Garry Steckles looks at RasTa: A Soul’s Journey, being screened in Canada, for The Star.
The year is 1974, and the Ontario Provincial Police has just distributed its updated list of the 10 most wanted criminals in the province. It lands on the news desk of the Toronto Star.
The OPP communiqué identifies all 10 villains in painstaking detail. But there is no mention of the religion of nine of them. The 10th just happens to have dreadlocks and is, according to the OPP, “a Rastafarian.”
The editors decide to cut that reference out, on the not unreasonable grounds that (a) not everyone with locks is Rastafarian and (b) if you’re going to print one person’s religion, you’re obliged to print all 10 . . . and then deal with the uproar that would inevitably ensue.
Fast forward almost three decades, and how Toronto has changed.
Just how much will be in evidence Wednesday evening, when the documentary RasTa: A Soul’s Journey is screened at the Royal Ontario Museum, where it will be shown regularly until the end of February.
It’s a joyous, uplifting, enlightening and occasionally heart-rending documentary that explores and celebrates the Rastafarian movement, its history and its growing acceptance and influence around the world. It seems certain to have audiences shedding tears in some parts and skanking in the aisles during others, as Donisha Prendergast, the charismatic 25-year-old granddaughter of Bob and Rita Marley, goes on a voyage of discovery that takes her to eight countries — Jamaica, Canada, Britain, the United States, Ethiopia, South Africa, Israel and India.
It also happens to be a film that couldn’t have been made without the determination and skill of three Ontario filmmakers: producer Patricia Scarlett, director-producer-writer Stuart Samuels and producer Marilyn Gray, a former Torontonian now living on Manitoulin Island. A chunk of the funding for the documentary came from Citytv and multifaith channel Vision TV, along with a handful of private investors.
The creators of the documentary ran into many roadblocks before persuading people that they had a viable project in the works.
Says Scarlett, who was born in Jamaica: “Most of the broadcasters that I went to told me quite plainly that they didn’t think there was an audience for this film and certainly not a Canadian audience.
“Financing was a big issue,” Scarlett says. “Although our budget of $650,000 was not over the moon, I suspect that some of the broadcasters felt that I couldn’t raise the funds.”
Scarlett’s belief in the appeal of a movie exploring the history and roots of Rasta was reinforced during her years working with TVOntario as an international sales executive.
“I had the opportunity to travel extensively,” she says, “and everywhere, I went I met Rastafarians. I remember being in Stockholm, walking through the old town, when I heard a wicked reggae beat. I followed the sound and discovered a lounge where a couple of Jamaican Rastafarians had formed a band with a few Swedes.
“A few years later, I was in Beijing on the edge of Tiananmen Square. As I was standing there, buses were pulling into the square with local tourists. When one of the buses pulled up close to where I was standing, the door opened and ‘One Love’ was blasting through the square. I think that could have been the moment when I decided that the story of the global impact of Rastafari was an important one to tell,” Scarlett continues.
“When I came back to Canada, I told a few friends and they all agreed it was a great idea. One friend did some of the early research and the other helped me write the outline.”
Scarlett approached Prendergast about being in the doc, who then told her grandmother about it.
“Mrs. Marley then invited the producers — Stuart, Marilyn and me — to meet with her and family members at the Bob Marley Resort and Spa in Nassau,” Scarlett says.
“We found Mrs. Marley to be a very gracious and gentle woman. We also met Donisha’s mother, Sharon Marley, and her sister, Stephanie Marley, and some of Mrs. Marley’s grandchildren. Over lunch at Mrs. Marley’s home one afternoon, we pitched the project to her and she gave it her stamp of approval.”
Samuels, an award-winning director with scores of critically acclaimed documentaries to his credit, says it didn’t take much persuading to get him involved in the RasTa documentary.
“I approached this story as a global story, not just a Jamaican one,” Samuels says.
“I wanted to make a film that would be able to go beyond the Rasta “brand” — ganja, reggae and dreadlocks — to present its history in a worldwide context as well as a story that resonates to people all over the world: a story of freedom, of the relationship of Rasta history to the concerns of people today. I wanted people to understand this movement inside this larger global and historical context.
“I was surprised about how the Rastafarian movement has been able to maintain its belief system despite the fact that it has no church structure. No time- and place-based religious rituals. I was surprised by the shifting story of Rasta, as it weaves between being a religion and a lifestyle and how it has developed along these untraditional methods of belief and worship,” Samuels says.
“For people who have a nodding and stereotype view of Rasta, I want the film to make them rethink their ideas and to understand the movement, not as a pop style but as a way of life. For people unfamiliar with Rasta, I want the film to make them more curious, more connected to the history of this movement and its importance to today.
Co-producer Gray found South Africa was the most memorable leg of their international journey.
“The Rastas there practise an authentic, unified brotherhood for the most part,” she says. “I especially appreciated going to Judah Square (near Knysna, South Africa), where it was very matriarchal. The women were treated with respect and the children roam freely among the adults . . . it was an eerie vibe.”
Prendergast’s views on the Rastafarian movement her grandfather played such a huge role in bringing to world attention are illuminating.
“It’s not a religion,” she insists. “People project it to be a religion because they don’t understand it; they haven’t taken time to do the research. But Rastafari is a culture that can be practised by people of any kind of religion. You have Hasidic Jews who are practising Rastafari, you even have Muslims who are practising.
“Rastafari is a way of life. It’s the way that you treat the world, the food that you eat. That message of peace and love, that’s the basis of Rasta.”
RasTa: A Soul’s Journey will have a special screening and VIP reception at the ROM on Wednesday, followed by showings every Saturday and Sunday until the last weekend in February.
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