Nathan Miller on his Dancehall doc God Bless You, My Son: "I knew a lot of the stories hadn't been told before."
David Knight - 1st Feb 2023
Nathan Miller’s new music documentary about Jamaican Dancehall dropped towards the end of 2022 and immediately caused a stir – just as his docs about the London and Toronto scenes did a few years ago.
We caught up with the Biscuit Filmworks director to find out more about God Bless You, My Son, and discover why he returned to the singular filmmaking style that made his name.
Nathan Miller has gone back to his roots with his new film, in more ways than one.
As a Londoner of Jamaican heritage, Miller has been familiar with Dancehall music for most of his life, and aware of how the dominant music genre in Jamaica has evolved over a generation. Last year he set out to document that evolution, by visiting the island, and meeting and filming some of the main players in both Dancehall and the emerging sub-genre of Trap Dancehall, exploring the relationship, and the tensions, between the two.
The resulting film is the vibrant God Bless You, My Son, a fifteen minute doc that acts as a fascinating primer on a form of music that has arguably been under-represented on film, certainly in terms of documentary. Miller’s filmmaking method, predominantly using audio-only voice-overs of the films's protagonists, while visually documenting general life in Jamaica, provides a layered portrait - both a broad-brush wide-angle view on the music, the people, culture, and the place itself, garnished with intriguing specific details.
It also marks a return to a style of filmmaking for which Miller originally became renowned a few years ago, when he made the documentaries LDN and North – films that explored local music scenes in London and Toronto respectively – in which he connected with a group of young musicians in both cities, and then filmed them mostly himself, lo-fi and guerrilla fashion.
Back then in the mid-10s, Miller was just setting out, a self-taught filmmaker who was aiming to convert his job as a doorman at the fashionable Ace Hotel in Shoreditch into becoming a full-time director. LDN was his way to put him on the map and then get employed by the hotel’s owners in a new role – making films at their other hotels around the world. And he succeeded.
“A lot of artists were on the cusp of breaking through,” says Miller, of the London music scene at the time. “Grime was so hot – Skepta was having a real moment – but I wanted to look at other artists who were really about to kill the game - artists like JHus and Fredo.” But he was not anticipating the reaction that the film received.
“The night before the film was released, I thought: 'If this film gets 20,000 views in its first month, I'll be happy.’ Then when it came out, on the first day it got 30,000 views. By day three, it was on 100,000, and by the end of the week, it was on 200,000. Then every publication under the sun that deals with music wrote about it.”
It led to him making North, where he focussed upon up-and-coming artists in the exciting hip-hop scene in Toronto, with similar success. That really did put him on the map, and since signing to Biscuit Filmworks in London in 2021, Miller has been developing both scripted and unscripted film projects through the production company. Last year he also made his debut music video, shooting the promo for jazz outfit Ezra Collective’s Life Goes On in London and Zambian capital Lusaka.
I feel at home working with musicians and entertainers.
Promonews spoke to Miller just before Christmas last year, and discovered that God Bless You, My Son was very much a personal project. It was labour of love that allowed him to get back to the familiar territory of self-shooting, while taking on a typically ambitious subject in a world where he feels comfortable.
PROMONEWS: How does this relate to previous documentaries that you have made, such as LDN and North?
NATHAN MILLER: It relates to the previous work by just following the tried and tested method that got me into this space and I guess broke me out as a director. That method is: Just me, minimal resources, going with a camera and just putting your faith in a bunch of strangers to help you tell a story that you think might be great for the world to see. And try not to mess it up.
I also feel at home working with musicians and entertainers. But in terms of it being more like a series, the only thing that really brings them together, is the execution of it and the curiosity to just go and go off and make them.
Once again there is a juxtaposition there in that you are one guy, but the story that you want to tell is a big one. Why take on such an ambitious project.
When I first got started, I used to want to pitch these ideas to companies. Whenever I tell people the ambitions of the film, usually they become too sensible. They think I’ll need a lot of money and resources. Or it just doesn't make sense to them.
But when I wasn't getting the right reception, it just kind of fell back on me to make it myself. I wasn't going to be deterred. And that's why I tend to work alone.
So how did this project, God Bless You My Son, come about?
There were a bunch of factors that helped inspire the making of this film and made me just want to go off to Jamaica and make it. I was a little frustrated with having a number of projects in production at all different stages. As you know, the bigger the project or the more people involved with it, the harder it becomes to progress, or manoeuvre. When you're a one man band, it's like rowing a rowboat, so it's easy to turn it around.
The second factor was just being a fan of the music. Coming from a Jamaican family, and being up to date with what's going on in Jamaica, I knew there was stuff coming out of Jamaica from a whole group of really exciting musicians. Surprisingly, a lot of their stories haven't been told before at all.
It was my first time in Jamaica as an adult, exploring and experiencing the island.
And I guess the third thing that made me want to go off and do it was for one of my uncles, Gaston Miller, who unfortunately passed away in 2021. I think the last conversation we had was at a family barbecue, and he asked me how the filmmaking was going. He said that I should make sure to keep on doing them, to do my own thing. Shortly after that, he became ill and unfortunately passed away. So this was a way to remember him.
It let me do something that I haven't done in a long time - because the last time I did something like this was in 2017. But that's what really got me on my way to go and make it.
Do you know Jamaica well? What did you know that you wanted to do before you left/arrived?
I had only been there once before – to attend a funeral when I was 17. So this was actually the first time in Jamaica as an adult – I’m 28 now – and very much my first time exploring and experiencing the island.
