‘Blackjack Christmas’ director did not fear working in Jamaica during pandemic
Film producer, director, actress and writer Victoria Rowell is an unofficial ambassador for Jamaica, promoting the island as a premier destination for film productions and writing workshops. Even in a global health crisis, she says, she is always advocating for the accessibility of the culture and the resources available for professionals in the film industry overseas.
“I continue to advocate for the country to be at the top of the list of locations for films and workshops. I love — and I have a rich connection to Jamaica,” Rowell told The Weekend Gleaner.
Having been raised in the United States foster care system, she was informed that her father was a Jamaican man, and one of her foster guardians, Barbara Sterling, was also born and raised in Kingston.
She shared, “Her daughter and I grew up together, studying classical ballet in Massachusetts. All that said, Jamaicans can be found everywhere, and it is natural for me to include it into my storytelling. I am one of many individuals who have half-siblings, and I am proud of that heritage. When persons ask me where I go to film there, I tell them exactly where.”
Over the past five years, Rowell has filmed several projects in Jamaica, including her comedic drama series, Rich and Ruthless. She recently wrapped her latest production on August 21, a movie titled Blackjack Christmas, which should be released this winter season, starring actresses Charmin Lee and Dawnn Lewis, best known for her role as Jaleesa Vinson-Taylor on the NBC television sitcom A Different World, as well as local legends, Oliver Samuels and Fae Ellington.
It is filmed entirely in Kingston and St Andrew, starting from the Norman Manley International Airport, to The Jamaica Pegasus hotel (which also served as lodging for cast and crew), in Tivoli Gardens and Red Hills and on public roadways such as Lady Musgrave Road.
“I have had a busy schedule during this COVID-19 pandemic; I am usually not out to make content first, but to cultivate jobs for people of colour — from the producing partners to the persons that cater our meals. It takes years to cultivate these relationships, and I am not a one-and-done producer; I am a long-distance runner who believes in the potential of locals and wants to cultivate a deep, long-lasting business relationship,” she said. “Of course, a lot has happened since 2016 when I did my soap opera here, but I am looking to once again engage Minister Edmund Bartlett and the Ministry of Tourism. We worked during a lockdown period, and I must salute the protocols of Prime Minister Andrew Holness because as bad as things are, Jamaica has all the assets in play that it can mitigate the virus, and I am already looking forward to my next return to Jamaica to do more business, [and] hoping we will have a private screening of the movie.”
Over 40 jobs were provided through the Blackjack Christmas film production. Rowell said, outside of the crew, she employed services of Mint Cleaners Virus Disinfection Sanitation, The LAB headed by Kimala Bennett and Steve Urchin Wilson as production partners, the first assistant director was Alex Moore, camera operator Gareth Cobran, costume designer Tamo Ennis, set director Rochelle Williams and Zarabelle Limited, all of whom, she described as “qualified to work anywhere in the world".
“I had no fears with incredible companies like Mint Cleaners that disinfected locations before and after we shot our scenes. Everyone’s professionalism and quality of work meets globally requested standards. I had eight speaking roles for Jamaican actors, and Zarabelle, as the casting director, delivered. I am also looking to license music from an upcoming recording talent by the name of Scantana, too,” Rowell explained.
According to Zarabelle Limited’s founder, Shawneil Bailey-Gordon, she was not expecting a call from the Emmy-nominated actress/film-maker to be part of the monumental production and that in the end, “it was fate".
“To be fair, since our first encounter, each time I saw her after was more like I’d run into her. The LAB is a client of mine, and usually, in the space, we often make [introductions] or see familiar faces and have great conversations. Victoria said how she even remembered what our company did, and even considered me, as she knew that she needed local casting and, one day, happened upon my number in her phone and that was that,” Bailey-Gordon told The Weekend Gleaner.
The talent casting agency managed all the virtual castings based on the criteria and descriptions provided, and she made the necessary calls.
Bailey-Gordon, unlike Rowell, had her own apprehensions working throughout the pandemic, but she is grateful to have accepted the challenge.
“It was scary, sort of stressful because so much staff — cast and crew — is depending on you. We had COVID-19 testing each time there was a set, and I practically managed the on-the-ground movements from arrival to managing where our teams needed to be,” she said.
“The movie is worth it; the storyline is about immigration, love and betrayal, and there is an authentic connection to Jamaica, stories of persons finding an opportunity to travel overseas, some leaving family behind and then reconnecting. I am looking forward to the screening to see the final product,” Bailey-Gordon continued.