Caribbean Tales Film Festival: A Short Jamaican Documentary, “The Incursion”

“The Incursion,” a 24-minute documentary directed by Jamaican Sasha-Gay Lewis, has been selected for the Caribbean Tales International Film Festival, which opens in Toronto next week. It will be aired alongside two shorts that I have already reviewed, as well as Kaneal Gayle’s documentary Dancehall’s Asian Ambassadors, on September 19th under the heading Redemption Tales. If you are in Toronto next month, you should mark this in your diary!

For Jamaicans, the word “incursion” means only one thing: The attack by the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) and the Jamaica Constabulary Force on the inner-city community of Tivoli Gardens in Kingston, in search of a man wanted by the U.S. Government for narcotics trafficking: Christopher “Dudus” Coke. The series of horrific events began on May 23, 2010 (It was, by the way, vividly described over a year later by New Yorker journalist Mattathias Schwartz. It is very good writing, although the accounts of ‘outsiders’ are not always entirely accurate). It is not known how many people (mostly young men) died at the hands of the security forces in Tivoli Gardens – the official number was 73 civilians and one member of the security forces. Many believe civilian casualties were much higher. Many bodies were never found. Coke was eventually arrested just outside Kingston – under somewhat farcical circumstances – and is now serving 23 years in a U.S. jail. There was subsequently a Commission of Enquiry (the full report is posted here. It is 900 pages long and was tabled in Parliament in June 2016).

 A related incident remains unsolved: The horrific murder of chartered accountant Keith Clarke in a blizzard of bullets, allegedly by JDF soldiers, in his pyjamas at his home in the hills of St. Andrew. This took place on May 27, a few days after the incursion. As the security forces pursued Mr. Coke, they had a tip-off that they were to go to the house of a man who was allegedly harboring him. They got the wrong house – that of Mr. Clarke, a completely unconnected and innocent man. The trial of three JDF soldiers charged with Mr. Clarke’s murder was halted by the Supreme Court in April of this year. This was after the defense lawyers raised the issue of certificates of immunity from prosecution for the soldierssigned by former Minister of National Security Peter Bunting. The case will be heard again in full court on September 17; Mr. Clarke’s family say they will continue the legal fight.

Keith Clarke.

Another “loose end” (if one can call it that so glibly) is the matter of the mortars. Evidence given during the Enquiry suggested that mortars were indeed used during the incursion. Residents reported hearing loud explosions that sounded like bombs. The Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) had obtained a warrant to search JDF headquarters and to take evidence on oath from JDF members. A Full Court refused the JDF’s motion to block the warrant on July 30, 2018, giving INDECOM free rein to go ahead with its investigations. However, it took over two years to make this decision. Yes, it is all long drawn out, painfully so. It is not clear where this will go from here.

At the end of last year (December 6, 2017) Prime Minister Andrew Holness officially apologized for the Tivoli Gardens “incident” in Parliament. Opposition Leader Peter Phillips called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a suggestion that the Prime Minister did not entirely dismiss. Compensation of some J$200 million to representatives of the deceased and to those injured was also agreed by Cabinet, but subsequent media reports suggest that not everyone has been paid.

Indeed, the years-long aftermath of the incursion seems like a permanent sore that never heals. Every time it seems to start healing, it itches. Then it is scratched and starts to bleed again. 

Here is my review of the film:

The Incursion

“Like we are birds without feather.”

This is how Mrs. Joan McCarthy of Tivoli Gardens, West Kingston, describes the feelings of the residents as they awaited the arrival of the security forces. Unable to fly away.

This film is a well-constructed series of interviews with four residents of Tivoli. It is without comment from any politicians, Government officials or members of the security forces (except for the Police Commissioner in a brief media clip). It is also devoid of any reference to the reported, alleged activities of Christopher “Dudus” Coke’s gunmen in the area at the time. In other words, it is simply an account of the victimization of members of two families, as told by surviving members.

Annette Irving, who lost her 36-year-old sister Petrina in the 2010 Tivoli incursion, says that she is not expecting much out of life. “If I’m looking for something, I’m looking for justice…” she says. Her voice is hoarse. She adds, her arms folded: “Which in Jamaica, there is no such thing.”

Annette sometimes looks hard at her interviewer as if to say: No argument about this. End of story.

Smoke rises from Tivoli Gardens in May, 2010.

