RiseUp, a character-driven documentary following three hopeful reggae artists navigate the waters of the underground Jamaican reggae scene, made a huge splash on the film festival circuit after premiering at IDFA, the world’s largest documentary film festival, in 2008. Called “a compellingly drawn look at Jamaica’s rich musical terrain” by Billboard Magazine and “ a milestone piece in Jamaica’s film history” by the Jamaica Observer, the film gives a peerless look into life in Jamaica and the integral relationship between music and survival.
We got a chance to speak with the director-cinematographer, immensely talented Argentine native Luciano Blotta, about his 9 years (so far) of making RiseUp.
The Orchard: What was the genesis of this project? Why did you decide to make a film about underground reggae in Jamaica, and how did you find your characters?
Luciano Blotto: A Jamaican friend from college told me to come down to Jamaica with my camera and do a film about a small fishing village that he knew about. I hadn’t seen my friend in years and I had never been to Jamaica, so I went. It wasn’t long until I was invited to an underground sound system clash, and the rest is history, as the fish were history. The amount of undiscovered talent bubbling up from every street corner of Jamaica inspired me to do something about it and help them be seen and recognized. So RiseUp was born. Finding the characters was an organic, almost unconscious process. In short, “vibes.” In the beginning I had no knowledge of what and who I was filming, not being a reggae fan before my first trip to Jamaica, so it was a learning process. Everything came from instinctual decisions rather than intellectual ones – from the way I chose which artists to focus on, to the music that spoke to me in special ways. I just combed that island from coast to coast and let the energies of what and who I encountered guide me.
TheO: How did you get access to a scene that some might consider closed off to outsiders, or even dangerous?
LB: It was all an innocent process at first; I didn’t listen to much reggae music so I didn’t know much about it and I was like a student from the day I landed there. I needed to learn it all from scratch. I think this kept me respectful and with a great curiosity and enthusiasm that generated the right atmosphere, because I was fascinated. Also, the fact that I was a white foreigner running around with a camera helped open doors automatically. You have to keep in mind that such a person can be a synonym of opportunity for them, that somebody will get to see them in other parts of the world and something good can happen from it. That’s why I was almost always welcome in the beginning, but it was more complicated once I spent more time and I had to start asking people to sign releases, etc. That got tricky and the process could merit a whole interview by itself! Last but not least, I was fortunate to link up, thanks to Mark Hart, the Executive Producer, with a man called Carlo Less, who was an independent music producer familiar with the scene and its intricacies. It was through him that I started learning about the culture of the island, exploring everything from the music recording studios uptown to the Rasta way of life in the hills. He was a great companion and collaborator and is featured prominently on the film.
TheO: From conception to distribution, how long has the process of making this film been?
LB: Five years to make the film. Two years in the film festival circuit and into the proper distribution channels. Two years of marketing after that. And if we count this interview, then it’s been nine years that I’ve been actively involved with the making and promoting of the film! As you can imagine, I am happy and grateful for all of the above; it’s been an amazing journey.
TheO: How do you feel RiseUp is different from other documentaries about Jamaica, or about reggae?
LB: I think most films I’ve seen about Jamaica go back in time to tell the story of reggae in a chronological way; it is indeed a fascinating story, including the rise of Bob Marley as a central figure in the culture of the music. But RiseUp takes a different path and focuses on Jamaica’s music scene today, by zooming in on a handful of artists who are in it trying to make their musical dreams come true. It’s a story that moves forward in time as opposed to the more archeological ones that go back and reconstruct something that has already happened. That’s one element but also the time commitment invested in the making of the film is unique to RiseUp, because you get to experience the evolution of these people through several years of their lives, and I don’t believe this has ever been done with a film about Jamaica before. To give you another example, there’s only one reference to Bob Marley in the entire film!
TheO: How did the film, and your team being in their lives, affect the lives of the three main subjects in the film?
LB: There were a few instances where our presence affected the lives of the artists in positive, unexpected ways. Since the film is called RiseUp, the whole idea behind it was for it to be a vehicle for these talented people to be seen and heard on a larger scale, once the film came out. However, during the journey we found ourselves with more immediate responsibilities towards the artists, like in the case of Kemoy, our young songstress. We found her miraculously in a secluded country community, isolated from the world and anything music related but her talent was so overwhelming that we felt the urge to help her in other ways as well. So we consulted with a veteran singer called Suzanne Couch who, equally impressed by her talent, decided to bring her to reggae legends Sly & Robbie, and the rest is what you see in the finale of RiseUp. The same goes for Rasta artist Turbulence, who was in desperate need of a music video to propel his music and we stepped in to help. But I will let you watch the film to find out what happens there…
TheO: What sort of audiences do you think will be affected by this film? By releasing it online, which audiences do you think it will reach that it has not reached previously?
LB: Throughout its film festival tour, the film has proven to touch all kinds of people, regardless of gender, background, or age. It is something that we are most proud of, as people have been crying, laughing and dancing in their seats and confessed to have gotten and understanding of a culture they were not aware of. So I think that with the film’s online release we will get to extend this dream into a new realm, where I hope the whole world gets to experience Jamaica in a new, deeper way and, as we like to say, “get higher” in the process.