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"Land of Look Behind," Alan Greenberg’s Love Letter to Jamaica, Is a Forgotten Cinema Masterpiece

The 1982 film is the de facto documentary on Bob Marley and his influence on an entire culture, even though Marley himself never appears in it.

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This article is part of MERRY JANE's Jamaica Week. For more on this special series of articles and videos, visit our Editor's Letter here.

When Bob Marley passed away in May of 1981, the world mourned the death of a reggae pioneer. In his short 36 years, Marley became the face of the genre, of Rastafarianism, and, in some ways, of Jamaica as a whole. His face embodied an entire cultural sensibility; for some, it seemed at times to belong to everyone but himself.  Yet that face — most infamously cocked to the left, dreadlocks cascading, eyes closed and mouth wide open in a show of joy, calm and chill — is entirely absent in the 1982 documentary Land Of Look Behind. It’s never seen, yet it’s everywhere.

When Marley died, his family turned to an unlikely source in their request for a film about the legendary artist: Alan Greenberg. Greenberg, who died in 2015, was an American filmmaker, writer, and photographer, best known by cinephiles for his book “Every Night the Tree Disappears: The Making of Heart Of Glass,” which chronicles the making of the 1976 Werner Herzog film of the same name. The book is considered by many to be the single greatest work ever written about the making of a film. It goes in depth on how Greenberg’s close friend and occasional collaborator Werner Herzog placed his cast under hypnosis during the making of the film in an effort to capture the fugue state of a village who comes in contact with a prophet.

Greenberg was chronicling the making of a masterpiece, but he might as well have considered it bootcamp. In Land of Look Behind, that same sense of divine hypnosis is everywhere; the people at the center still reeling from contact with a prophet. He intended to make a biographical film about Marley, but Land of Look Behind becomes something closer to a eulogy. It serves as a celebration of Marley’s legacy in the immediate aftermath of his death, but it is also a celebration of Jamaica as a physical and psychic space. The film is an oft-overlooked gem that scholars and Greenberg’s own contemporaries have highlighted as a triumph. Herzog commends the film for achieving things “never seen before in the history of cinema,” dipping into his infamous hyperbole. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch calls the film “near-perfect.” But it is also, in many ways, the de facto doc on Bob Marley and his influence on an entire culture. Land of Look Behind places him in the lineage of Rastafarians who came before him and who will undoubtedly come after.

The film’s first shot scans a map that reads “District known as the land of Look Behind,” before fading into a misty horizon and hills of deep green. It’s a transition fit for an old movie serial, a grainy superimposition of a new world coming from behind a map that in any other context would be a fantasy. Here, a man is cutting through pineapple husk with a machete, searching for one that bears fruit. Soon the opening credits roll as the camera glides through town roads, lingering on the faces of the film’s subjects. They’re standing in place, staring the camera down and standing still, almost defiant in the face of an outside perspective.

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It’s a strange opening, both for its surreal choreography — the people standing along the streets recall the final shot of Hitchcock’s The Birds, a moment in which territory is marked — and for the way it misidentifies the film’s tone. We’re given body language that reads as confrontational, but what makes Land of Look Behind such a startling work is the level of intimacy the people at its center afford the film.

Greenberg’s lens meanders, but it does so with permission. He aimed to make a film about Marley, but instead the film wanders through the contours of the Jamaican hillside with the hum of a tone poem. Marley’s funeral was what brought Greenberg to Jamaica in the first place; he had befriended Marley and his family through frequent trips to the country as a child, and here was tasked with making a film about the man himself. But Land of Look Behind is more profound when viewed as an examination of grief translated into celebration. The funeral doesn’t come until half-way through the film, by which point a host of Jamaican interviews have waxed philosophical on both Marley himself and the value system he best represented.  At one point, a man compares herb he is smoking to the incense lit inside a Catholic church, before engaging in his own sermon on advances in machinery like helicopters taking man above the Earth as a means of ruling.

Much like Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaaniskqatsi, Land Of Look Behind is an early iteration of the protest song as cinematic text — a screed against the developing world and moral deterioration. Where Reggio would go wordless in an attempt to let Philip Glass’s score set the tone — its repetitive orchestration always mimicking the feeling of passing time — here, reggae is a scripture for a better tomorrow, and its devout followers double as its pastors. The film’s final moment leaves us with a child sitting with his head against a wall, singing. “Bob Marley’s soul is dead,” he says, “and he left his song to me.”

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For many, Greenberg is something of a forgotten genius. Like a fine wine, time has been good to him; it’s unclear just how much his work would be lauded had he come about in this post-woke era, in which the optics of a white Jewish man painting a definitive portrait of Jamaica and Rastafarian culture would be a hiccup at the least. But the non-obtrusive hovering of his camera makes Land of Look Behind a gorgeous examination on what Marley left behind.

To the West, Marley was part of a larger musical movement in the 1970s, a moment which gave us Stevie Wonder and Donna Summer, connected the dot from disco to hip-hop, and saw Marvin Gaye transform from a Motown icon into a political voice during a period of upheaval. Marley fit tidily within the framework of budding Afrocentrism, embodying countercultural values and a more peace-minded approach to a decade of turmoil. But his death came during a moment of profound transition, the fissures of which trickled out past the Atlantic. In 1981, Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in a landslide victory that became a rallying cry for a new era of Western conservatives. But Reagan’s win wasn’t just a fissure for America. “We don’t get no house to sit and discuss our rights,” one subject says after launching a screed against the voodoo-implications of the phrase negro (“I am a black man of African descent, see!”) He goes on: “We’ve no house for discussing nothing. They have the White House. And a black man on all of the Earth don’t have a Black House.”

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More than once, the spectacle of Marley’s death reminded me of the public funeral held for John F.  Kennedy 18 years earlier. There, America mourned a man they had pinned a set of ideals onto. With him went hopes for a brighter future; optimism was, as is often the American way, tied to the doings of a single man. In Land of Look Behind, Marley is no less a statesman for a country and its self-image. In one moment, the haunting jubilation of the reggae soundtrack gives way to K. Leimer’s droney ambient score (which was re-released just this past February) — but this is about as close as the film ever gets to a kind of reckoning with Rastafarianism’s broader sense of optimism. The state of reggae is undoubtedly tied to the state of man, to the state of the planet. With a god gone, there is a sense that reorientation is necessary. But the tears are skipped in favor of something more meaningful.

Land of Look Behind is an extraordinary examination of how grief is processed across the world. Its scope manages to capture the breadth of a people in one fell swoop, like looking at an entire universe through the channel of a microscope. Greenberg isn’t a perfect journalist; his spotlighting of voices almost always opts for men, a potentially unconscious decision that is mirrored by global behavior the film itself lashes against. “They’ve been saying it’s a man’s world for years,” one of the film’s few female subjects says, “they want to kill the Mother, that’s why there are all these chemical drugs around. To stop the mother.” But the ways in which the film celebrates Marley’s life in the aftermath of his death manages to highlight both the artist’s impact and the country’s sensibility in one fell swoop.

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What Greenberg’s film manages to capture in Land of Look Behind is the spiritual center of the island nation itself, and by doing so, radically reshape our understanding of Marley’s work and his personhood, without ever once showing him on screen. When the funeral kicks off in the film’s second act, it feels like it could be a celebration honoring an important musical anniversary or perhaps even his hundredth birthday. At no point does it feel that the country had lost their king mere days before. Greenberg’s forgotten masterpiece is a love letter and an epilogue at once. There is no mourning Marley, no more than one mourns the living.

Follow Rod Bastanmehr on Twitter

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