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EPICS UNFOLDING IN OUR BLOOD: Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival

Monica Uszerowicz

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Consider the machete: flat, broad, sometimes bill-hooked, the tool is somewhere between knife and axe, wide enough to clear a brush or harvest grains, sharp enough to incise wood. While the machete and other blades like it are used globally—for threshing, foraging, butchering—there’s something distinctly tropical about it. A personal aside: maybe it’s the result of growing up in the tropics with one Caribbean parent, the myths of the place both eluding and defining me, but the machete’s elongated half-moon shape feels meant to hover above a humid horizon. It’s good for slicing sugarcanes and coconuts, and for knocking away flora in order to clear a path—which is to say, it’s a harbinger of both life and death.

If the Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival had a talismanic logo, it’d be the machete, the symbol with which it all began. Founded by Jason Fitzroy Jeffers, a Barbadian-born and Miami-based filmmaker, curator, and writer, Third Horizon was once a small record label before it grew into its current incarnation. The name is born from Jeffers’s own questioning of the “third world” status of the island nation of his birth. “I grew up hearing that I was from the third world,” he explains, “but I later realized that so much of the culture and resources that are in the so-called first world come from the so-called third world. The ‘third horizon’ is the moment or place or space where the talents, visions, creativity, sound, soul, spirit, and heart of the so-called third world is recognized by the so-called first—and so-called third—world as just as relevant, necessary, and instructive.”

Long ago, in his own meanderings through the world of cultural mythology and symbolism, Jeffers deemed the machete the Excalibur of the Third World. “In my personal cosmology,” he explains, “I had infused the machete with a certain meaning. Machetes were used during the Haitian Revolution, which I believe is the first major victory in the world for the battle for human rights. I see it as a major victory in the struggle against racism—against the crime that was the transatlantic slave trade—but there is also a bigger context.” The cover of Paradise Low, the first album as his solo act, Fitzroy (and the first release on Third Horizon, the label), is a washed-out image of a washed-ashore Jeffers, laying barefoot on the shoreline with machete in hand. It’s dipped into the sand, gripped loosely as if he’d decided to steady himself and get up, then thought better of it.

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There’s been about a decade between the release of Paradise Low and the Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival. The festival debuted over the last weekend of September, showcasing 19 films (both shorts and feature-length) along with a series of discussions and parties. Some of the films were made in the Caribbean (Ayiti Mon Amour, God Loves the Fighter), others, in areas that represent both the Caribbean’s diaspora (Britain, for example, is represented in films like The Stuart Hall Project and Pressure) and its origins (the odd and lovely Afrofuturist Crumbs was filmed in Ethiopia). There were documentaries and magical realism, a free Red Stripe with every ticket purchase, and, most importantly, a strange liminal feeling: a relief that that a void had been filled—and, at the same time, a sense that the festival had always been there. Why shouldn’t it have been?

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that it was again the machete that propelled Third Horizon’s development into a film fest. Specifically, it was Papa Machete, an eleven-minute film exploring the life of Alfred Avril, a master of Tire Machèt, the martial art of Haitian machete fencing. Jeffers discovered Tire Machèt the way many of us discover the world: sitting at home and scrolling through Reddit. But, given his fascination with that most rustic of swords, he probably dreamt it into being. Primarily a journalist at the time, Jeffers was between jobs, considering a move back to Barbados and unsure of what to do next. Though he had no initial plans to make a film, the synchronicity and significance of his discovery needed, he felt, to be documented. He assembled a team (Jonathan David Kane and Keisha Rae Witherspoon would go on to direct and co-produce, respectively); the story of Avril’s craft, it turned out, was steeped in spiritual tradition, reflective of Haiti’s complicated relationship between past and present. The machete, it seemed, was history itself.

