The Long Lost Film Predicting How Tourism Would Ruin Jamaica

By Summer.Eldemire@thedailybeast.com (Summer Eldemire)
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/Xenon Pictures

The year is 1972. The man is Jimmy Cliff, squatted with two pistols ready to fire. The clothes are a tiger-print shirt paired with black-and-white striped bell bottoms. Cliff plays Ivan, the criminal superstar of Perry Henzell’s film The Harder They Come. The place is the downtown ghetto of Kingston, Jamaica. The soundtrack is Toots & The Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and Jimmy himself. It is the soundtrack that brings reggae music to the world.

“When I first read the script, I asked Perry if he was sure he wanted to show this side of Jamaica to the world,” said Jimmy Cliff in an interview with The Daily Beast. Henzell’s answer was yes, no matter the consequences.

Loosely based on the true story of a Jamaican outlaw, Rhyging, the film follows Ivan after he moves from the idyllic countryside to the capital of Kingston, and becomes hardened by life in the ghetto. Ivan fails to find work and becomes more and more bitter as he is taken advantage of by a record producer while hustling to become a singer. Inspired by Spaghetti Westerns, Ivan becomes a notorious criminal, eventually leading to his downfall and ultimately his death. However, Cliff wasn’t pleased with the ending. “I thought Ivan deserved to have gotten away on the boat and gone and lived in Cuba. He was a revolutionary after all,” said Cliff with a chuckle. 

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The Harder They Come is being shown at at the Metrograph this Friday and BAM all week, to celebrate it’s Aug. 20 re-release on Blu-ray. The re-release comes with an unbelievable gift: Henzell’s never-before-seen second film No Place Like Home, which was thought lost for over 25 years. Whereas The Harder They Come is about urban life in Jamaica in the ‘70s, No Place Like Home explores life in the countryside, told through the story of corporate hotels destroying the sleepy fishing village of Negril. The film shows the underbelly of paradise and explores Jamaica’s tortured relationship with tourism, the industry that it’s economy depends on, but that often exploits the island’s people.

Once a sleepy fishing village, today Negril’s famous 7 Mile Beach is dominated by multi-story all-inclusive hotels, eroding beaches, and dead coral reefs. In the opening shots of No Place Like Home, the locals still reign but the wings of the hotel vultures buzz in the distance. American film producer Susan is in Jamaica shooting a shampoo commercial and has an affair with local fixer Carl. Carl is a slick man about town who acts as the middleman between local property owners and the big-hotel-chain executives trying to swoop in. As tensions begin to rise as locals get pushed off the beach, Carl acts as the champion of the little man, constantly soothing them by saying that the big developers will never win. All of this is set amid the waves of political unrest that rocked Jamaica in the ‘70s, as the country struggled to gain its feet after independence from the U.K. in 1962. The film, which features a young Grace Jones, ends with a scene of Carl as the manager of one of the big hotels. He has sold out to the man.

While The Harder They Come is a tightly-shot action film, No Place Like Home is a looser, softer film that often feels more like a documentary than a feature. Although completely different, both films scratch at the deeper essence of Jamaica—the style, the swagger, and the colonial politics that created the deeply entrenched class divides that play out in favor of the wealthy elite, whether that be the music executive in The Harder They Come or the hotel owners in No Place Like Home.

In one scene of No Place Like Home, Susan is taking pictures of locals at a market in Lucea. She is shocked when, after she snaps a shot of one tall man in a brown shirt, he grabs her by the wrist demanding to be paid. Such is life in a tropical destination, always being on display and having to beg for compensation. It’s important for places like Jamaica, who constantly have to play up to the narrative of paradise, to have the opportunity to be allowed to show their reality. The movie is a meta-commentary, where life and art are barely separable. It is no surprise then that Perry Henzell’s wife Sally built the hotel Jakes on the south coast of Jamaica, which is a model of community tourism.

Henzell shot No Place Like Home right after The Harder They Come. Broke and unable to afford storage, he asked his friend at Island Records to store the film—the footage was mislabeled in the storage facility and effectively lost. Henzell searched for years to find it but eventually had to put the project to rest. Heartbroken Perry told his wife, “If I don’t forget about this film, I’m going to go mad.”

Fast forward 20 years to 2004. Island Records was sold to Polygram, which was bought by Universal, which did an inventory of its stock and unearthed 400 reels belonging to Henzell. “When we got the call I was scared to get excited,” says Henzell’s daughter, Justine. “They told us if they opened the boxes and it smelled like vinegar there was no chance.” Luckily, it didn’t smell like vinegar, but the journey had only just begun: 15 more years of restoration, reshooting, and editing lay ahead.

The restoration process became the obsession of a man named David Garonzik. While he ran the film room at Miramax, he screened The Harder They Come and fell in love with it’s anti-authority message. A few weeks later, he traveled to Jamaica to meet Henzell, who told him about his lost second film. Garonzik made it his mission to help Henzell make No Place Like Home a reality.

The team worked together to edit a new cut of the film and staged a shoot to bridge some of the scenes. Henzell’s, who cameoed as one of the children on a bicycle in the original film, was able to work alongside her father as a producer. The process was bittersweet—halfway through editing Henzell was diagnosed with cancer. Their new cut was accepted into the Toronto Film Festival, and scheduled to premiere in Jamaica a month later. Henzell was able to see the film in Toronto but he passed away the night before the Jamaican screening. “It felt like now that he had completed this mission he could pass peacefully,” said his daughter.

With instructions from Henzell on how to finish the film, Garonzik and Henzell’s longtime friend, Arthur Gorson, convinced 30 people to contribute their time and skills to edit, color correct and restore audio. “Some of the shots would have cost hundreds of thousands to restore, for a few seconds,” said Garonzik, “but people believed in it, so they did it for free.” The team was also committed to keeping Henzell’s original soundtrack, which included Bob Marley, Desmond Dekker, and Jimmy Cliff. But the Marley estate agreed to a nominal license fee for their tracks and the rest of the soundtrack followed suit then they understood what the film symbolized about Jamaican culture.

“There’s a pushcart at the end of No Place Like Home with ‘Perseverance Conquers All’ written on the side that kept Garonzik going during the 15 years of working on the film. It is a motto that is also the philosophy of Jamaican creativity, which continues to flourish despite all the odds the country faces.

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