Interviews

Conversation with “Born in Trench Town” film director, Greg Pond

Written by Delano George Bell

This week we have a conversation with “Born in Trench Town” film director Greg Pond.  “Born in Trench Town” is a documentary about the interwoven social, political and architectural histories of one of Jamaica’s most famous districts. The documentary traverses the length of the original blocks of Trench Town, the same the course traveled by Natty Dread in Bob Marley’s song. The film take you on a tour from First to Seventh Street through the maze of holes made in the walls that separate the yards, created when it was too dangerous to walk on streets. They stop along the way, interviewing the people in order to consider the conditions that created the Trench Town of today.

Tell us about your background and how did you become interested in doing this film on Trench Town?

I am a visual artist whose formal training was primarily in sculpture. I am also as college professor teaching sculpture and video production courses. I studied film for a short time with Jim Herbert while I was in graduate school. After leaving school my practice has expanded to involve video, sound, and other electronic media. My work has always been concerns with the perception of landscape and the built environment and the impact these have upon society. I became involved in this project through Dixon Myers who works at the university with me. The opportunity to work in Trench Town seemed to have some, at least remote, connection to what I was doing previously. I did not initially go to Kingston with the intention of making a feature film- that developed over time. Documentaries result from research and a deep knowledge of the subject and this one came about through many years of work in Trench Town that preceded my arrival conducted by Dixon, Kingston architect Christopher Whyms-Stone and Sister Grace Yap from Immaculate Conception Convent. Chris has done extensive research into the history of the community, its architecture and the circumstances surrounding the construction. He has also worked on several redevelopment projects in the area. Sister Grace preceded Dixon’s work in the area that began 21 years ago. These three have spent many years in Trench Town and it is through the relationships that they have built with the people in the community that I was able to make the documentary. Several people in Trench Town also deserve credit for their contributions to the production of this documentary – Junior Lee, Egbert Hamilton, Patrick Lee, Ethel Clark, Wayne Gray among them.

Tell us about the film “Born in Trench Town”? The documentary comprises interviews and scenes of life from within the yards and surrounding neighborhoods. The film traverses through the maze of holes in the walls separating the yards that were created when it was too dangerous to walk on streets. It stops along the way to consider the conditions that created the Trench Town of today. The interviews also spread to London, following Michael Smith, who departed along with fellow community leaders during the 1990’s due to threat of violence and other pressures on the community. Many of his fellow activists would become victims of gang violence. The documentary weaves together these social, architectural, and political histories and allows residents of Trench Town to tell their own stories.

Trench Town is famous for its musical legacy but its history- the history that gave rise to that music isn’t as well known and one that needs to be told. Despite its musical and other cultural successes Trench Town is also a place where tremendous social and economic barriers have isolated most its residents and much of surrounding West Kingston for that matter, from the rest of the country, despite the significant cultural and political impact Trench Town and the surrounding communities have had on all of Jamaica.

Trench Town is often described a ghetto, a squatter community – labels that bring to mind shacks and shanty towns but it is actually a highly designed community, one that was built by teams of architects and city planners. But its current state masks much of the original design. When it was built Trench Town’s design was as a model for urban housing development that fostered a vibrant community. It ran very well for a number of years. At a certain point however, political factors changed the designs for the rest of the former Trench Pen. Architecture shifted to the service of the powerful and away from a focus on building better communities for the people. You can map many of the political changes of the nation in the architecture and divisions of the neighborhoods of Kingston 12. In this and other ways, the evidence of its history is quite clear. Trench Town’s lessons extend well beyond the boundaries of its yards.

Many older inhabitants of Trench Town were born there and witnessed the entire history. They knew it before the problems began. Their interviews contain glimpses of the Trench Town of the past and follow its transition into its current state. For residents who grew up after 1976, perceptions and life are markedly different. In the film I was interested in analyzing the relationship between the physical structure and condition of the built environment to the social structure of the community and the impact on individuals- how place impacts life. I think this is the greatest lesson for me and of the film. The complexities of this relationship take shape in many ways.

Why did you make the documentary? What was your main goal?

From the outset there wasn’t a particular goal other than recording what we knew to be important stories from the people of Trench Town, creating at minimum, an archive. It was not scripted and grew organically, following the course laid out in the words of those who spoke them. Each interview led to more questions to answer, guiding us to the next interview and so forth. Over time our goal in shooting became to identify the essential concerns and issues that exist according to the people who reside there. I think what we have in our footage is unique, containing approximately forty-five hours of interviews and scenes of life in the community. This is the result of several visits to the community of a span of five years that were preceded by the work of a handful of very dedicated people who have been working to support and rebuild parts of the community.

