#81: Jason Fitzroy Jeffers
Jason Fitzroy Jeffers is first and foremost a storyteller. Though the mediums through which his stories are told can vary, the direction of his artistic gaze stays laser-focused on the Caribbean.
The 35-year-old musician, writer, and filmmaker left his home of Barbados more than ten years ago, but it has not left him and continues to shape his creative expression. As part of the dynamic trio Third Horizon, a Miami-based collective of Caribbean creatives including Keisha Witherspoon and Robert Sawyer, Jeffers is helping to introduce stories from the Caribbean diaspora to new audiences across the world. The collective saw major success after its first short film, Papa Machete, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014. The film takes viewers into the life of Alfred Avril, a master in the little-known Haitian art of tire machèt, or machete fencing. For 11 minutes, the audience travels to Jacmel Haiti and witnesses this tradition, borne from both the instinct to survive in the face of brutal slavery and colonization and the farmer’s trusted tool, as it is kept alive by the aging keeper of the practice. In 2015, the Papa Machete debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to be screened at more than 30 film festivals worldwide. Such success solidified Jeffers’ place as a filmmaker and proved that the world was yearning to change the creative landscape.
After the sweeping success of the first film, Jeffers and his team decided to take on an even larger venture: a four-day film festival highlighting the work of other Caribbean voices and talents. Thus the Third Horizon Film Festival was born at Wynwood’s O Cinema last September. Audiences were privy to stories from filmmakers from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Aruba, and other islands. And as the breakout success of Papa Machete confirmed, Miami wanted more of the magic of these richly woven stories rarely included in the dominant discourse.
“We were very pleased with the reception we got. People kept coming up and saying this was something they had been needing, so it was really rewarding to be able to share these works,” Jeffers says. “It felt like a family reunion.”
With Miami’s cultural landscape being as beautifully patterned with people and communities that have a wide range of backgrounds, ethnicities, languages, customs, and cultures, the inclusion of these voices and stories is imperative. No doubt Jeffers is helping set the stage to ensure that our imaginations and our cinematic experience are a reflection of the diversity that surrounds us.
List five things that inspire you.
Mythology. I’m interested in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and where we come from and how it shapes what we do with our lives. Mythology is a map of our internal realities. It’s like a roadmap for transcending trauma.
Service to others, to one’s family, to one’s lovers, community, friends.
The Caribbean. The older I get, the more I appreciate the cultural wealth of the Caribbean.
Love. It’s the one thing we all experience but have such a limited understanding of.
I’m inspired by the apocalypse. When I say "apocalypse," I mean the intense restructuring of all we have known. Us confronting all we’ve wrought. Situations in our personal life, our political life, our social life that forces us to change or wither. In any holy book, in any great cosmology, the end just marks a new beginning. So it has a happy ending. I love things going to shit, then the phoenix rising from the ashes, the sun coming up, the resurrection. Those moments deeply inspire me.
What was your last big project?
The Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival, which was September 29 through October 2. With Papa Machete being the success that it was, it was able to go to film festivals all around the world, and it had a degree of success that a lot of Caribbean films don’t have. And I feel as if the films of the Caribbean and films telling the story of the Caribbean really could and should be more successful on the world stage. The idea of Third Horizon has always been a platform for more avant-garde Caribbean art. We wanted to create a space where we could celebrate that work, and we’re really happy with how it came off. A big part of the mission is to redefine the Caribbean in the popular imagination so that even people who don’t share the ancestry can find kinship with it, because the stories of the Caribbean are the stories of the world.
What's your next big project?
I just finished a script I wrote with Jonathan David Kane, who directed Papa Machete, and my friend Mike Rogers. We have a script based on a swashbuckling voodoo action film set on the eve of the Haitian revolution. It’s kind of an overlooked moment in history, I think. So telling a story set during that period is really exciting. It’s based on the form of martial arts, machete fencing, which you see in Papa Machete. So we just went a fictional route with it.
I’m also working on some new music. Since I got into filmmaking, my musical life has been on the back burner. I’ve never stopped making music; I just stopped putting it out there. I have a long gestating project that’s nearing completion. I expect that you’ll see that in 2017.
What do you want Miami to know about you? What don't you want Miami to know about you?
It’s not really about me. It’s the things I see... That’s the interesting thing about not being a performer anymore. I’m less interested in being center stage than I used to be, and that might also be part of aging. But I’m honored that anyone wants to know me at all.
However, the honest answer is that I can’t say there’s anything I want Miami to know about me or not know about me. But I am hoping that through me, Miami can gain a more new nuanced understanding of the Caribbean. And if that happens through me, then so be it.
One of the things I’ve had to deal with personally, and something all black people have to deal with, is having to work twice as hard. So as a black man who's also an immigrant, it’s thrice as hard. I guess I feel as if any black person in this country has often had to do battle with limited expectations of who they are and what they can do, even among their own, among people who look like them. If I can help break down some of those stereotypes, that’s great. It’s not about me specifically. But if in the work I do I can accomplish that, then that’s great.
What's one thing you want people to know about Miami?
Miami is an important city, but not for the reasons that so many people expect or want it to be. Like the Caribbean or the tropics in general, in many ways Miami’s fate, its place in history, is prognostic for the rest of the world. Look at the issues that we’re dealing with: We’re an immigration hub. We’re dealing with sea-level rise. We’re dealing with wealth inequality at a scale that a lot of cities around the country aren’t dealing with. We are on the front lines of so many battles.
A lot of people, whether they are here or outside of Miami, look at this as a cool place to live, which it is, but I think what makes Miami important is not that the weather is great or any number of reasons that would fit on a tourist brochure. What makes Miami important is that at some point, there’s a lot we will have to wrestle with that the rest of the world will have to wrestle with further down the road. And how we deal with it is either going to serve as a warning sign or an example of how to move forward. So Miami becomes more important as the years go by. We’re living on the front lines.