The Trinidad + Tobago Film Festival opens Wednesday night with a gala at Queen’s Hall featuring a screening of the hit documentary Marley. Its director, Kevin Macdonald, is scheduled to introduce the film and field questions afterwards. Marley, a two-and-a-half-hour biography of Jamaican reggae icon Bob Marley, has been hailed as a powerful and moving portrait of a man who has been made a legend through his music. Macdonald, a Glaswegian who now lives in London, said in a Skype interview on September 10, “It’s not like most music films. We discovered a lot of new material and research, and it made me realise how important it was—this is a history of one of the most important figures of the 20th century. The significance and responsibility became greater as I started making the film. It’s important as history, as something that can be passed to future generations.” Hailed for two of his previous documentary films, Touching the Void and One Day in September—the former won a Bafta Award and the latter an Oscar—Macdonald is also known for directing the Hollywood hit The Last King of Scotland, which was based on a novel about a Scot who became the personal physician to Uganda dictator Idi Amin. (Forest Whittaker won an Oscar for his portrayal of Amin).
Marley is a biographical documentary that straightforwardly takes the viewer through its subject’s event-filled life from his birth until his early death at 36, at the height of his fame. Macdonald said he felt he had a responsibility to do Marley justice, to tell his fans more about the intricacies of his story than they had learned through the few surviving interviews with the superstar. “Even people who knew a lot about Bob will learn new things,” he promised. The film features interviews with Marley’s friend Alan “Skill” Cole and Wailers co-founder Bunny Wailer, both of whom had been reluctant to talk about their famous friend before. There is also new and rare music among the 50 Bob Marley songs on the soundtrack, including a newly discovered recording of No Woman, No Cry with Marley on piano and Peter Tosh on guitar. Macdonald praised Marley’s son David “Ziggy” Marley for championing the project and him as its director, despite Macdonald’s early worry that the family would try to circumscribe the film to the more polite aspects of Marley’s life. Macdonald said he told Ziggy, “I want to make a very personal film, I don’t want to do hero worship. I want to make something about the man. He understood that.” As a director, “You’re licensed to ask all the embarrassing questions,” Macdonald said—questions such as “what do you say to the new girlfriend when you have another five girlfriends on the go.” Marley was famously unfaithful to his wife Rita, and had 11 children in all by seven different women, including his wife.
An international sensation from its release in April this year, Marley might be the Caribbean’s biggest film of our time, notwithstanding the irony that its director is a Scot. “Sometimes you need an outsider to see things more clearly. I brought curiosity, that’s what I brought to it. I didn’t have preconceived notions about what I should and shouldn’t say. “Hagiography is boring, especially for a figure like Bob Marley, who has become a quasi-religious figure not only in the Caribbean but in Africa and other parts of the world,” Macdonald said. “One of the great moments in my life was premiering this film in Kingston” to an audience of “thousands of people in Emancipation Park. All the great and the good of Jamaica came to see this movie.” He admitted it was “tremendously nerve-racking” to wait for the audience’s response. However, he said, “They loved it.” Though he’s Jamaican, Bob Marley’s music is a worldwide phenomenon. Magnolia Pictures decided to release the film for download on the social networking platform Facebook simultaneously with its theatrical release in the US. It was the first film to try it. “It didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped,” Macdonald said. “We felt there would be more interest. Bob has a huge following on Facebook.”
The Bob Marley Facebook page has over 40 million likes, but that following didn’t translate into downloads there. “Some people did but it wasn’t a huge runaway success.” Still, the film has done well commercially. “In Britain it’s made £1 million—the biggest ever for a musical documentary.” It has also broken sales records in the Netherlands, Italy and France, he said, but its take in the US wasn’t as spectacular, perhaps because Bob Marley himself never broke through in the US as much as he did in the rest of the world. Although he has previously said he’s now fond of Jamaica after visiting to work on the film and vacationing there a couple times, Macdonald has no special ties to Trinidad and Tobago. He was invited to the Trinidad + Tobago Film Festival after meeting festival creative director Emilie Upczak at another film festival. “I can’t say that I know a lot of Trinidadian films,” he said when asked if he was familiar with any. “That’s partly why I’m interested in coming, so I can learn about film there.” He’s keen to discover what this country has to offer. “Everyone brings their own perspective to film. The important thing is that people make films that reflect their own experience and not try to break into America.” Though the most famous, Macdonald is not the only director coming for the festival. Visiting directors will also include Storm Saulter (Better Mus Come, Ring D Alarm) and Ian Harnarine (Doubles With Slight).