The scenes are broken up by the occasional explanatory piece of text. Three or four minutes in, we are told that Tivoli Gardens is “ruled by” the “notorious” Christopher Coke (“Dudus”). These words obviously heighten the drama. So do the three gunshots later on, against a black backdrop. I do not think we really needed this device – the tension was already there, building up slowly throughout. We knew what to expect. The explanatory text could perhaps have been narrated, but this is only a minor point.

Back to Annette, sitting with a wide-eyed child who is watching cartoons on TV, in a cramped, over-furnished living room. Annette shuffles through old photographs of her sister. She taps the photos with purple fingernails. She does not talk about her sister Petrina in the past tense “because I’m not there yet.” There is no doubt that Annette and “Pet” had a close relationship – laughing, fighting, sharing even bathwater. Her account of their relationship is innocent, harmless. Immediately after laughing at a memory, Annette presses her hands to her face, in tears.

The intermittent images of everyday life in Tivoli Gardens are – well, almost mundane. If they were chosen to provide contrast to the steadily growing horror of the narrative, this works well. Washing hangs on a line. A child pushes himself around on a skateboard. Barefoot teens play football, and neighbors stop in the street for a chat. Dogs chase a couple on a motorbike. Sneakers dangle, thrown over a wire. This is Tivoli Gardens, several years later.

And then, there are bullet holes in a bedroom wall. Terrified voices over the radio.

Joan speaks of her loss in “The Incursion.”


Annette’s neighbor on the next floor up, an elderly woman named Joan McCarthy, lost “her boys” Dwayne and André. She repeats several times that she stared and stared – so anxious to take it all in, to understand what was happening, trying to believe her own eyes. She saw Dwayne’s “brown foot” slipping out of a sheet – the sheet from his own bedroom. Her account is particularly vivid and piercing. The camera captures her eyes and her body language, as she stands in the room where Dwayne died.

Earlier in the film, Annette lists the modern amenities that Tivoli Gardens residents have, with an air of defiance: “We have our own flush toilet. We have ceramic tile. We have glass windows…” They don’t live in squalor – at least, not in their homes. Her words are, ironically, interrupted by images of a gully clogged with garbage, and an old toilet tossed to the side of the road. What is this telling us? That their pride was always misplaced?

After all, what is this film? It is, in essence, the story of a family – or two families. Brothers and sisters. It is a story about loss, the loss of three people – and regret and bitterness and poverty. This story was multiplied all over Tivoli Gardens – a surprisingly small community of a few thousand people – and in fact, it is repeated across the island daily, daily, by families who have lost members to violent crime, and to police killings. It is the family’s story, told from their angle – only. There are many other stories.

It is also, of course, the story of a community – an extraordinary one in many ways, but as the carefully selected street scenes show, also quite ordinary. It’s a snapshot. We see murals, children, dogs. One wonders about how the institutions were impacted: Tivoli Gardens High School, famous for its dancers; the churches.

This sensitively crafted documentary adds little that is new to the story of the incursion – the worst abuse of human rights in Jamaica since the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865. That could not be expected, however, in 24 minutes or even in a much longer film. Why is this?

Because, more than eight years later, the story of the Tivoli incursion is deeply complex, obscured, unendingly present. Its unanswered questions linger. It hovers in the air like the smoke from a burning police station, and the helicopter and the mysterious American plane over West Kingston that day. Those two or three days in Tivoli remain dark and terrifying, and unsolved.

A still from “The Incursion.”

Towards the end of the film, we are left with this lack of finality. The elderly lady asks where the bodies of Dwayne and André are “at this moment.” The family was not able to bury those bodies. They were thrown away somewhere. They could not identify Dwayne and André from the five files (yes, five) filled with photographs of dead Jamaicans that they looked through at the Community Centre.

The word “tragic” cannot in any way describe this house-to-house massacre in a close-knit collection of homes and apartment blocks. There is a strange intimacy to these killings, in small rooms and backyards, hemmed in by walls. We see the corner of a room, next to a flat screen television, “where André’s brain was.” In the same room, the shiny, polished cats and gilded elephants, arranged on the shelves of a typically Jamaican “what-not,” where a small computer monitor takes pride of place, gaze on at the spot where André fell. Details like these – and the angle of this particular shot – are particularly well captured by the camera.

But no. The story of Tivoli is not over yet. Do we, here in Jamaica (let alone elsewhere in the Caribbean, or the world) even understand what happened there from May 23 – 25, 2010? Did the incursion take on a life of its own, like a kind of madness?

How do we make sense of it all, through film-making? Can we, indeed, capture this in film, years later? This is certainly a brave attempt by Ms. Lewis.

