The journey that No Place Like Home took to reach screens is worthy of a film in itself. Filmmaker Perry Henzell’s first feature, The Harder They Come, was also Jamaica’s first-ever feature in 1972. It made an international star of Jimmy Cliff and played a big part in bringing reggae music to the wider Western world. Despite the success of The Harder They Come — a montage-heavy evocation of Kingston’s grimy dog-eat-dog underworld disguised as a gangster flick — the film had yet to repay its investors. With barely a budget in place, Henzell started work on his follow-up No Place Like Home, a wildly different prospect. Where The Harder They Come had its genre underpinnings, No Place Like Home was intended as a more experimental, free-associative piece. Shooting stopped and started as money trickled in over the years, before finally being completed in 1981.
With the final reels in the can, Henzell flew to New York, where the completed sections of No Place Like Home had been stored, only to find it missing; instead, the film reels contained a porn movie, so says the filmmaker’s daughter Justine Henzell in a post-screening Q&A at the 2021 UK premiere during Cinema Rediscovered. Heartbroken, Henzell retreated to Jamaica and focused on writing. Decades later, the remaining film was found, but the director’s health was failing. A rough cut — with a few extra scenes shot for good measure — was rushed, completed and shown in Toronto in 2006, and then Henzell passed away before the film’s Jamaican homecoming. And yet still, No Place Like Home could not find a proper release, stuck in music licensing hell, courtesy of a rather glorious soundtrack featuring Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, Carly Simon and Etta James — artists with expensive licensing fees.
Somehow, all of these hurdles have been surmounted for No Place Like Home’s eventual UK theatrical release, and the final result is a glorious patchwork quilt. For a film completed in fits and starts over so many years (and which deployed a similarly free-flowing and improvisatory attitude to filming on-set), there’s a remarkable intellectual coherence to No Place Like Home. It’s a snapshot, a time capsule of a small country on the brink of tumultuous change, pointing to both the ravages of the future’s tourist-driven concreted neoliberalism and the potential positive exchanges that come from opening oneself up to a global, internationalist world. Henzell manages to capture this moment of change — what it would give and what it would take away — whilst also harking back to Jamaica’s rural past, its life a tropical idyll and the poverty/ colonial legacies imprinted on its landscape.
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No Place Like Home’s plot, or roughly what there is of it, simply centers on Carl (Carl Bradshaw), a local fixer working for an American film crew filming a shampoo commercial. After the shoot is over, a producer named Susan (Susan O’Meara) goes on a road trip with Carl to Negril, an out-of-the-way resort that is slowly being touristed-over, pushing locals out of business, and the two start a sort-of romance. The brilliance is in how Henzell and his collaborators use this as a starting point to wander here and there, prodding this way and that. The means of the film’s construction play into its hands, the patchwork, rough-hewn structure giving the feel of a travelogue, of a series of ideas coming into vision as the crew journey slowly from one end of the island to the end.
Shots of Jamaica’s beautiful beaches are intercut with Carl speaking to locals demanding to know why they’ve been forced away from selling their goods near the island’s lucrative hotels (none of which are run by any onscreen figures). Scenes of white Americans talking about giving away all their belongings are contrasted with images of the island’s majority Black population struggling to make a living and being brutalized by state and police forces, forcing them away to build ever-larger hotels. In the midst of it, Carl is not a wholly sympathetic figure, but rather a shaker and a mover, always looking for his angle and his dollar. Susan does not come off as squeaky-clean either; curious and fascinated by Jamaica the character may be, she’s still a mostly oblivious tourist, and No Place Like Home is perceptive about what her privileged presence does to the environment around her.
The clue is in the title — No Place Like Home is a film about what home is and what it means, but also about how capitalism finds a way to finagle its never-ending tentacles into every nook and cranny. Tourism inevitably kills off the very thing it purports to discover for the tourist. What starts as a marketing tactic to discover something new can quickly disintegrate into a parasite, draining local culture for all it’s worth, pushing local businesses further away whilst simultaneously bringing in ever-more low-paid service jobs to serve the rapacious tourist. There is no place like home, but after tomorrow there won’t even be a home to go to, because a tourist will have sat down there.
In between dialogue scenes, Henzell continually returns to montages of rural Jamaica set to the film’s exquisite soundtrack. No Place Like Home captures the two ever-present images of Jamaica in the Western world — reggae and tropical beaches — and flips them into reality. The iconography of Jamaica is returned to its contemporary moment, but by dint of the film’s odyssey to the screen, it becomes a Janus-faced document, looking simultaneously to the past and to the future. The presence of Bob Marley on the soundtrack — the most famous Jamaican by far, his message and meaning obliterated and flattened into a 2D icon over the years — is re-contextualized in his native land, as something that’s distinctly linked to a uniquely Jamaican context.
Both The Harder They Come and No Place Like Home have plenty in common with the Third Cinema and Cinema Novo happening concurrently at that time in Latin America, just across the waters. Hidden beneath The Harder They Come’s genre structure is a laser-focused film on how media, capital and enforced scarcity of goods combine to create inequality and the iconographic images of Robin Hood-type bandits. No Place Like Home is a further jump into the unknown, delving deeper into memory and the changing times. Henzell may have only made two features in his lifetime, but both films are unafraid to be unabashedly intellectual, with an experimental streak that far surpasses their low-budget beginnings.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.