The Harder They Dance

Annie Paul talks to Julian Henriques, Jamaican-born director of the movie Babymother


We got the flava, we got the style
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The rousing rhythms and lyrics of this sizzling new film from the Jamaican diaspora will give moviegoers a bracing alternative to standard Hollywood fare. Made in England, in the community of Harlesden, Babymother seduces not only with its wonderful soundtrack put together by such pros as Jamaican musicians Beres Hammond and Mikey Bennett but also with its acting talent. The lead actress, Anjela Lauren Smith, was an unknown when she won the lead role in this film but her talent is showcased so well in Babymother that she has since acted in two other films.

Smith plays the role of Anita, a young mother with two small children who is determined to become the next dancehall diva in London. Unfortunately this throws her directly into competition with the father of her children, Byron, the reigning dancehall don. Byron, played by Shakespearean actor Wil Johnson, has a magnificent voice — unlike Smith, Johnson sings his own music; and might yet discover a musical career as a result of appearing in this film. Byron’s dreadlocked, leonine physique is also remarkably easy on the eye and along with sinuously elegant leading lady Anita, with her infectious smile and explosive wardrobe, they make a stunning pair.

Director Julian Henriques worked on the storyline for three years and then wife and producer Parminder Vir took over to raise funding for the film which was made on a budget of US$3 million. The actual shooting took only seven weeks. p is the first feature film for both husband and wife, who have been in the documentary film business in England for years. Henriques, whose father, renowned sociologist Fernando Henriques, migrated to England from Portland, Jamaica, as a child, is spending the year teaching film at CARIMAC. He is currently working on another script for a movie which he hopes to make entirely locally.

Critics have praised Babymother for being a black film which projects a wholesome, vibrant image of Jamaican English working class culture without compromising the credibility of the film. Unlike the impressive Dance Hall Queen which had a few rough edges and was much rawer in its depiction of Jamaican reality, Babymother is a slick, big-screen production in gorgeous colour, which leaps off the screen at you. It’s an attempt at telling a story in universal terms but through Jamaican English characters, and with a storyline that is unique to this culture. At the Senior Common Room of the University of the West Indies, Mona, I spoke to director Julian Henriques about the experience of making his first feature film.

The challenge, as Henriques put it, consisted of trying to create a film which “basically can be true to its sources, can respect where it comes from, in this case from the Jamaican dancehall culture originally, via London, but also can work for an audience in any place because it’s not just the Caribbean community that’s giving us support in London where it’s opened already. We know that both with reggae music, and to a certain extent with Carnival, we have hugely strong, uniquely Caribbean creative forms, but it’s the question of finding how they can be packaged in a way which doesn’t disrespect the source but allows access to the international market. One of my ambitions is to get it so that it can be right for the people who would know if it was wrong, but also can be right for people who don’t know anything about this world at all”.

Henriques thinks that in making a film one has to think in terms of marketing the culture, in that just like tourism or any other product the package needs to be right and, in the case of film, it’s necessary to have the “highest possible production values”. “Coz it’s the whole thing of, I’m talking about Jamaicans, when we go out we like to look good, whether it’s the church or the dancehall we like to look good. So that what we go out to see has to look good in that same way and that will give value to the actual content to have it presented properly”.

The fact that Babymother was Henriques’s and Parminder’s first feature film compounded the difficulties of such a production. Every frame contains a million decisions. If you’re the writer as well as director, as Henriques was, then the key word is endurance because it takes several years of writing before you even get to the stage where you start shooting so you have to find ways to sustain yourself and your vision. “There’s a whole culture around film-making which is that everyone’s got their own agenda, only the writer-director holds the vision for the entire film in his head, only he knows where everybody else’s little bit fits in. As director you have to respect their skills, I mean I don’t know how to do costumes or how to handle a 35mm camera but you have to marshal and control their skills to manifest your vision. It’s like being a conductor, with a whole orchestra, everybody has their part.”

So does Henriques like being a conductor?

“Well, yeah, now that I’ve done it there’s nothing else for me. What I say to young people who feel it might be fun to make films is: don’t even start unless you know you really really have to do this because you have to feel like there’s nothing else that can really satisfy you before going this route; otherwise you won’t get to the end, you might as well choose something else — there’s lots of other creative things you can do with your talents. You have to feel that this is uniquely the way you want to get your talent across. Directing a movie is such a privilege because once you get to shoot it you’ve got all these resources. And you have to deal with every medium, you have to deal with music, sound, costume, make-up, story-telling which is the key thing that holds it all together, the lighting the whole artistic aesthetic.”

Did it help that the producer of Babymother happened to be married to him?

“Oh yeah, that’s the other thing, I mentioned about the decisions, about enduring the process but also I don’t think it would or could have happened if it hadn’t been for the producer of the film and because we always worked as a team, you know we had a production company together; so that’s what Channel 4 Television were investing in to pay me to write the script, but also at a deeper more significant level, Parminder’s understanding, complete understanding, complete confidence in my vision for the film, I mean it couldn’t have happened without that. So to that extent I couldn’t have had a better producer. The thing with producers is that a lot of them are very good but the whole of the film industry works on the basis of enthusiasm and commitment and so the thing to find as a director is a producer whom you can totally trust. ‘Coz they’re in charge of the whole financial operation, they’re in charge of the money, of everything apart from what you’re doing as a writer and a director. And so that’s the only reason it came through, because we were working with the nucleus of a team and basically all good decisions were made between us. So that’s absolutely key.”

Having made your first film were there any remarkable lessons that you learnt?

“Oh yeah, like I said the learning curve is vertical. You can only do your first film once, right? And sometimes I think well, if I’d known what I know now, perhaps I might never have started. No actually, on the other hand if I knew what I know now I would have planned it differently, you know, planned it for knowing how long it would take and to know the critical nature of decisions, because all the important decisions are made at the gut level without actually realizing that they were so important — like the whole form of it like it being a musical — you know like a music film that was all completely intuitive but, in fact, there were a lot of momentous decisions, perhaps I could have been less over-ambitious on the whole — to perhaps not have tried to do all the things that I tried to do . . .

“There’s so much money involved and as a black movie there’s even less room for failure. And if it is a success then it really is going to create a profile for black British movie-making which is fantastic but it places a helluva responsibility on you as well — you know, you can’t get it wrong. You can’t fail because if you fail you’re wiping out the career of a whole generation. For 10 years there hasn’t been a theatrical release black movie produced and distributed in Britain. And also nobody who’s ever produced a black movie in Britain has ever gone on to produce a second movie. Basically because the trauma and the politics were so debilitating. That’s why I need to break the mould, that’s why I need to go on with it, both Parminder and I feel that we have to go on with putting into practice what we’ve learnt. Because otherwise it just goes to waste. Our closest friends are also movie-makers, that’s the director Sally Potter, who did Orlando and she’s just done the Tango Lesson — her producer Christopher Shepherd who’s one of my oldest friends, they gave us all the support any friends could possibly give and also a professional kind of absolute, total knowledge of exactly what we’re going through, but there comes a point when you can only basically learn from your own experience.”

And having put in such superhuman effort Julian Henriques and Parminder Vir celebrated the passing of the old year, their first as feature film-makers, in a place called Heaven in Portland, Jamaica, along with family and friends, among them Christopher and Sally. 1999 will bring the release of Babymother in the United States in preparation for which the soundtrack has to be reworked. Lauryn Hill and Sean “Puff Daddy” Coombs are just two of the musicians who will be featured on the new soundtrack. Babymother will also be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. And in the meantime Henriques has just written his next screenplay and the long, arduous business of converting it to film has only just begun.