Documentation and Dissemination

November 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

2011 has been a busy year for anthropologist, Deborah Thomas. First, her most recent book, Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica, was published by Duke University Press. In addition, her research on Jamaican state violence against Rastafarians led to the production of a feature-length documentary, Bad Friday: Rastafari after Coral Gardens, which she co-directed with John Jackson and Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn. I recently had the opportunity to speak with her about the project. Although it may not be the type of ethnographic work we see most often, their documentary shows some of the ways that media like film can offer ethnographers new possibilites for public engagement.

Bad Friday, public showing in Jamaica.

Bad Friday recalls what many call the Coral Gardens incident. In April 1963, Coral Gardens community erupted in violence after a land dispute near Montego Bay’s Rose Hall Plantation. The resulting violence created panic amongst middle-class and elite Jamaicans, and government officials quickly responded. After reports of a Rastafarian uprising spread in Western Jamaica, Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante mobilized police forces throughout the region. In the days preceding Easter in 1963, police arrested, beat, jailed, and tortured hundreds of Rastafarians in what became one of the country’s most infamous anti-Rasta campaigns.

While Thomas’ most recent book on violence examines these events in 1963, this film has sparked a different type of excitement. In part, this is due to the documentary’s potential to reach audiences that texts like Exceptional Violence might not. According to Thomas, the film was not meant for mainstream America and PBS. Although many viewers of American public television are sure to enjoy it, the film was intended for audiences such as the global Rastafarian community, Jamaicans, and Pan-Africanists.

Working on a documentary also changed the types of relationships that she — an ethnographic researcher — had with collaborators and the field. Thomas explained that the presence of the camera generated both intimacy and distance. Some avoided the camera, but others reacted positively. The camera gave a purpose and a “certain kind of legitimacy” to the project’s ethnographers. Furthermore, some interpreted the camera and the directors’ negotiations as evidence that participation could result in a valuable product. “It seemed like [we] were actually doing something — that something might come out of this. They are not just giving [away their] story.”

And it appears that Bad Friday has made good use of the stories collected in Coral Gardens. Already, the documentary has inspired action in Jamaica. After seeing the film, Public Defender Earl Witter began working with the community to pursue a reparations case in Jamaican court. Some members of the Coral Gardens community have pushed for reparations for some time, but it is likely that the increased awareness brought by the documentary helped the cause. According to Thomas, “we’re happy to play a role in that [process], and we’re glad that the film was able to catalyze some kind of action. And I think that’s rare for an academic to feel like you’re part of having an actual real-world impact.”

Since showing Bad Friday publicly in Jamaica earlier this year, Thomas noted that making this information publicly available is “something [that] really matters to people beyond the sphere of academia. [And it] has been really great.” The documentary has permitted her “to have discussions with people after the film [about] what they’re seeing, what they want to see or wanted to see more of.” Bad Friday has allowed its creators to take part “in a different kind of public dialogue.”

Ultimately, Bad Friday shows that film is not only a tool for documentation. As John Jackson discussed in An Ethnographic Filmflam, the product can also constitute a cultural artifact that can be exchanged and have a life of its own. In this case, the project’s interviewees all received recordings of their own stories and copies of the final product. In addition, this work will generate income for Coral Gardens, as 100% of proceeds will go to the collaborating community.

It is no surprise that choices regarding the dissemination of research result in new possibilities in the field and after research. Creating the conditions for this type of exchange and the resulting relationships takes significant work from everyone involved. But aren’t the benefits worth the effort? Ethnographic film is certainly not new, but Bad Friday makes it look fresh.

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