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And so is the Caribbean, a place Jeffers calls “history’s greatest unintentional experiment,” equally a propagator of the world’s development and a prognostic space for what might become of the rest of the planet. “If it weren’t for the Haitian Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase wouldn’t have happened, and the U.S. wouldn’t be what it is now,” he muses. “I think the process by which the Caribbean was forged, with these superpowers warring over these tiny islands—the people and the culture that grew out of that reflect this process.” Jeffers often notes that while it’s romantic and truthful to discuss the “melting pot” nature of a metropolitan city, “the Caribbean isn’t a melting pot. The pot there melted a long time ago. I’m coming to think of the Caribbean as not so much a place, but a process, an interesting lens through which to examine culture.” In 2002, Sean Combs and the Bad Boy Family released We Invented the Remix, which Jeffers jokes is a mistake: it was actually the Caribbean, a remix of global cultures and ideologies that have become, distinctly, its own.

Third Horizon felt necessary, both as a means to uphold the Caribbean’s creative power and to challenge fetishized, patronizing ideas about the so-called third world. “It’s not just about getting respect or getting a stage outside of the Caribbean,” explains Jeffers, “but it’s for people within. We don’t even necessarily view what we do as particularly special, though our stories are relevant.” It’s the complex and mythical nature of the Caribbean, its ability to have sparked enough desire and controversy so as to write the pages of history—even if its details get erased—that lends itself to storytelling and inborn creativity and meaning. Jeffers looks to the narrator’s question in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; in reference to his Antillean culture, he asks, Who more sci-fi than us? “There are epics,” adds Jeffers, “unfolding in our blood.”

Papa Machete eventually made it to the Sundance Film Festival, and in teaming up with Miami film collective Borscht Corp. to produce it, Jeffers had built a large filmmaking family. But though Third Horizon won a Knight Foundation grant around the time of Papa Machete’s success, it had no direct connection to the film, beyond Jeffers’s desire to continue bringing more work like it to a larger audience. “This festival is a bridge,” he says. “How do you empower Caribbean and Caribbean-American filmmakers, people telling stories about the Caribbean diaspora? It’s not impossible now. There are ways for people from marginalized creative communities to have a bigger part of the global conversation.”

Third Horizon put out a call for short film submissions, but the feature film selection was contemplative and laborious. There was a goal to empower filmmakers from the region, but the Caribbean is so much more than that area southeast of the Gulf—it is a whole people’s ancestry and exodus. While Caribbean-made films made up a solid percentage of the lineup, it was also about, says Jeffers, “changing the idea of the Caribbean in the popular imagination.” Conversations with Third Horizon’s director of programming, Jonathan Ali, its managing director Romola Lucas, and its co-founders, the aforementioned Witherspoon and Robert Sawyer helped Jeffers determine which films best portray the Caribbean’s connection to the rest of the world.

Generation Revolution, a documentary directed by Cassie Quarless and Usayd Younis, showcases what Jeffers describes as “the equivalent of the Black Lives Matter movement in Britain.” It was one of three films in the festival centered on Caribbean people and people of color in Britain—in London alone, as of 2011, 7 percent of the population is black, while 4.2 percent is Caribbean. Meanwhile, Trumpian, post Brexit xenophobia feels fearfully rampant stateside and abroad. Crumbs, too, was a standout, directed by Spanish filmmaker Miguel Llansó, filmed in Ethiopia, and set in a post-apocalyptic universe where people pray to Michael Jackson altars and sell Ninja Turtle action figures for large amounts of money. There’s no sign of the Caribbean in the film—only mysterious spaceships and mouse-eared neo-neo-Nazis—but Ethiopia represents one source of Caribbean’s mosaicked ethnography.

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Still from Pressure courtesy of BFI

Like the region’s revelatory connection to the story of the planet, Third Horizon might not have come at a better time, when the U.S.—Miami in particular—is purporting to ask questions about ecology and race and history and possible accelerated futures, at least more loudly than before. The team is already thinking of next year’s festival. Says Jeffers: “That’s what this is really about: furthering a conversation about what the Caribbean really is and why it’s important. I think if you unlock a certain understanding about the Caribbean, you can help address some of the problems we’re dealing with here in America right now.”

Monica Uszerowicz writes and takes photos in Miami. She is the film and performing arts editor for the Miami Rail.

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