The Third Jacmel Film Festival:
Bringing the World to Haiti
December 1, 2006
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Thousands assemble on Congo Plage to watch movies on a giant screen set up under the stars. ©2006 Kim Ives

The Third Jacmel Film Festival: Bringing the World to Haiti

by Kim Ives

Already, the southeastern sea-side city of Jacmel is considered the art capital of Haiti. Small shops selling giant paper-mache Carnival masks, traditional and avant-garde paintings, furniture, iron sculpture and wood carvings are sprinkled along the city's narrow streets. On porches and down alleys, one spies young men and women, painting, sanding, threading and gluing all manner of handicrafts, from kites and placemats to baskets and mobiles.

Nineteenth century stone and brick buildings predominate, with a few gingerbread mansions, their pastel colors gently scrubbed and faded by decades of Caribbean wind and sun. Ferns sprout from the walls and gutters of the elegant old coffee warehouses, whose tenants now include a bustling art school, a quaint hotel, and a small film production studio.

Enter the Jacmel Film Festival. Patrick Boucard, a scion of a prominent local bourgeois family, and David Belle; a North American expatriate filmmaker who moved to Jacmel a decade ago, conceived and launched the festival in 2004 as a one time event to celebrate Haiti's bicentennial. "It was never our intention to have an annual film festival," explained Belle, who is again acting as the Festival's executive director in this its third year. "We wanted to illustrate the history of cinema in Haiti: films made by Haitians or foreigners set in Haiti, and we programmed 85 films spanning 70 years."

During that bleak year when Haiti was gripped by another bloody coup d'état, the festival was a blast of oxygen and hope to Haiti's long suffering masses. Thousands turned out to watch films projected on a giant screen under the stars on the town wharf. Its spectacular success sealed the fate of its initiators. The population of Jacmel wanted the festival back, literally "by popular demand." And, in Haiti, some popular demands cannot be ignored.

The festival's third incarnation is more ambitious than ever. The line-up includes 92 films from 29 countries from Nov. 24 to Dec. 2, culminating in a Dec. 1 concert by hip-hop musician Wyclef Jean. (YeleHaiti, an NGO linked to Jean, is one of the principal sponsors of this year's festival.) Their slogan: "Come to Jacmel and discover the world."

The festival's formula for success is simple: 1) put Haiti's emerging cinema on display; 2) introduce cinema from around the world to Haitians, long confined to a diet of Hollywood and Kung Fu movies; and 3) make it completely free to the public.

Simple does not mean easy. Haiti's dilapidated infrastructure and dusty, humid climate are challenges to any equipment-intensive undertaking: DVDs freeze and skip, electricity is intermittent and surge-ridden, technicians are few and hard to come by. Finances are always a problem.

Long lines formed outside theatres like the Concorde, one of the five venues around Jacmel where films are screened ©2006 Kim Ives
Film-goers at the Acropolis, a former warehouse converted into a theatre. ©2006 Kim Ives
Furthermore, there are no movie theaters, strictly speaking, in Jacmel. "We actually create screening rooms by taking over buildings, bringing in our own equipment, and renting chairs," Belle explained. "We use a nightclub, a conference room, and a warehouse. This year we've added a fourth venue which is a private screening room at a fancy hotel that has been built outside of town."

The principle venue, however, is breezy Congo Plage (Congo Beach), where every night thousands gather to watch films projected on a 20 by 30 foot screen framed by swaying palm trees and a cloud-crowned moon.

Haitian feature films are, of course, the big favorite and the centerpiece of the beach showings. Richard Arens' "Chomeco," a buddy comedy about the misadventures of two unemployed men married to and living in the same house with two sisters, produced howls of laughter from a huge crowd on Saturday. Although hammy, the innate comic talent of its two protagonists, Nono and Cassagnol, played by Simon Innocent and Roberto Colas, make this film very promising.

The next night, some 15,000 people, nearly half of the town's 40,000 population, jammed onto the beach for Sacha Parisot's lushly produced "La Rebelle," a drama about a rich Haitian businessman trying to reconcile his unruly teenage daughter with his fiancée. Although the film and its bourgeois characters never stray from the landscaped confines of Haiti's super-rich, it boasts professional camera work, editing and a sophisticated plot twist or two which make it a new high-water mark for Haitian cinema.

Georges David Jiha's light-hearted comedy "Café au Lait" is of a similar vein, but set exclusively in Miami. Using the romance of a light-skinned lawyer and a dark-skinned medical intern, the film spoofs Haiti's racial myths with some serious jabs at tensions and prejudices in Haitian society.

Arnold Antonin's "Le President a-t-il le SIDA" (Does the President have AIDS?) features an emerging Hollywood actor Jimmy Jean-Louis as Dao, a brash charming lead singer — the president of compas — and his romance with the proud but penniless Nina, played by the talented actress Jessica Généus, who uses her rare beauty to raise support for herself and her mother. Paid for in large measure by the United Nations to educate Haitians about the danger of AIDS, the film also plums religious misconceptions and class dynamics.