When I have an idea that I think is good, I usually obsess about it and then I break it down. Who do I need to put into this film to make the film that I want to tell? The funny thing is, because I'm not pitching to anyone. I don't need to make a treatment. So the first step is just sending the first initial emails to people who are wanting to be in it.
If nobody responded, if nobody got back to me, the idea might have just died there and then. But I sent out a couple of emails on one evening in 2021, went to sleep, and I woke up to three emails of three musicians who I really wanted to be in the film: a guy named Governor, an artist named Squash, and another artist called Jashie.
Ultimately, only one of them ended up being in the film. But sometimes that doesn't matter, because once you get those initial confirmations, you can then leverage those confirmations in your follow up emails to other people. Beyond that, this film came together through just knowing people. I know that person. Then that person connecting me with that other person, and so on. Most of the conversations I had on email were usually followed by them sending through their number and saying: call me. That really helped.
I had to scale it back... but it acts as a great introduction to the current scene in Jamaica.
How much of a plan - and a script - did you have before you started?
I knew how I wanted the film to play out in entirety, from start to finish. But I don't tell people, just in case that it doesn't happen!
I knew exactly what song I wanted to start with. I knew what songs I wanted to have in the middle. I knew what stories I wanted to get. And funnily enough, this film couldn't be further from what I wanted. In many ways, this film is like 30% of what it should have been. But that's because subjects I wanted couldn't make it - there were a couple of no-shows. It was really meant to be a 45 to 60 minutes doc, but I had to scale it back and make the best of what I had.
Having said that, I think it acts as a great introduction to the current scene in Jamaica. And I think there's so much room and scope to do something bigger. And it's been getting a great reception too.
Your visual canvas appears to be the whole of Jamaica, with its incredible beauty and character…
I was out there with my friend Anthony Williams, who also helped me shoot the LDN documentary, and who I gave a co-directing credit on this. Anthony was on B camera, and we had two friends from Jamaica working on this: Carl, who subsequently became the driver, and Sator, who's a photographer.
When there wasn’t anything in the calendar we would be capturing the B-roll, sticking the camera on a tripod and capturing shots of the island. Because once you leave, you can't come back and get it. So we’d do an hour and a half of filming, just capturing loads of details within the place, trying all the shots that you need to get. And yeah, in Jamaica, there’s just so much great stuff to shoot: the hills, the countryside, the beaches, and the city life.
Having people in the shots wasn’t a problem. I would just be filming on the street, and usually not making a particular person the subject. But if they were the subject, I'd let them know and they'd be like, ‘yeah, that's fine.’
What camera did you shoot the film on?
I was shooting on a Canon C70 – a great camera. It's very compact, great for documentaries. And I think when you're doing the one man band thing, you don't want to have a big camera. You don't want to be too distracted from the moments. You kind of want to be in the zone, but not take away from what's actually happening, and not be the distraction. You just want to capture things.
With a bigger budget, you can get drone stuff, Steadicam stuff. But the bare minimum I'd need to tell a story like this is a tripod, a camera and a mic – that’s it. We actually brought a light too, to light the interviews that we didn’t end up using on screen. So it was a bloody waste of time lugging that thing around!
What about the night footage – no additional lights for that?
No. The thing about documentaries is that they are quite forgiving if you want to bump up the ISO and it gets a bit grainy or anything.
Often you don't know what you're walking into, you don't know where you're going. So it really becomes an important decision, about whether or not you want to carry around this heavy light? But for both comfort and safety, on those run-and-gun projects, I just think the best thing is just to keep it as small as you can.
Much of the story about the music is delivered via voice-over. How did you go for that approach?
That was a compromise. The initial plan of the film was to dive into some individual stories within the music world. And there were people in the film who had individual stories, but I just needed more time with them. But to do a well-rounded portrait, it would probably need going back to do more than one interview, to have enough B-roll of them in their own environment, have footage of them performing on stage.
Rather than focus on that and it become something that you might notice, I just thought to blank it all with just the story of what you're seeing, and just let the voices be quite anonymous, just talking about the scene collectively rather than individuals telling their story. You do have some people who shed a bit of light onto who they are. But really, it's about the scene as a whole and their experiences of growing up in Jamaica.
Did you arrive at that decision during the editing stage?
Yes. There was a 35 minute edit of the film. That took me a while to do, and then I took a break from it. I think when you're constantly editing something, you can tell yourself it's good. The best thing to do is just walk away, leave it for a week, go do something else. That’s what I did.
When I came back to it, I had a different view of it. It was okay, but it didn't have the fingerprint that I like to have on my films. So at that point I decided to scale it back. Just use the very best bits that captured a credit story out of that. It wasn't a U turn, but we definitely had to make a detour in how this story is told.
Having released God Bless You, My Son, what’s the plan for the coming year?
Firstly, it’s just to refine my storytelling skills. With storytelling and documentaries, I'd like to say that I'm here – but with storytelling and scripted, I'm not here yet. It’s a matter of bringing this up, because ultimately what I want to do is make films.
We'll also see what happens with this Jamaica film. It’s had a lot of attention. Comment section is full of people saying ‘part two, part two, part two’. But I would really love to tell the story that I initially planned, and I think that could potentially be a project of 2023.
And I'd love to do a commercial. We came very close to a few last year. Didn't land them, but I'm very optimistic. It's all about timing.
• Nathan Miller is represented by Biscuit Filmworks. Watch more of his work here.
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