The documentary Akwantu: The Journey is not a big splash in the ocean like the Hollywood heavy hitters that were analysed by hordes of press at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Akwantu (ah-quent-two-oh) is a pebble in a pond, but its ripple effects are significant enough to compel attention.
Extending beyond his range as a Hollywood stuntman and stunt director, Roy T. Anderson may be executing his greatest stunt yet. A Canadian of Jamaican heritage, Anderson’s sophomore self-funded film is a convincing piece of work about the Jamaican Maroons, this hemisphere’s first successful freedom trendsetters.
Private and self-contained, the Jamaican Maroons allowed Anderson into their community because he was one of them coming home to embrace his ancestry. With their cooperation, he cinematically revealed who they are, and where they had come from – a people stolen from African by European slave traders and shipped to the Caribbean.
This is a David and Goliath story about the British Empire’s inability to dislodge and subdue a small band of essentially unarmed African men and women who had the nerve to run away from the colonial plantations where they were held in bondage. Fleeing to the hills of Jamaica, they would eventually fortify themselves, resisting recapture to remain a free and self-governing independent people to this very day.
One caution: the ambitious task of grappling with the in-depth history and politics of the Maroons is not to be found here. This is understandable given the complex amount of detail required in such an undertaking.
However, Anderson, an independent filmmaker, deserves merit for filling a gap in contemporary cinema where positive content pertaining to Caribbean history has been conspicuously absent.
Rather than aiming for a tell-all comprehensive historical account, Anderson chose to focus on an intimate personal story by embarking on a journey to rediscover and reveal his personal connection to Maroon pedigree.
In his generosity, Anderson invites us to join him on his journey, which takes him to West Africa, the U.S. and the Caribbean. During the course of his travels, he attempts to explore existential questions regarding his identity, spirituality and sense of belonging.
In Akwantu, Anderson details his own Maroon family tree as his grandfather, Alfred Rowe, provides a bridge to this past. It is a wonderful and enchanting film, highlighted by Anderson’s conversations with elders, extended family and other sources within the Jamaican Maroon kinship.
The film’s narration, deeply personal and heartfelt, is in the first person, enhancing its authenticity. This is where the documentary excels the most, in its sincere warmth and openheartedness. With clarity and conviction, Anderson narrates a well-articulated script describing the enthralling saga of how oppression, exploitation and freedom co-mingle, and how freedom trumps both.
Akwantu fills the screen with absorbing compelling images such as the unmistakable trademark abeng, traditional drumming, and the effortless rhythmic gyrating dance of the Maroons as they bounce and hop as if dancing on coals of fire, or as if engaged in martial combat.
There are animation sequences to add variety. There are villains. There are heroes. There is emotion, pathos and pain. There is the ultimate triumph of the human spirit over adversity. It is sprinkled with momentary laughter, making the documentary convivial. The soundtrack, rooted in the jazz aesthetic, is earthy and wistful, evoking a sense of mystery and a haunting melancholy.
The characters throughout the film stand stately, spellbindingly and affably. Depicted as people of strength, dignity and forbearance, they are a counterpoint to the jaundiced conventional negative representations of people of African descent in today’s mass media.
For example, Packieman, the filmmaker’s uncle, exudes purity and beauty of spirit, his words tinged with rugged grace. His emotional contribution is reflective of the dignified strength exemplified by the Maroons.
The filmmaker’s brother, Adisa Oji, also elevates the documentary’s discourse. Like an exclamation mark, he alerts us to the underlying concerns unearthed by the documentary. Oji evinces a raw unadulterated outpouring of tribute to his ancestors.
Here the documentary takes on a different tone, challenging us to abandon the frivolous external trappings of a colonial past and to instead embrace the full restoration of self by responsibly reconnecting with one’s ancestry.
Akwantu is a triumph for Anderson, who rose to the challenge of telling the tale of chronicling the Maroons on film. It is a source of pride for people everywhere who love justice. It is fuel to the fire in the belly of those passionate about freedom, and is a source of inspiration to those who are moved by examples of initiative, courage, and a sense of purpose. It is a clarion call for all, but for students and young people in particular, Akwantu should be required viewing.
That one person could take their creative destiny into their own hands and add value that wasn’t there before is a fantastic contribution to commemorate. This documentary is unheralded now.
Wait…give it time.
The Canadian premiere of Akwantu: The Journey, will be held at 6 p.m. on Sunday, October 7 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Reitman Square, 350 King St. West.
BY MELLO AYO