“This mark cannot come out,” says the resident, rubbing the stained surface of the shelf. Indeed, it cannot.

A still from “The Incursion.”




12 thoughts on “Caribbean Tales Film Festival: A Short Jamaican Documentary, “The Incursion”

  1. I’m disappointed that just 8 years after the event, the initial events and even the deaths of 3 members of the security forces are simply forgotten to perpetuate the victim narrative of Tivoli Gardens. It’s incredible that it seems like films like this and Schwartz’s account don’t recall or simply skim over some rather troubling facts. Like the barricades that the residents (and the gangsters among them) built up in the days preceding the outbreak of violence. The march of persons all clad in white defending Dudus (and claiming that as Jesus died for us, they would die for Dudus). Like the fact that at two police stations were set on fire and another shot up (you can still see the bullet holes) BEFORE the security forces went in (I refuse to call it an “incursion” since that implies the security forces went were they had no right to be, which is ridiculous since Tivoli Gardens is not a foreign country and the security forces have just as much right to be in the community as they do in any other part of the country – that does NOT mean they had the right to abuse any rights of ANY persons living there). And how at least 2 days before the security forces re-established government control in the area, shots were fired at one of the JDF vehicles operating nearby. Or the fact, that as reported in The Star, residents had taken to cutting electricity lines or throwing up wires to run LIVE electricity into the barricades with the intent to electrocute any members of the security forces attempting to remove the barricades (hence the reason why power was cut to the area and in some cases the security forces entered the area in other ways and avoided the barricades). And how is it that in extensive searches in the area in just under a month found over 75 guns and over 10,000 rounds of ammunition? Is that supposed to be normal in a community? Having almost 100 pistols, rifles, submachine guns, assault rifles (including Chinese variants of AK-47s), 10,000+ rounds of ammunition for these guns as well as over a dozen grenades and other explosive devices? If this is normal, where is the AK-47 and hand grenade that are due to me? And what of the 3 members of the security forces who died and dozens who were injured? Are we to suppose that the security forces shot and killed each other in some kind of orgy of shooting only done by them? And then what of the bullet holes one can still see in the walls of buildings opposite to where the barricades were located (i.e. where the security forces were initially set before having to move in)? Was that staged? And what of the dead bodies found in the immediate aftermath that had been dead BEFORE the outbreak of violence and were reportedly persons who had refused to fight for Coke and instead been murdered?

    Even the Schwartz account disturbingly seems to airbrush out a lot of stuff or quickly skim over things that don’t add up. For example he interviewed a Ms. Marjorie Hinds who had a boyfriend (a Mr. Freeman) who worked in the US. In the account he says that she asked him to come home in April. Now I don’t know about you, but my first question after that would be “Okay, so what happened with his job in the US and what did he do as work when he came back to help continue contributing to the family?”. Because it seems super odd that you can just up stakes and leave your job for likely a month or more on the call of a girlfriend. Also later in the account Ms Hinds claims that there was sporadic gunfire on the morning of May 24 but assumed it was safe to go outside, but didn’t leave the three days prior when there was no gunfire or even less gunfire? That bit one can peg down to a misjudgement of the situation possibly, but the entire account has holes once you aren’t just taking everything recorded as the gospel truth. Schwartz’s account only mentions 1 JDF soldier dying and seems to not know about the 2 police officers who died. It also mentions only 6 guns being found DURING the assault (like, Duh! As if people who have illegal stuff are going to leave them out in the open once the police come into an area. Even in a house, if people have illegal drugs, they don’t leave them out on the dining table once the police kick in the door. They flush them down a toilet or stash them somewhere they had already established as being somewhere that they are unlikely to be found). Yet he was writing months after the events, by which time it was clearly known that over 75 guns were found. His account also speaks of resistance being quickly overcome. I was in Kingston at the time and I remember quite vividly from the news reports and the freaking gunfire one could hear that resistance (and why on earth are the security forces encountering “resistance”? Is that normal when security forces are entering a community in their own country?) was indeed ongoing and it took HOURS for things to settle down.