"The Haitian section," which numbered 10 films this year, "is really exciting because, with digital technology, more and more films are being produced in Haiti," said Belle. "Production gets more and more each year, and better and better. There's really a new wave of Haitian cinema, a lot of it in Creole."

Belle has also set up a studio and sound room in Jacmel where foreign films are dubbed in Creole (subtitling was rejected given Haiti's high illiteracy rate). Now 35 people are engaged in dubbing films almost year round. "We look to dub films which are set in similar circumstances in similar countries, similar cultural and economic settings, that are sharing positive messages of people addressing their difficulties," Belle said. For example, the Festival's team dubbed Zack Niles and Banker White's "Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars," a moving documentary about six men from a refugee camp in Guinée who start a singing group to entertain and bring hope to fellow refugees hurt in and hiding from Sierra Leone's civil war.

Other documentaries dubbed include Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto's "Sisters In Law," about women fighting violent marital abuse in Cameroon, Ward Serrill's "Heart of the Game," about a women's basketball team in the U.S., Annette Olesen's "One to One," about the mysteries and interpersonal dramas surrounding the near-fatal beating of a youth in Copenhagen, and Thomas Allen Harris' "12 Disciples of Nelson Mandela," the portrait by a son of his father, who was a militant in the African National Congress.

The festival is now attracting the participation of internationally prominent cultural figures. A delegation from Cuba included Harold Gramatges, 88, Cuba's foremost composer and musical figure; renowned author and Cuba's former UNESCO ambassador Dr. Miguel Barnet Lanza; prominent filmmaker Lizette Vila Espina; painter, veteran journalist and former diplomat Victor Mirabal, 96, and his son Richard Mirabal, head of the Martha Jean-Claude Foundation; and Gema Suarez of the Association of Cuban Musicians, which is part of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC).

Legendary documentary filmmaker Al Maysles also attended, holding a press conference and a filmmaking workshop.

Haitian luminaries included novelist Edwidge Danticat, photographer Marc Baptiste, and Wyclef Jean.

"The festival is beginning to share a more positive image of Haiti with people around the world, beginning with the diaspora," Belle said. "It's had a tremendous impact on Jacmel. There's a sense of pride — Jacmel has always considered itself as Haiti's cultural capital — and this has reinforced that. "

Belle also points out that the Festival dramatically contributes to the city's tourism and employment. "All of the hotels are sold out, all of the restaurants are packed, and there are the jobs that are created throughout the year by the creole dubbing," Belle said. "Jacmelians have been taught audio mixing and recording and that's something that they'll be able to go on and use. We've also done intensive workshops with all of our projectionists. It's really paying off. All the screenings are running for the most part without problems, and they are running them completely independently. That's a huge, huge accomplishment.... It's inevitable and essential that there is collaboration from people around the world, otherwise it wouldn't be international. But as much as possible, the local team is becoming autonomous in terms of skills."

Belle wants to keep moving in this direction. Now that the festival has become an annual event — scheduled for the end of November, just before the Havana Festival, instead of in July as it was the first two years — Belle hopes to hand it off to others soon.

"It's my personal goal to be able to turn this over as soon as possible to local Jacmelians, so that they are running their own film festival," Belle said, which might be a challenge since "each year it seems to grow in popularity by at least 30% in terms of audience size."

Also the Festival is spreading to other parts of Haiti. "We spend so much time and energy on putting this thing together, it is a shame to only present it for one week in Jacmel," Belle said. "Why can't it be replicated and moved around to other parts of the country?"

"That is why we've started a partnership with the Alliance Française to use their network of centers around Haiti to get a traveling festival to other parts of the country. We're going in January to Port-au-Prince, and then in February to Les Cayes and Cap Ha tien. Simultaneously, we're creating study guides for the films which have been dubbed in Creole. The study guides will be distributed to schools in those towns through the Alliance Française system. While it's impact will not be tremendous — maybe a few hundred or a thousand people in each city — it's the beginning of us establishing the festival in other places, and I think it is inevitable that this aspect will start to grow."

In politically charged Haiti, Belle says that organizers have tried to make the Festival a "neutral space." Several pro-democracy documentaries sympathetic to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide were screened in past years, but also films supporting the coup d'état against Aristide's elected government in 2004. Last year as the coup dragged on, one particularly vitriolic anti-Aristide film — "GNB Kont Atila" — by Arnold Antonin, who is also a winless right-wing politician, received a typically Haitian reception during its evening big-screen debut on Haiti's wharf. The crowd erupted in loud, boisterous applause and cheering every time Aristide appeared on the screen, even though he was being demonized.

There is also something inherently subversive in many of the social issues being aired on the screens of Jacmel, a point which Belle recognizes. "In many of the films that we are showing, while they are not overtly political stories and portraits, there is a strong, but subtle, political message, which doesn't need any explanation," Belle said. "People are very very in tune with what truth and reality are. Sometimes that's all that needs to be presented."

For more information about the Festival, go to:

Kim Ives, until recently a writer and editor at Haïti Progrès, is now an independent investigative reporter and documentary filmmaker with a focus on Haiti.

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