Ben Stiller, Jonathan Demme, Soledad O'Brien, and more gather to honor a Haitian film school
It’s been just three years since Julia Roberts smiled at the camera, phone to her ear, proudly accepting another donation for relief efforts following the earthquake in Haiti.
The disaster and the relief effort that followed feels far more remote, however, with our attention distracted by new causes and hope for Haiti overwhelmed by the enormity of the rebuild. But of course that rebuilding has continued, and continues today.
Amid the wreckage, a small group of Haitian film students from the Ciné Institute, the country’s only film school, were hunched over computers editing film they had shot of what was left of their home.
CNN’s Soledad O’Brien (pictured at left), was dispatched to cover the immediate aftermath of the disaster and ended up in Jacmel, the coastal city in southeast Haiti that’s home to the Ciné Institute. On Thursday night at the French Institute Alliance Française, she described what she saw in Jacmel and her discovery of the Institute for an event called “Haiti Optimiste,” a celebration of the film school and a screening its students’ films.
“I remember at one point not understanding how people can devote their lives to try to make change and I would say to them, how do you do it?” she said. “How do you commit to a place when it just seems to … maybe there is no answer here. And they would say ‘Well, it’s a starfish story.’ You know, the boy is walking along the beach and the tides gone out and there are all these starfish that have been left on the sand. He starts picking them up and chucking them back into the sea and a man comes up to him and says ‘What are you doing? It’s a complete waste of your time. The beach goes on for miles. There is no way you can pick up all the millions of starfish that are stranded.’ And the kid picks up the starfish and says ‘Well, I guess it matters to this one.’”
Ciné Institute students provided some of the first footage of Haiti following the earthquake. The group was founded a year before the disaster, meant to inspirit a creative class within Haiti. It took a hard turn after it. Founder David Belle (pictured at right) described to the audience how filmmaking can be as restorative to the country as any other aid; despite the vast number of things that need to be done to put the country back together, Haitians making movies about Haitians should be included among them.
“We are eternal optimists,” he said. “What we are about to see tonight is a sampling of student films. Not the polished work of veterans, but the work of eager hardworking youth. Youth that are so dedicated to their education and to learning this craft that many walk two hours a day to and from school, rain and shine. Most of them show up early and most of them leave late. This is a brand new language for them. They don’t have access to Internet in their homes. They don’t grow up with iPhones. They don’t grow up with cameras. Haiti, like anywhere, needs its artists and creative industries in order to survive and thrive. It also needs infrastructure and it needs institutions. Ciné Institute is that.”
The films were rough in a gentle way. Some had nothing to do with the earthquake—a love story or a comedy about how to make a movie—others were harrowingly based in the nation’s reality for the past three years.
Ben Stiller and director Jonathan Demme, benefactors to the institute, along with journalist Michèle Montas—widow of Jean Dominique, a vocal opponent of the Duvalier dictatorships who started an independently funded radio station in support of Haitian rights (chronicled in the film The Agronomist, directed by Demme)—held a discussion after the screenings.
“Ciné Institute proves that the ability to make films, to create cinema is something that’s in our DNA,” Demme said, “A big dream of Jean Dominique was a Haitian cinema. His thinking was that a place like Haiti deserves its own culture.”
Montas joked that when Demme first introduced the notion of Haitian film to her and Dominique, he wanted to produce a play about its history. “What history?” she wondered.
Even after the regime change, Haitian cinema was an international import—theaters played dubbed spaghetti westerns (“I Spit On Your Grave sort of thing,” Montas said), television stations broadcast telenovelas from Latin America. And that was when Haiti had theaters. Six or seven years ago, Montas said, it was far too dangerous to keep any of them operating, so they all shut down. With no theaters and rampant DVD pirating, distribution of anything that the students produce will continue to be a challenge for the institute. Employment of its alumni has been relegated to international aid organizations and the Institute itself.
But the Institute is still a massive generator of hope in the country.
“Digital cameras is to them what transistors were to Jean [Dominique],” Montas said, “it makes films more accessible for Haitians. It gives them a voice.”
In his introduction, Belle had announced that two students had made it to New York for the event.
“When they both heard about ‘Haiti Optimiste,’” Belle explained, “they wrote an email and said ‘Hey, we want to come!’ and I said, ‘Guys it’s a fundraiser, we’re not going to spend money on airfare.’”
“Then they said, ‘No, David, we’re going to buy our own tickets. We have jobs now.’”
All photos courtesy Ciné Institute.