The Notting Hill Carnival was born out of race riots and murder way back in the sixties. A new movie about the UK’s bad boy of festivals takes a look through the eyes of a young British woman as she heads down the road in costume to find out the truth about the famous 4-day annual August fete.
A People's Art – The Genesis of Freedom is a documentary by England’s Tony Oldham. The hour-long film will make its Canadian debut this fall as part of the CaribbeanTales Film Festival here in Toronto.
Ayesha Casely-Hayford is glad she didn’t listen to her mother’s advice to stay away from Notting Hill. No, the young British/Ghanaian actress and lawyer now says that she is the better person for buying a modest mas outfit and jumping up both at a chocolate throwing J’ouvert party and the grand parade through the ancient streets of London (the Notting Hill area is near Kensington).
She is the host and narrator who take a personal journey to lime with the people who play pan, sing Calypso and make Mas in England. Along this happy road she discover the history, the meaning and origins of the festival that many in her country just don’t like.
At least a year older and a whole lot bigger than the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, Notting Hill continues to be the rite of passage for England’s Caribbean community. It is also the bane of existence for police and public officials and a favourite target of the British press.
The annual festival was born out of conflict back in 1969 when the first A Caribbean Carnival was held indoors. It was in response to widespread race riots (dubbed the Notting Hill Race Riots) in which 108 people were charged.
In 1966 the first outdoor walkabout was held in Notting Hill with neighbourhood children and a steel band taking to the streets. This small unity event has now grown to become a mammoth street parade, that now attracts anywhere from a million to two and half million spectators (organizers are very vague on their exact attendance numbers).
We see a costumed party that winds through car-lined roads and past small city parks. There are few fences to be seen. revelers and spectators mingle on the road, while an army of “Bobbies” watch on. Somehow it all works out.
Ayesha finds it a festival of love, friendship and family. Others do not. British press, politicians, police and local residents consider it an event of conflict, something that should be moved out of the city or banned outright.
We learn as the cameras roll yes there have been acts of violence during the carnival. Bu, says the movie, the actual statistics show that given the size of the crowd, the percentage of criminal acts is much smaller than many other well-known annual UK festivals. The bad press is blamed on bias and racism.
What makes this movie stand out is the Cinema verite cinematography. The camera does not watch Ayesha from a far. We are up close and personal despite bad weather and a million spectators trying to get in the way of the shots.
“The film crew for all of the carnival footage was just me,” director Tony Oldham told the Caribbean Camera yesterday from his office in London. “There are shots included from essentially three carnivals covering what were Notting Hill's 50th Anniversary celebrations. Essentially I had a four-man crew for the first year, but the rain more or less rendered those sequences not useable. In fact most cameraman on the circuit that year suffered equipment failure.”
“I essentially shot across each year on Friday eve (Calypso), Saturday (Panorama), and then J’ouvert Mas (Sunday) and Carnival Monday.” he continued. “It was quite tough going across the four mile circuit with a lot of back and forth, but I am so familiar with the event that I pursued a sort of priorities in shots I knew I needed.”
Toronto audiences should keep an eye out for Canada’s Macomere Fifi (Tara Woods) who was filmed singing a tribute to the Mighty Sparrow at the English Monarch competition. Oldham didn’t know who she was when he was filming but was so impressed by her performance he made sure she made it into the movie.
Oldham actually had enough good footage to make A People's Art – The Genesis of Freedom into a much longer film. Instead he actually made two films out of what he had.
“ I decided it better to split the film into two; one dealing with more in depth history and the arts: Arts of Conflict, and A Peoples Art, which follows Ayesha’s first experiences,” he continued. “They do compliment each other, but are really different in terms of visual style and tone. Arts of conflict for example is more sombre and a slower paced Arts Type film.”
Arts of Conflict will not be shown at the CaribbeanTales Film Festival. It is already airing on Amazon Prime Video. A Peoples Art gets its International debut in late September at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. It will then be screening at this year’s CaribbeanTales International Film Festival on October 2nd, (available on that date only at the CaribbeanTales Festival website)
“The main thing for this film is to get it out there and be seen by as many people as possible,” said Oldham. “I will make it available online in due course and I am always happy to hear from people who can help with that.”