This is a guest submission by Claire Smithson. Jonah is a short film that premiered at the most recent Sundance Film Festival about a small town which is transformed into a major tourist destination and the problems associated with that transformation. The film can presently be viewed online in its entirety.
Director: Kibwe Tavares
Excess and destruction seem to be the ongoing themes of conscientious fiction and film in recent years, ranging everywhere from totalitarian societies in series like The Hunger Games to consumerist culture, which becomes a living hell of disillusionment and chaos. Kibwe Tavares of Robots of Brixton fame explores the latter in his aesthetically dramatic short Jonah, an exploration of individual and social identity which undergoes devastating transformations under the onslaught of capitalism.
Visual poignancy is first and foremost in this Factory Fifteen and Film Four production, employing a series of techniques that switch from jarring first-person point of view to sweeping long-shots of a land which has been ravaged by riches. Blinding illuminations ascend into the skyline of a once peaceful and pristine landscape, threatening to topple the frail structures and foundations they reside on – an instant allusion to the statement that capitalistic excess has little substance to effectively sustain a society. The speed and seemingly “organic” metamorphosis from a quiet seaside town into a gaudy tourist mecca emphasize the rapidity and ease with which greed and consumerist culture can completely take over a society like a monstrous entity, and the director’s manipulation of the camera and how it pans through once happy side streets as they are turned into neon franchised sleaze-holes is deeply distressing. Tavares executes each scene with precision and bewilderment, careful to capture the shifting emotions of both town and people as they grow sick and exhausted from their deteriorating society. This plague is also echoed in the “originator” of this sickness, the mythological jumping fish, whose once vibrantly-colored exterior is smothered with hooks and tires and other tokens of destructive waste culture.
Loss of Identity
What is particularly striking is the sense of identity and its importance on both personal and public scales. The buoyant and happy exchanges between the two friends at the beginning of the film, laughing and casually taking photos from a stolen camera reveal a fascination with how they perceive one another, which is instantly changed with the emergence of the almost Biblical jumping fish which will come to define the protagonist and his home, initially fulfilling his desire to turn the sleepy village into an exciting metropolis with “Buckingham Palaces and Taj Mahals.” He rises into an iconic celebrity figure, hailed as the “Fish Man” who revels in the excess of brightly-lit bars and strip joints while his friend gradually grows distant and casts one last lost look before disappearing entirely.
As life continues to crumble, so does the stamina of the tourist industry itself – and the very excesses which once made it a flourishing hub of activity are now intimately tied to its demise and a faux sense of escape and healing. Bearing with it a strong post-colonial tone, destructive influences of fetishized sex, misogyny and alcohol lead to further misery and oppression as the culture turns into a binge-drinking hell hole, reflective of the poverty and mental/social disruption it plays, particularly in African nations. There is no redemption or way out which can offer empowerment and healing, and sex, drugs, or alcohol addiction recovery is non-existent – rather than intervention, or even a bold revelation, the immediate world is forced to stretch itself out to exhaustion and collapses in on itself. Decaying signs like “Fishbucks Coffee” and the ominous “Coming Soon” banner which raggedly hangs below a silhouette of the half-constructed “Raj Mahal” signifies a land of forgotten dreams which have rotted away into oblivion, mere shadows of their former idealistic glory. This is now a sordid place which has lost its true identity through the mass consumerist rush, whose citizens are left without a name in the shadows of a town whose capitalistic identity made it known world-wide.
Return to Origins
The protagonist’s identity in turn is distorted, and left a withered old man just like the landscape he has so dramatically transformed. His pursuit of the jumping fish resembles a lack of responsibility, a vengeful attempt at redemption and a bitter disposition towards his fate as the man who gained everything and lost it. His chaotic struggle and the rewinding of time which lead right into the ending credits suggest not a return to origins, but serve as a reminder of what has been lost in the name of greed and excess. William Blake once suggested that “The Path of Excess leads to the Tower of Wisdom”, but there is no tower – physical or symbolic – to restore the lost identity and appreciation for the simpler values of life, only a sorrowful diminishing of what was. Visually stunning and metaphorically sublime, Jonah is the modern myth which encapsulates the perfect cautionary tale, and resonates a changing tide which continues to sicken the world both on and off-screen.