Doc film puts cultural importance of J’ouvert front and center

A green-faced J’ouvert reveler in a photo still from Philip J. Bell’s documentary, “J’ouvert.”
Philip J. Bell

The festival of the night is getting its big screen debut.

A new documentary is highlighting the spirit of J’Ouvert — the city’s annual pre-dawn festival celebrating Caribbean culture. In his short film “J’Ouvert,” director Philip J. Bell focuses on the beauty of the parade that he has always known to be a jubilant one, amidst the harsh criticism it has received recently, he said.

“I wanted to promote the positive aspect of J’Ouvert,” said Bell. “My main goal more than anything is to try to capture the beauty of it, and provide context for what it is.”

In the 15-minute film, he follows several J’Ouvert festivities in Brooklyn over the years, highlighting revelers, music, masqueraders, and most importantly, the history and origins of the event.

After being recommended go to one of the gatherings by a friend in 2009, Bell, who is not of Caribbean background went and fell in love with it.

”I had never heard of it and when I did go I was blown away by just the amazing artistry and overall beauty of it,” he said. “It’s visually a theatrical and artistic event, and I did not know anything about it or its historical and cultural significance before.”

He says the experience was thrilling and returned to several more with his camera because he realized that no information about it was readily available, and he wanted to eventually share key aspects of the festival with others.

“I started a lot of research on J’Ouvert and its history and wasn’t able to find much — it was difficult to find anything about the event and celebration,” said Bell.

Devil rising: Many of the costumes depict devils, or Jab Jab as they are more commonly known in Trinidad and other Caribbeans islands.
Philip J. Bell

When he would find a few academic papers and other informative researching, he was stunned to find that there was not enough with a focus on the culture in the city.

“I was amazed to see that no one had done anything about the Brooklyn J’Ouvert in particular, and I couldn’t find a visual documentary out there, so I decided to expand on that,” he said.

Bell went to the parade and shot his first hours of footage of the event, which are now also the first two minutes of the film.

Last year, a shooting incident claimed the lives of two young parade-goers, sparking controversial calls to put an end to the festivities. With considerable discussion focused on the violence surrounding the parade, Bell says it is not mentioned in the film, but adds that he wanted to include that to hone in on growth of policing.

“To be honest, I wish I had expanded to include lot of what’s happening,” he said. “The police have upped the intensity of the way they handle J’Ouvert, and every single year it has got more and more intense and aggressive, and in retrospect I wish I had delved into that.”

But now that the city and organizing officials of the event have pushed it back from 4 am to 6 am, he is happy that he got a chance to document the J’Ouvert he was originally introduced to almost seven years ago.

“J’ouvert is very specific to Caribbean people and their history — even though it originated in Trinidad and Tobago,” said Bell. “It’s not just celebration, it’s also very relevant and a vital part of not just Caribbean history but American history, and I wanted to provide this context and capture something I think is amazing. I’m happy I caught it before moving to daylight.”

The film “J’Ouvert” is available for viewing online at: vimeo.com/philipjbell/jouvert.

Into the night: The documentary highlights the historical origins of J’Ouvert and how it is celebrated in Brooklyn.
Philip J. Bell

Reach reporter Alexandra Simon at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at asimo[email protected]local.com.

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