Just behind Jason Fitzroy Jeffers' desk in his North Miami apartment is an ominous-looking pile of sharpened machetes and handmade leather sheaths. It's not a deadly personal arsenal, though -- it's just the Kickstarter prizes he sent out to supporters of his short film Papa Machete.
The briskly paced, poetic documentary tells the story of a master practitioner of tire machèt -- Haitian machete fencing, a subject Jeffers first found while surfing the internet. He became entranced watching a Haitian man in his 70s expertly wielding a blade with one hand and swigging from a bottle of rum with another.
"I've always drawn strength from the machete," Jeffers says before crouching on the floor on one knee to imitate the famous Haitian statue to Le Negre Marron ("The Unknown Slave.")
The documentary has burst to major acclaim this year, picking up plaudits on a tour that began at the Toronto International Film Festival and included stops at the Borscht Film Festival and a slot at Sundance. Soon, the flick will return to the Magic City for an encore at the Miami International Film Festival before hitting festivals worldwide for the rest of the year.
The project hasn't just been a critical success; it's also meant a reinvention for the 34-year-old filmmaker, musician, and writer.
Jeffers grew up in Barbados with an intense love of Caribbean literature, including the poetry of Derek Walcott, a Nobel laureate from Saint Lucia. In the early '90s, 15-year-old Jeffers was among the first local musicians rapping on the radio in Barbados.
"We would go into the heart of Bridgetown... on Saturday mornings to get people to sign petitions to get our music on the airwaves because we just believed in what we were doing so much," he says. "A lot of people looked at us like, 'What? You're from Barbados and you're rapping? That does not make sense. Nobody wants to hear rappers from Barbados.' "
Jeffers eventually came to Miami to expand his music and study at FIU, where he earned a journalism degree. Between playing gigs, he published bylines from Rolling Stone to the Miami Herald.
But it was Papa Machete, Jeffers says, that finally made him connect with filmmaking. "I said, 'OK, we're doing that,' " he said, describing the moment just after discovering videos of the art form. " 'Everything stops, and we're doing that.' "
Jeffers' pride in Caribbean arts made the project a natural fit. Along with two partners, Papa Machete coproducer Keisha Rae Witherspoon and filmmaker and producer Robert Sawyer, he recently won a Knight Foundation grant to host film screenings and one-off events he hopes will coalesce into a new Caribbean arts festival.
"What you're beginning to see is that there's this new wave of Caribbean music, film, art, and whatnot," says Jeffers, "and it's our idea that Miami is the place where we should be celebrating it."
Papa Machete was the only Caribbean film at Sundance this year, but Jeffers says the region has much more to offer. He wants to keep working to depict the region as more than a vacation destination.
"I just want to expose people to the depth of the Caribbean experience," Jeffers says, "and I also want Caribbean people and Caribbean-American people, starting with those here in Miami, to see what can be mined from that and the riches that it contains."
We'll be profiling those honorable mentions, and eventually the finalists, in the weeks to come. This year's three Mastermind Award winners will be announced February 26 at Artopia, our annual soiree celebrating Miami culture. For tickets and more information, visit newtimesartopia.com.
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