It is morning in the community of Southside, downtown Kingston. Rosie and Rocksy are still sleeping when the air erupts with sudden gunfire. Gunshots punctuate the first ten minutes or so of the film as the two try to get their day started. Rocksy is edgy. He has yellow post-it stickers with his plans for making money, stuck on the paint-peeled wall. She has her painting, which she is paying for in instalments. On a small table is a fish tank with pink plastic stones, and a few artificial flowers in a pot. And her jewellery, mostly plastic too.
In the first ten minutes, we soon realize that they are not a devoted couple. They are living on the edge of each other’s lives. Rocksy casually tells Rosie she is his “Business partner, friend…whatever.” Yet, there are moments of tenderness and comfort, all too short.
This is “where they live.” It is a place of poverty, but still with the old-fashioned tiles on the floor, some replaced. “Where they live” was once a home. Much of this area of downtown is like this: once solid and respectable, with a flight of steps, an entrance, a front door, hallways, the older houses are half-roofed, patched with zinc replacing what were doors and walls.
The sense of place is acute and real. This is no dressed-up, carefully staged “ghetto” with fake graffiti. This is exactly it – empty spaces littered with garbage, dirty water running in the gutters, lumps of concrete, dust, half-hidden homeless people, street vendors, stray dogs wandering into headlights, the cluttered, narrow lanes. An occasional pickup truck bearing heavily armed police slides past. There is energy; and there is a feeling of abandonment, of trying to pick up the pieces of life. This is carefully portrayed in the camera work – but in a way that appears casual. No one, nothing looks out of place. It all fits.
So. We then meet the lazy, charming “man about town” Malta, who works in a garage. He is Rocksy’s friend and also a self-described “girl mechanic.” Even at moments of tension, his phone rings and he talks to “Baby… Me call you back.”
Then there is The Car. The Car is certainly a pivotal character in the story. It’s a bright red Evolution 10, a source of awe and childish excitement for the two young men. It belongs to Faris, a “Syrian” merchant, who runs a haberdashery (with little success) and is chastised by his older brother for his feckless ways.
By contrast, Rocksy runs a battered “robot” taxi (unlicensed), into which he squeezes an assortment of passengers. He then tries to sell them condoms and phone cards (with little success). Rosie, on the other hand, stands on the street at night, selling her body and also earning very little. Their conversations are invariably about money (or the lack of it).
The opportunity for Rocksy and Malta is The Car. Or so they think.
The actors get the job done, although there is little subtlety. Rocksy, the hustler, nervously flicking his knife, is not as smart as he thinks he is; he is a bit of a “bad boy” caricature, affecting a sneer when necessary. The round-faced Rosie has a slow, steady look in her eyes, but is prone to moralizing; everyone around her is corrupt, thieving, disrespectful. Malta mostly follows Rocksy’s cue, addressing anyone that he wishes to ingratiate himself with as “family” – although he doesn’t seem to have any. Faris, with his middle-class Jamaican accent, is moody and cynical.
In a way, though, the acting takes a back seat to the situations the characters wander (or career) into. Their lives are reckless, rootless. This means that, at any given moment, Rocksy’s eyes are going to grow rounder at the hint of an opportunity for making money. It means that Rosie, at any point in time, may find herself fighting off a man who refuses to use a condom or pay her. There are chance encounters with people who may or may not be trustworthy, like the “red man” who runs the car pound, or the owner of the car parts shop. Yes, all these places are real. No sets. Just as they are.
The story rattles along at a good pace, and there is an inevitable sense of growing chaos. There is also everyday corruption, slipping and sliding through it all. “Street law rule every time,” says the street vendor who sells outside Faris’ shop. They are both “businessmen” and they both follow the street law, he asserts.
Where is the love? the jaded Faris asks. “Stop tief, cheat, lie!” cries Rosie.
Yet, it is not all gloom, and there is much to enjoy in the narrative. There are flashes of dry humour, especially in the banter between Rocksy and Malta. Much of the slightly dark comedy is visual, too (Rocksy looks faintly ridiculous in his hoodie and dark glasses while committing nefarious deeds after dark, and a mentally ill man waving a Jamaican flag, while tragi-comical, actually plays a critical role in the story).
There are also several intriguing, very short vignettes, barely connected to the main plot. Three long-legged prostitutes are defiantly sexy. A scene in a bar begins with an older man doing an extraordinary dance from the days of rock steady, which evolves into a series of dancehall excursions by Rocksy and Malta. A strange and disturbing scene involves a schoolboy on a dark street, who removes one of his sneakers, and laughs, his eyes bright as a streetlight catches them.
Then there are the sounds. When Rocksy and Rosie are having one of their frequent violent arguments, a dog yelps repeatedly outside. Most of the action takes place at night – a shot of Bustamante’s statue at North Parade in the afternoon sun almost makes you blink with its clean, white light – and the night sounds seem amplified. There is less traffic noise (downtown streets are quite empty at night) and more voices, some echoing in empty spaces, some muffled conversations. At times, the characters’ words are themselves muted, reduced to a whisper. There is always a dog barking, and always music. Footsteps. Voices distant and near.
I understand that “gritty” urban dramas with guns and dirt and lots of anger are all the rage. They have almost become a cliché. But suspend your doubts, please, with this film. I should let you know (without giving away the plot) that the last twenty minutes or so are gripping. The camera slides along at ground level at times, then over walls, into narrow spaces where children play.
Because Rocksy is breathing hard. He is running.
“Where we live? Where we live?” is Rocksy’s cry in a moment of despair. “She live nowhere!” he cries, over and over, at a point where Rosie appears to be leaving him.
But Southside is somewhere. And people do live there. It is this humanity, despite everything, that makes the film live and breathe.
Kingston Paradise stars Christopher “Johnny” Daley as Rocksy; Camille Small as Rosie; Greggory Nelson as Malta and Paul Shoucair as Faris.
The film will be streaming on two platforms this Friday: CaribbeanTales-TV and FLOW on Demand across the Caribbean.