Sent back to a home they never knew

Filmmakers hitch drama about Jamaican deportees to fight against Bill C-43
When a trip to Jamaica is no vacation
Entertainment One

The idea was sparked by a newspaper story about a young man who was gunned down in Kingston, Jamaica. Toronto film producer Jennifer Holness—sitting at the kitchen table with her husband, director Sudz Sutherland—was shocked. She knew the victim. They hung out back in junior high in Toronto, before he got in trouble with the law and was deported to Jamaica, a country he hadn’t seen since emigrating as a small child. For Holness and Sutherland, the news hit close to home. Both are children of Jamaican immigrants: she came to Canada at 7 and he was born here. Now, six years after reading that story, they have dramatized the plight of Jamaican deportees in a powerful new film.

Set almost entirely in Jamaica (but shot largely in Trinidad to take advantage of tax credits), Home Again is infused with the reggae rhythms, rude-boy dialects and flamboyant atmosphere of the Kingston ghetto—a story of migrant limbo that owes more to The Harder They Come than to Goin’ Down the Road. It’s a tale of three characters who left Jamaica as children and find themselves exiled to a strange land, where they are brutally unwelcome. Marva (Tatyana Ali), a young mother from Canada, convicted as an unwitting drug mule, is forced to leave her children behind and finds refuge with an uncle who rapes her; Dunston (Lyriq Bent), a New York drug dealer, is drafted into a Kingston gang tougher than the one he left; and Everton (Stephan James), a private school boy from England deported for pot possession, becomes a homeless crack addict.

The characters are composites drawn from exhaustive research by the filmmakers, who travelled to Kingston and interviewed some 40 deportees. “We went to rehab programs and told the managers we were looking for people who had left Jamaica as young children,” says Sutherland, who recruited some of his subjects in an open-air drug market, after buying off one of the local dons. “The dude couldn’t have been more than 20,” recalls Holness. A native of Montego Bay, the producer had never set foot in Kingston and her relatives advised her not to. Travelling with two children, aged 3 and 4, she found it a harrowing experience. One night in their Kingston hotel they were awoken by gunfire and a man screaming, “Help! Me shot!” He cried out for hours before police came.

The filmmakers have hitched their drama to a petition against the Conservative government’s imminent changes to Bill C-43, or the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act. It would allow deportation—without appeal to the Immigration and Refugee Board—of any non-Canadian citizen convicted of a crime and sentenced to six months or more. The legislation toughens a law that sets the limit at two years, which saw the courts shaving off prison terms to spare convicted criminals from automatic exile.

While proponents of the legislation say it stops dangerous felons from finding shelter in Canada, Sutherland feels it goes too far. “I’m not in favour of violent offenders coming here at 21 and living off the system,” he says. “But there’s a huge grey area—people who come here as children and don’t get citizenship for whatever reason. I went to high school with guys who are criminals. It’s the path they took. I’m not trying to excuse it, but it’s just a job. Deporting them with no support is almost like a death sentence.”

In Jamaica, a country with the world’s fourth-highest murder rate, deportees are a caste of untouchables, Holness explains. “Mobs will form and beat you up regardless of what you’ve done. There’s a sense that you’ve gone abroad, squandered your opportunities, and now you’re trying to take resources away from Jamaicans.”

Aiming for what Holness calls “a bombardment of senses and colours,” the filmmakers created a distinctly Jamaican style of gangster movie—raw, kinetic and operatic. Even the English subtitles for the patois are animated, gliding in and out at playful angles. In Jamaica, where audiences like to talk to the screen, they won’t be needed. But that’s where Home Again might resonate most deeply.