Trench Town’s history is fraught with violence that sprang from political rivalry more than 30 years ago and whose legacy persists today. There is also a tremendous vitality in the community and many good people. Their stories provide valuable perspective on what has already been the subject of preceding documentaries. With so much attention placed already on aspects of Trench Town’s history but there is much more to tell. I think our documentary fits into an appropriate place in spectrum and timeline of documentaries that have presented Trench Town to the world and will hopefully enable other stories to be told after it.

Through the process of making this I came to understand that there are a lot of misconceptions about Trench Town (and other the communities in West Kingston) that have serious consequences for the people living there. Outside Jamaica most people know primarily of the music and few know of the circumstances that surrounded it. As a result, the foreign conception of the place can be quite ill informed. The migration of Jamaican gangs to Miami, Brooklyn and other places in the US has also created an image that is bound up in the rude boy gangster/outlaw. This is part of what I want to counter with the film. It is not that there isn’t some truth in some of that but it is a narrow view and characterization of a much broader and complex community. My hope is that a deeper look inside the community will help explain and improve our understanding, shift our assumptions toward a better understanding of the people, the place and the circumstances that created those things we may already know. In my experience, Jamaican attitudes toward Trench Town acknowledge, whether sympathetic toward or contemptuous of the community, a strong sense of division between this area and the rest of the city and Jamaican society in general. This sense of distinction and separation is also very evident between certain communities in my country and elsewhere but as I said before, the history of Trench Town provides a way to better understand how such distinctions arise that isolate communities or groups within a city or region and cause them to be viewed not as neighbors but as “the other.” In the film Patrick Lee recalls being told that he lives “on the next side of the river.” This divide is not physical but social. It is the aim of the documentary to encourage a bridging of that divide.

This project has grown from a series of short films and video installations. This evolution provided a way to connect the dots across many hours of footage, to piece together a feature length documentary that would give the people of Trench Town a voice in the discussion unfolding in the 50th year of Jamaica’s independence. We launched the film last August during the independence celebrations.

Is this your first documentary ? Why did you choose this documentary ?

This is my first (and may well be my only) documentary. As I mentioned earlier, I am visual artist and most of my work finds its way into museums and art galleries, not cinemas. I didn’t choose the documentary, it sort of chose me, or perhaps it is better to simply say that it began serendipitously. I was crossing the street one day and my colleague Dixon Myers, who has been working in Trench Town for twenty-one years, was coming from the opposite direction. We talked briefly in the intersection and he invited me to come to Jamaica. So I first went to Kingston with the intention of assisting Dixon’s work reconstructing parts of community through small-scale building projects. I brought some video equipment but did not have the intention from the outset to make a feature length documentary. I didn’t realize when I started the scope and the significance of the stories I would find. I had no idea at the beginning where it would lead but once I started down the path of making this, I did not feel that I could do anything but continue with it. It has been a 6-year journey that is yet ongoing.

Many documentary filmmakers speak of the change that happens within themselves as they start to film their subject. Do you have a “change” story to tell?

I was drawn to Trench Town because I found some resonance between the underlying themes of my previous work and the history of the community. I learned quickly that to creatively speculate about utopian social aspirations is one thing and to find oneself in the middle of a broken and suffering urban experiment is quite another. I found this distinction to be very humbling and instructive for me. I am certain that I have learned more from the process than the people I interviewed than I could ever teach them. Their experiences have made many of them wise and with an ability to express quite a profound understanding of their circumstances in both concrete and philosophical terms. Melissa’s McCurrie’s interview (the young woman with her baby) and the process of its unfolding during the taping is testament to that. The words of Junior Lee and his brother Patrick are also testament to this. As with many people who spoke to us, there was a willingness and even fervor to unload and recount their experiences and thoughts about events happening around them. It did not seem that the opportunity to speak in this way had come to many of them often or at all. This is a large part of the explanation for why we have so much footage (approximately 60 hours). Trench Town teaches its own unique lessons. I think there is much to be learned from these people.

What did you learn about Trench Town that you think people who live outside will never understand?

