don Letts has turned his lens on the event’s history for the short documentary Carnival!.

Letts is a self-taught filmmaker who picked up a camera during the late 1970s, drawing on the DIY aesthetic of punk. He’s also well-connected and can bring out the best of his respondents on camera. His documentaries have an unmistakable stamp of authenticity.

The film begins with the event’s origins, using evocative archive footage to remind that Claudia Jones, the Trinidad-born political activist and founder of The West Indian Gazette, established London’s first carnival in 1959. We are told that the carnival moved around for a while, until Notting Hill resident Rhaune Laslett established an annual August bank holiday event in her neighbourhood, aimed at expressing cross-cultural solidarity.

Its subsequent development is related with passion by a wide range of adherents, including newscaster Trevor McDonald, actor Rudolph Walker, politician Trevor Phillips, broadcaster and musician Andrea Oliver, Paul Simonon of the Clash, fellow musician Gaz Mayall, and journalist Vivian Goldman, as well as two of the most important figures in the carnival’s latter evolution, DJ Norman Jay and his music production counterpart, Jazzy B of Soul II Soul. All make it clear that the Trinidadian model of the early years soon gave way to a more distinctly London celebration, first through the introduction of static reggae sound systems, and later, through hip-hop, R&B, drum and bass, and other youth-oriented styles.

We are also treated to excellent first-hand accounts of the disturbances of 1976, which saw pitched battles between spectators and the police, as well as contemplations of the hedonism that took over in the 1980s and 90s, and subsequent problems with gang violence.

Aided by Letts’ sparse, understated narration and a coolly appropriate soundtrack, Carnival! captures the essence of the Notting Hill Carnival as a triumph for diversity, showing how the beloved festival evolved from a neighbourhood celebration of grassroots Caribbean communities to become an event of worldwide renown.

Carnival! A Don Letts Film