    We do a disservice to our country when we pick up the habit of demonizing the security forces without acknowledging (or even remembering!) that there were and are some SERIOUS issues and that many in those communities are not solely victims. We can’t begin to address these issues that feed into the cycle of violence, lawlessness and rape in this country if we don’t frankly and honestly discuss and lay blame where it truly belongs in ALL circumstances. Some poor souls in that community are trapped because they have either grown up having been taught to behave in the way that is anti-social (to the wider nation, not to their immediate community) and thus genuinely think that police have no business being in Tivoli Gardens and that the gangsters are legitimate authorities. Others aren’t trapped by that mindset but don’t speak out for fear. Some others are just genuine gangsters or want to be gangsters. Social intervention on a mass scale is needed, but it can’t even begin if we ourselves are going to pretend as if the events of May 2010 arose because the security forces descended on some peaceful, law-abiding community and went about like darker versions of Keystone Cops killing 60-70+ innocent people (included in the count of 73 civilians who died include some whose bodies were already decaying when the security forces went in, so they could not have been killed by the security forces) in an attempt to capture “one man”. The fact that this one man also had a residence in the area where Keith Clarke lived and that the security forces in the past had attempted to raid such a residence but were given incorrect information as to the address is also something that needs to be remembered as it speaks to corruption in quite a few state bodies that enable a gangster to throw the police off his trail and get innocent people caught up in the events in the process.


    1. I do understand what you are saying about Tivoli – and definitely agree with you that the incursion itself (and I take your point about that word), and of course the sequence of events leading up to and following it, was an enormously complex and almost impenetrable matter. As the years pass, the facts (such as are known) become increasingly blurred. BUT, as I did point out in my review, this is only one short documentary, recording the experience of just a few people caught up in the incursion. These are a few personal stories. Commenting on every aspect of the Tivoli Gardens situation was not possible. I do not know whether some of the things you refer to (many weapons found, bodies already decaying) actually have been verified. You seem to know a lot more detail than me. This is beside the point, however. This is first and foremost a film review, the narrative of two or three people who lived through the experience…What happened on a particular day or two. The film was not intended to be a thorough review of what happened, or didn’t, or what was rumored to have happened. But thank you very much for your comments.


      1. I get what your saying. And you are right, it is just a film focusing on the narrative of two or three people. I had no issue with your review of the film, but with the focus of the film itself and here is why:

        The film and other stories (like Schwartz’s account) really ought to give some balance and background information. It’s not hard. It can even be short. But failing to do so is exactly what blurs the facts over time, because either deliberately or not, the focus is narrowed onto personal stories of one set of persons while the others are then portrayed as faceless masses and the Other or the Enemy (or completely written out altogether). How many films or accounts have you seen where the authors attempted to get the side of the story from a JDF officer or JCF constable who was involved at the time? And even if they aren’t allowed to, there was ample evidence (video and otherwise) made available during the fighting (I remember video being released (some of it via night vision) of the armed gunmen walking around in Tivoli and holding positions on rooftops – that was on the news and as such the news stations should have that video on file) for narratives to be constructed. I strongly suspect though that no attempts have been made to get interviews with JDF soldiers who were involved (and are either now out of the JDF or still in it) and to at least get the JDF hierarchy to approve it (if they don’t ask, how are they going to get approval?).

        Even doing some basic background information detailing even half of the facts I reported above would go a long way to ensuring that what really happened isn’t warped over time.

        This is not unique to Tivoli and Jamaica, but it has happened elsewhere and regardless it’s terrible, because it ends up demonizing people or in some cases allows terrible persons to be rehabilitated in the public eye without actually changing their ways or having any remorse for what they did.

        Examples of where this narrow focus without a wider context of setting has resulted in warped views is with World War II. This site gives a very startling example of that: (the original French is quite informative, but there is also an English version: In 1945, French citizens were surveyed and when asked which of the Allies had contributed the most to defeat of Nazi Germany, nearly 60% said the USSR (this despite the fact that it was the US and UK which liberated France and the Soviet Union was not involved in any direct way in that effort). Fast forward to 2004 and the situation is flipped. Then nearly 60% of French persons surveyed said it was the USA which contributed the most to the defeat of Hitler (note, this is in reference to Germany, not Japan). That’s sad beyond measure because what happened on the Eastern Front was truly horrific and what the people of the USSR paid in terms of blood should be enough to shame every Frenchman alive today. Yet because of a lot of films focusing narrowly on Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and other battles involving the Americans, over time facts became blurred. This focus was in some cases deliberate (due to the Cold War setting meaning that the Soviets were now the enemy and there was no desire to portray them at all or to possibly portray them positively) but in many cases was not deliberate. Some simple prologues and epilogues or closing words on the screen though for many of those movies (which really, would not take more than perhaps 1-5% of the movie run time) would have been sufficient to provide the needed context that would remind people of the fact that it wasn’t JUST the USA that defeated Germany and that far more of the Germany army was defeated on the Eastern Front in terrible warfare that saw millions die.