Keeping in mind that a goal of the documentary was to provide a better understanding of the community and encourage a bridge across the social divides that separate Trench Town form other parts of Jamaican society, I think it will take a long time and much more than this documentary to accomplish these goals. There are many limits to what media can accomplish in terms of creating a complete picture of any subject but in regard to this question, I wanted the form and structure of the film to serve as a reflection of what it feels like to be there. I think this is as important as any other component in the documentary. I sought ways to convey a sense of the place, its vitality and energy through the photography and post-production. The methods of shooting are a response to the place itself. The documentary is not what one might consider a highly polished work of cinematography. This was intentional because I feel that a polished film produced in a manner that mimics other films results in a formalized aesthetic, one that is not a product of specific and unique characteristics of the subject can result in a conceptual disconnect of sorts in the way information is conveyed- it threatens to package and form the subject matter in such a way that resembles all others of the same style, flattening the subjects to conform to a conception of them that does not reflect their individual qualities. Subjects lose their uniqueness, stories become interchangeable and we lose an opportunity for a deeper look at what is before us. We don’t come to know what we see as terribly distinct from any other. In making this, I preferred techniques and methods that arose from the conditions of shooting in the place itself. The documentary is a direct and unique response to Trench Town- the goal being to allow the place to speak not only through the words that are spoken but through the form of the project itself.

Has the documentary been screened by an audience in Trench Town?

In January of 2012 the documentary was screened for the first time at the new Trench Town Community Center. The center was built on the land that was once occupied by the housing blocks between Fifth and Seventh Streets that were razed during the political conflict of 1976 and remained barren until the center was built in 2009-10. It was of the utmost importance that the people of Trench Town see it first. With the feedback we received from the community, we decided to move forward. I would not have released it without doing this. We held an official press launch for the documentary last September in Kingston.

 

How has the documentary been received in Jamaica and outside of Jamaica? How do the reactions differ and what is the feedback you are getting?

The documentary has been received well outside of Jamaica. There is a tremendous curiosity about Trench Town and the surrounding communities. The music and Rasta culture have long drawn the attention of many outside Jamaica. The influence of both is found around the world. Very few know about the history and conditions of the place and our documentary provides valuable context for these famous aspects of modern Jamaican culture.

In both the US and UK there have been a number of Jamaican born people in the audiences. One woman was in fact from Trench Town. She told me that the film gave her an opportunity to show and explain to her children her childhood home.

The film has proved controversial for some in Jamaica. Others value the look inside a community that is largely isolated from others sectors of Jamaican society. It has been both lauded and vilified since we screened it in Kingston in September. Those who have criticized it have done so primarily because they want other stories told in place of this one. I did not set out to advocate for anything more than the opportunity for the people there to have a platform from which to be heard and tell their own stories. To do more would, in my view, compromise the integrity of the project. This film should be a catalyst for discussion. It is not my role to provide answers- that would be a pretentious and naive of me to attempt to do so. Implicit in much of the criticism is the wish that some words not to be spoken and certain things be forgotten. I do not agree. I am not sure the political legacy that defined the conditions of the area will be so easily or willingly swept away. History is inescapable. The lessons it teaches and the path that extends from it is what can be determined. To script the history of the place should never be the goal of someone like me. Those discussions belong to Jamaicans. I have a distinctly different place in this. I do not fall on one side or the other of the long standing social divides and class structures that are embedded in the labels uptown and downtown, east and west in Kingston. As one who is not on either side, the responses I receive are assuredly different than those resulting from a discussion about these matters between people from within a divided society. The responses I receive are no less honest and true- but they are different. The differences lie in as much in the way things are told as what is stated. In order to get a better sense of the issues, the modes and means of engagement, and most importantly the discourse need to expand, not compress. I hope others will make more documentaries about Trench Town and the rest of Kingston 12- more views are needed to form a healthier discussion and there are certainly many more stories to tell and other ways to tell them. But even the most vocal critics have acknowledged the “truth” (their own words) in what we present. Our focus is the interwoven social, political and architectural histories of Trench Town. Our concern while shooting was identifying the questions and issues that exist according to the people who reside there. It was not scripted and grew by following the course laid out in the words of those who spoke them. No matter what one thinks of the documentary, I think that the discourse that has already surrounded it means that it is doing its job.

Is the documentary entered in any film festivals? The documentary had its official world premiere at the One Love Reggae Festival in the UK last August and its US premiere at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles in February. It showed at the RxSM film Festival in Austin, Texas in March and will show at the Jamaica International Reggae Film Festival in Ocho Rios on August 4. We are making arrangements for the documentary to show in Frankfurt at the German Jamaican Society Film Festival in 2014. Future festival screenings will be posted on bornintrenchtown.com.

How will the documentary be distributed? Are you currently working on getting it on Public Television?

We are looking at distribution options. We have two goals in distributing the film: to see that the voices of Trench Town’s residents are spread as far as possible and to send any proceeds that might come from the documentary back into the community. These factors are guiding our search and don’t exclude Public Television (US) and similar outlets abroad. The documentary has also been shown at a few other venues. The Caribbean Film Academy showed the documentary July 26 in Brooklyn http://cinecaribes.com/2013/07/10/cafa-film-nights-nicholas-july-2013/. It was recently shown at the Veterans of the Civil Rights conference at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, at Fisk University in Nashville, and presented in St. Kitts and Nevis to members of the press and government through the Nevis Film Commission

Do you keep in touch with any of the people you met while doing the documentary?

