“Little Jamaica — our country is blessed with some of the best, if not the best, talent you can find.”
Jamaica’s minister of sport
Chances are when you think of movies and Jamaica Cool Runnings comes to mind. (If you’re old school you may remember that part of Sean Connery’s first Bond film, Dr. No, was filmed in Jamaica.) But my interest in connecting screenwriting and Jamaica has to do with the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Not to take away from Baltimore’s Michael Phelps’ outstanding achievement of winning eight gold medals in Beijing, but I can’t get over the fact that over the weekend Jamaican athletes won gold in the men and women’s 100 meter sprint.
Usain Bolt did it in world record speed on the male side and on the female side Jamaican runners collected all the medals. ESPN dubbed Jamaica “World’s Fastest Nation.”
What is most amazing to me about this feat is that the total population of Jamaica is under 3 million compared to over 300 million for the United States. (And there are a few other countries at the Olympics as well.) Another way to look at it is Iowa also has three million people. This is really at the heart what Screenwriting from Iowa is all about. That amazing things can come from little places.
But amazing things don’t come out of thin air. If you look beyond Jamaica’s gold medals you will find the secret to how a small impoverished island ended up on top the world stage. Matthew Clark wrote an insightful article on this titled a couple of months ago, How Tiny Jamaica Developed So Many Champion Sprinters. Like champion long distances runners from Kenya and Ethiopia the key word there is developed.
Anthony Davis, the sports director at Jamaica’s University of Technology (UTECH), whose programs and facilities developed Bolt told Clark, “You’d have had to plant a seed long ago to get where we are today.”
Davis helped start the school because traditionally Jamaica’s best athletes left the country to compete for colleges in the United States. And though the program is looking golden now, its original vision was doubted and even today its facilities are still second-rate compared to the US. According to Davis, “We had a choice: complain about the resources and do nothing or work with what we have.”
Clark’s article points out; Another reason for Jamaicans’ success: their attitude, according to (Fitz) Coleman ( a technical coach on Bolt’s team) “We genuinely believe that we’ll conquer,” he says. “It’s a mindset. We’re small and we’re poor, but we believe in ourselves.”
A couple years ago I shot a documentary in Jamaica and spent a few days in Kingston far away from the other side of the island where tourist usually spend their time on peaceful beaches. We were told not to walk outside the barbed wire topped walls of our hotel at night and that the murder rate per capita was higher than Haiti.
The economics of the area are poor – in fact one home we shot in would be the equivalent of a large tool shed in the States-no air and and no bathroom. But I found the people warm and friendly, and the music, food, culture and history totally captivated me.
We did take time to tour the Bob Marley Museum in the home where he used to live and it is a must see for reggae fans. Nothing quite brightens driving on snowy freezing day in Iowa as listening to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” (But even if a white guy from Iowa likes reggae music, it may be a sin for him to wear a traditional Jamaican hat. At least I didn’t get the one with fake dredlocks for the full Rastafarian poser look. Just doing my part to help the economy there.)
And just how has a little island again produced such memorable music? No, I’m not thinking about the herbs Marley had in his spliff. Once again talent, training and time are the key.
Believe it or not there is actually a strong connection between Jamaica’s musical heritage and a school run by Catholic nuns. The Sisters of Mercy founded the Alpha Boys’ School in 1892 to house and educate “wayward boys’ from poor families in Jamaica. Music was a key part of their education.
An interesting read on this is Tracing reggae’s Catholic roots by Thomas Green.
“Without the school, there just wouldn’t have been the blossoming of talent on the island in the key period of the `60s and `70s,” says Laurence Cane-Honeysett, a music consultant to reggae label Trojan Records, who has compiled the excellent album Alpha Boys’ School: Music in Education 1910-2006.
“When the Jamaican music industry took off, it was totally dependent on those who studied there,” he says.
So wherever you are in your screenwriting journey I hope you can be inspired by the small island of Jamaica and its recent gold medal achievements. And whether you live in West Des Moines, West Africa, or West Covina I hope you remember the words of Jamaican sports director Anthony Davis, “We had a choice: complain about the resources and do nothing or work with what we have.”
August 22, 2008 Update
In the last couple days the men and women’s Jamaican track team left no questions in regard to their dominance as they claimed gold medals in every single Olympic individual sprinting event. Anyone working on the script on the life of three time gold medalist and world record holder Usain Bolt’s life story yet?
To put Jamaica’s achievements in perspective, they ended up with six gold medals. It was estimated that for China to have won the same amount of gold medals per capita that they would have had to won 2,889 gold medals. So pop open a Red Stripe for the little guys this week.
(It was also great to see Iowa’s own Shawn Johnson—who just happens to be from West Des Moines— win a gold on the balance beam.)
Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith
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