        So commenting on every aspect of the Tivoli Gardens situation was not possible, but nor was it required. It was and is possible though to provide context. It wouldn’t have taken more than 2 minutes of run time to put up an epilogue on screen giving some basic facts like the facts:

        – that gunmen were in Tivoli,
        – 2 police stations were burned out and 1 shot up in the time immediately before the events in the story
        – 70-odd persons died including 1 soldier and 2 police officers died, dozens others (from both the security forces and those not in the security forces) were injured
        – over 500 people arrested and detained
        – within a month of the events 75+ guns, 10,000+ rounds of ammunition, hand grenades and explosives were found (if they can mention mortars, there is no good reason to not even mention this fact after the film)
        – two commissions of inquiry related to the events were conducted

        That isn’t hard to do, and its sad that so many in the media don’t seem to realize how important context is. Because people forget the facts and the stories that come after become substitutes for the facts. It won’t surprise me if 20 years now we hear it being implied that the security forces went in there because the government didn’t care about this poor inner city community and decided to unleash overwhelming and unwarranted force in the area (“roadblocks? what roadblocks? What are you talking about? Guns and grenades? Live wires in the barricades? Where you hear dat from?”) and there were never any gunmen to begin with but only people going about their daily lives in peace and harmony until the army showed up (as villains).

        The fact that you can say that “I do not know whether some of the things you refer to (many weapons found, bodies already decaying) actually have been verified” is truly saddening and an example of the extent to which this “teaching of ignorance” (to borrow from the article I linked for you above) has had success. Here’s a story from a day after the events about some of the bodies (the one concerning the decaying bodies if I remember rightly might have been in the Observer): and as for the guns found, just search any news report from around June 20-30, 2010. It’s been verified. But forgotten. And instead a lot of focus is made on the guns found during the fighting (in some cases it seems quite deliberately).


      2. Sigh. I guess I am as guilty as anyone else at misunderstanding, learning only parts of the story. As a Kingston resident, all I remember at the time was a lot of confusion, fear, misinformation, rumours and lack of information all over the city during and for some time after the event. If anything, I would say it was the police who were the designated “villains” of the piece, rather than the army.


      3. You’re quite welcome re: the link!

        And don’t be too hard on yourself. There WAS indeed a lot of rumour, confusion, fear and misunderstanding at the time. Some of it was quite deliberate because it served the purposes of various actors (the US, the Jamaican government, the JDF, the JCF, the Shower Posse gang). Remember when a story broke on ABC news of a US government report that described Bruce Golding as a known criminal associate of Dudus? That may have been a half-truth designed to pressure the Jamaican government into facilitating the capture of Coke.

        If I recall correctly I also heard once that the US aircraft that flew over Kingston was facilitated by agreements in place already that allowed direct US assistance to the JDF and thus the top people in government may have been kept out of the loop (I suppose because the US didn’t trust them not to leak such information to Coke).

        Quite a bit though was substantiated with video and photographic evidence (which has never or rarely ever been shown again sadly) such as the night vision video I referred to earlier (which I remember seeing broadcast on the news) and pictures of the “prison” that the gangs had in Tivoli (pictures published in the newspapers). In regards to the dead persons found who were supposedly shot before everything went pear-shaped, if I remember correctly I think a coroner was quoted as noting that the state of the bodies meant they were dead from before, which to me is fairly good proof.

        My greatest fear is that we simply do not learn from our experiences because we forget so much and tend not to dig for the truth or to piece together the evidence (or question stories or narratives that simply don’t hold up or seem suspect). It’s why despite banging on about using Singapore as a model, Jamaica is extremely unlikely to become anything like Singapore because we adapt far more slowly and don’t learn readily from the wealth of experience we have had. So we repeat the same mistakes over and over again in different areas.


      4. I could not agree more with your final paragraph here! Wouldn’t it be good if there was a full and comprehensive archive of video, print and photographs that reached us here and there, in bits and pieces? A Tivoli Archive. Available to the public. I suppose that would be impossible… There was a very limp response from our local traditional media. If social media has taken hold in 2010 (which it hadn’t really) I wonder whether more might have come to light.


  2. You are right. This needs a longer panoramic view and definitely a wider viewing audience. Great summary, I can’t wait until it is widely available to watch for myself.


    1. It’s very difficult. There is so much background (some would say “baggage”) attached to the entire story of Tivoli Gardens, but this short film really does stand out as a well-crafted piece on its own merit. I’m sure it will be widely available soon.


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