Yes. Trench Town was the first and for a long while, the only place I knew in Jamaica well enough to feel at home. We started in 2007 and I did not set foot upon a beach in Jamaica until last January. I go to Trench Town each time I come to Jamaica. With only a few exceptions, my friends there don’t have regular access to e-mail or other social networks. Visits are the only way to keep up. The neighborhood has changed since I started this project and it important for me to see what has been going on. I will be going to Jamaica again soon for the Jamaica Film Academy’s Film Festival in Ocho Rios. Due to a complicated schedule, this will be the first time I have been to Jamaica and not been to Kingston. It doesn’t feel quite right and I hope to get back there soon.

How did you raise the funds to do the documentary ?

I raised the majority of funds through small grants from the University of the South, where I teach, and an organization called USA Projects. A portion of this has also been self-funded. It has been a piecemeal and ad hoc endeavor due the way I came to make the documentary. This is a project that I have pursued with a hope of eventually sending any proceeds back to Trench Town. We have been supported by a number of generous and talented people who have contributed their work to documentary. Several have assisted with the transcription of subtitles and other aspects of postproduction voluntarily. Out poster and title images, website and a companion book to the documentary were all contributed without charge by designers who recognized the value of this project.

What you want the audiences to say after leaving the documentary?

That depends on where it is shown. In Jamaica, the response is different of course than anywhere else. The response in Trench Town was different than the response we received uptown. But the most common responses I find in every place we have shown the documentary concerns how the current the network of holes in the walls that connect the yards came to be. People seem genuinely interested in this communal ingenuity and adaptation. Many are surprised at the depths to which politics and architecture are intertwined.

What is your next project?

My work takes me in many directions, in and outside of filmmaking. At this time I do not have plans to undertake another documentary. There is more that can and should be done with the approximately 60 hours of footage we have. I would like to see the entire set of extended interviews cataloged in a digital archive where one could watch each person’s interview in full or search the database to find and review the material topic by topic. Chris Stone has made architectural drawings and 3D models that could also be used to create a virtual model of the area that could incorporate other maps, images and video footage so Trench Town could be “explored” in a multimedia environment using geographic, historical, and other cultural information. We have talked with a few folks at the Institute of Jamaica about the possibility of establishing an archive. I have also talked with a few programmers about this possibility of building such a database but I cannot say for certain what the future holds for any of it at this time.

In January we presented the documentary to US Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater. We discussed the possibility of establishing some cultural exchange between Kingston and parts of the US with strong musical traditions such as the Mississippi Delta. I am also hoping to see some future collaboration between Jamaican and US architects to explore the possibility of reconstructing parts of Kingston 12.

The documentary was recently screened at the Nevis Film Commission. Dixon Myers, our executive producer went there to present the film and meet with members of the commission and the Deputy Prime Minister. We are working on establishing a film school on the island.

What advice do you have for young filmmakers? Trust yourself. Intuition is your best guide. If you are compelled to make images because you find what see to be inadequate, you already know much of what you need to go forward. Teachers are only guides and should suggest how to consider what you have done. They should challenge your work but should not dictate it. You will know innately if what you are doing is right. Your intuition at the age of sixteen is just as important as the experience of someone my age. You only have to match your ideas with the proper articulation of your intention.

You have spend a lot of time in Jamaica. As an American what do you love about Jamaica and Jamaicans?

The people of Jamaica are strong and resilient. There is knowledge among the people I know from all walks of life in the country that reminds me that my country has forgotten much of what made it.

Your favorite Jamaican food is…?

I am always happy to visit a good jerk stand and I like rice and peas. Ackee and saltfish is the most incredible dish but my favorite food is a black mango. My friends in Trench Town will pick them from their yards to share when I visit. They climb up on their rooftops to get them and then we sit down to eat the fruit and talk. The juice from the sticky sweet fruit covers our hands as we peel them and talk.

 

To Learn more about the film visit the website: http://bornintrenchtown.com/

About The director: Greg Pond is an artist living in Tennessee. He was a founding member of the nonprofit arts organization Fugitive Projects and has worked as a freelance curator and juror for various institutions in the US and abroad. His work has been shown internationally in various exhibitions, live performances, and screenings in New York, Basel, Cairo, Austin, Portland, Chicago, St. Louis, Dublin, Galway, Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans. He is a professor of art at the University of the South. To learn move about Greg Pond visit http://gregpond.net/ or twitter @greg_pond

About the author

Delano George Bell