Rasta rewind: Holding On to Jah played like a polished, finished film at Mezzanine recently, but it's still a work-in-progress.

Don't Criticize it: 'Holding On to Jah'

Michael Fox October 28, 2009

It’s hard to imagine a venue where the new documentary Holding On to Jah will sound better than it did at Mezzanine last Wednesday night. The pulsing, reggae-rich soundtrack burst from the nightclub’s speakers, wowing an audience of music fans, Rastafarians and friends of filmmakers Harrison Stafford and Roger Landon Hall. And yet, contrary to the expectations of some in the crowd, it’s not a music film, even if nearly all of the interviewees are musicians. Equally surprising, particularly for herb fans, the feature-length film is in no danger of receiving an R rating for smoking or drug use. In other words, the coy reference above to the lyrics of "Legalize It," the title track of Peter Tosh’s 1976 solo debut, is just a toot.

"The idea of the film came from a course I taught at Sonoma State, The History of Reggae Music," relates Stafford, a Pleasanton native who cofounded the reggae fusion band Groundation in 1998, on the phone from his North Bay home the next day. "You had people come to the course who knew a lot about reggae music and also people who didn’t know anything, who knew a few Bob Marley songs and thought, ‘This is fun.’"

Stafford anticipates that reggae will be the entry point for most prospective viewers of Holding On to Jah. What awaits them, however, is a diligent, detailed and fast-paced history of Jamaica, the slave trade, Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie, reggae and, crucially, the Rastafari religion.

"Another population of people we’re trying to reach, or another perspective, would be people who’re searching in life or maybe not got the answers they were seeking from religion or other sources that are out there," Stafford acknowledges. "People wanting to know a little bit more about life. I think people in this time are really looking for answers. And these leaders have great insight to share."

Although Stafford and Hall have a message they want to get out, their priority is making a movie that works from start to finish. Holding On to Jah played like a polished, finished film at Mezzanine, but the filmmakers considered it a test screening.

"It is definitely a work in progress," Stafford says. "Roger and I were talking a bit afterwards, we might tighten up one of the sections a little bit more. We love the film as it is, but during the Bible reference scene it went on a little long."

Their tenacity, and ability to view the film critically, is remarkable considering it’s almost exactly ten years since the duo made their first trip with a camera to Jamaica. Stafford and Hall went to Amador Valley High together; Stafford gigged around the world with Groundation while Hall moved to San Francisco, studied at the Academy of Art, and worked as a producer and editor for CNET. Stafford originated the idea and served as producer of Holding On to Jah, while Hall did yeoman’s work as director, editor and cinematographer.

"I was most proud of the amount of information we were able to fit in," Stafford says. "The first cut was two hours and 25 minutes, so we had a lot of things we needed to take out. We did a lot of work collecting that data, whether it’s the audio recordings or mug shots of Marcus Garvey, or the footage of Haile Selassie at his coronation in 1930 or JFK introducing Selassie [in the U.S. in 1963]. That’s powerful, great stuff."

Hall prefaced the screening at Mezzanine by saying, "Everything comes from the music. And the story is in the music." To that end, the filmmakers embedded a wealth of music in the film, and mainly interviewed respected veteran musicians.

"Everybody who’s a part of the film is part of that musical heritage," Stafford explains. "One of the things we wanted to do was get the story of Jamaica, the history of the culture and the music, from the perspective of those who lived it. We wanted to show the ingredients that made the music, that made the movement of Rastafari happen. It’s the lineage of where they’re coming from. It has that bond to the music."

The filmmakers are just beginning to formulate their distribution strategy. Because reggae is more enthusiastically embraced in Europe, South America and even the Middle East than in the U.S., it may turn out that the film will find its largest audiences overseas. Stafford’s cool with however it plays out.

"Me and Roger, we’re as green as the youngest tree out there," he says, chuckling. "We want to see it go as far as we can. Getting it out to companies that can get it out there, that’s our first step."

Notes from the Underground
George Csicsery’s Hard Problems, broadcast this month on PBS stations around the country via APT, airs locally at 9:00 pm tonight (October 28) and 2:00 am, Friday, October 30 on KCSM.

Alex D. da Silva and Justine Jacob’s Ready, Set, Bag!, documenting the National Grocers Association’s 2007 best bagger competition, anticipates Thanksgiving with screenings November 3 and 4 at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, November 5 at the Rialto Cinemas Cerrito and November 19 at the Roxie. The film played a few festivals under the title Paper or Plastic?

The S.F. Silent Film Festival expands to four days in July 2010, a concrete sign that the Great Recession won’t last forever. The U.S. premiere of the restoration of Abel Gance’s epic J’accuse is the centerpiece of the fest’s December 12 winter event.

Send the lowdown on your festival premiere, television broadcast, major grant awards, birth announcements and random gossip to foxonfilm@gmail.com for inclusion in Notes.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.