The Power of (Haitian) Cinema : FFFJ Continues to Expand

By Bryan Schaaf on Saturday, August 16, 2008.

We've written about the Jacmel Film Festival and the efforts of the Foundation Festival Film Jacmel (FFFJ) to train a new generation of Haitian film-makers.  Through the medium of film, FFFJ continues to tap the creativity and energy of Haitian culture to engage youth, build partnerships with other countries, and lay the groundwork for producing local content for use nationally and abroad.  It would be impossible to understand Haiti without knowing its music, art, and dance - perhaps someday we'll say the same about Haitian cinema.  



I was interested to learn that FEMI (Guadeloupe International Film Festival) asked FFFJ to lead a delegation of Haitian professionals to participate in a two-day conference on the creation of a Caribbean Market on Film and Television.  Participants from throughout the Caribbean discussed the importance of growing their national film industries, challenges for growth, opportunities for trade, and potential source of revenue.  Some countries such as Cuba have a long cinematic tradition.  Haiti does not, but there is potential.  Major challenges for Haiti however include a lack of governmental protection against privacy, a near absence of movie theaters, few televisions, and a hesitance to invest as a result of unrest. 



Revenue from the production of movies can be significant.  Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Dominique have all benefiited.  As a result of a "Pirates of the Carribean" sequel shot in Dominique, $18 million was injected into the economy and 3% of locals were involved in the production. Since then, the government has created a film commission bureau and launched a major campaign for generating economic revenues through film.  Sadly, many films in which a portion of the story takes place in Haiti (such as Miami Vice) are shot elsewhere.





Participants discussed the importance of creating content for local TV channels.  This content can be used to promote cultural values and pride as opposed to being bombarded with images, many of them violent, from American films.  Imagine for a moment never seeing a film in your first language.  FFFJ is dubbing films from neighbor islands as it dubs foreign movies in Creole for Haitian viewers.  CARICOM offered to facilitate a lobbying campaign towards governments of member countries for stronger support of cultural industries (in particular, audiovisual productions, trade fairs and festivals).


FFFJ also participated in a major fundraiser, organized by Hedge Against Poverty. The proceeds has helped FFFJ to establish Sine Lekol, a facility offering year round educational screenings, technical training and production support for aspiring local filmmakers. Located in the Concord Cine Complex of Jacmel, FFFJ’s renovated theater serves as screening room during the Film Festival and for other occasional showings, but will accommodate long-term projects.  FFFJ is collaborating with the Haitian Ministry of Education to provide students from the National Schools of Jacmel, with monthly educational screenings relevant to their current curriculums.  In addition to the ongoing workshop, a cinema club will screen films three nights a week selected upon recommendations of our guest instructors.


FFFJ continues to add to the Jacmel Journals, a regularly updated collection of multimedia shorts produced by FFFJ students about Haitian subjects.  The updates lists some of the shorts that are available on the site which include Pumpkin Soup, Cockfighting, The High Cost of Living, Motorcycle Traffic in Jacmel, Holiday in Haiti – 2008 (Christmas in rural Haiti), and Boat Traffic.  According to FFFJ, thei students are producing eight Jacmel Journals per month, each averaging 3-4 minutes.  These journals provide Haitian perspectives on Haitian issues and provide job training that will lead to larger projects.



FFFJ has also expanded their training program. 26 aspiring filmmakers have been picked from a pool of 150 applicants to take part in our 8 feature film training summer workshops.  Those who participate are immersed in the craft of filmmaking.  High profile guest instructors visit Jacmel to instruct on film production, directing, script writing, acting, sound-recording, cinematography and editing.  You can view online a schedule of the sessions and who will be instructing each.  This expansion was made possible by a $15,000 grant given by Cinereach Ltd.



FFFJ has also been working with Wyclef Jean.  While on a tour of Jacmel with staff from CBS/60 Minutes and a group of foreign investors, Wyclef Jean visited the FFFJ Creole Dubbing studio.  Part of his visit also featured an outdoor screening in Place du Canape Vert.  The film screened?  Kung Fu Hustle of course. This mobile cinema project is jointly implemented by FFFJ and Yéle Haiti in popular neighborhoods around the capital of Port-au-Prince.  To my knowledge, there is only one theater in Port au Prince and the cost is prohibitive for most.  These mobile cinemas provide an opportunity to expose the young, regardless of their income level, to film.



Finally, FFFJ has created the La Kay Awards to honor the best in Haitian cinemaitc achievments.  The presentation of the Lakay Awards will be nationally televised, which will raise the visibility of local productions and motivat as well as compensate local artists in the industry.  FFFJ noted that an international jury will administer the Lakay Awards in nine different categories.


Through film, FFFJ is able to give young Haitians a voice and to expose the world to positive aspects of Haitian culture, of which there are many, although one would not realize it from the coverage the country usually receives in the press.   There are many ways to get involved and we encourage you to visit the FFFJ website.  Also, you can click here here to receive FFFJ updates directly via email. 


Been thinking of going to Haiti for the first time?  Consider attending the next Jacmel Film Festival!


Haitian Brothers Make Film About Joy Amid Devastation

Washington Post
By Childs Walker
The earthquake robbed Huguens Jean and Clifford Muse of the ability to fulfill a final promise to their grandfather. Fly to Haiti, he told the brothers as cancer ate away his health, and carry my coffin, garbed in white. The color meant something. The old man wanted them to find joy, even in the sadness that accompanies death. But the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed 230,000 and leveled Port-au-Prince made it impossible for Jean and Muse, students at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, to return for their grandfather's funeral a month after the disaster. It did not, however, crush their desire to celebrate the man who had imbued in them a love of stories. They resolved to build a kite like the ones he had flown with them when they were boys in Port-au-Prince. That plan quickly expanded to include a trip to Haiti, during which they would film their journey and gather stories of Haitians coping with the aftermath of the quake. The product, an 82-minute documentary called "Lift Up," had its debut at the Haitian Embassy in Washington last month. Jean and Muse hope that, in its depiction of Haitians rejoicing despite the devastation dealt to their nation and their lives, the film evokes the spirit of their grandfather's request. "He told us that he wanted us to celebrate his life, to find the joy," said Jean, 29, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at UMBC. "I had no idea what that meant until we encountered these people in Haiti. These images of life continuing on, they were very moving."
Philip Knowlton, who co-directed the film, said he'll never forget the smiles on the brothers' faces as they flew the memorial kite for their grandfather at a festival in Washington. "They didn't fulfill their promise the way they said they would," said Knowlton, who met Jean when they co-captained the track team at UMBC. "But the way the whole journey happened, they made up for it. It was really an amazing experience to be a part of." the plan came together in true seat-of-the-pants fashion. Less than a month elapsed between Jean's first thoughts of the kite tribute and the brothers' return to their native city. They arrived in March with little idea of where or whom to film and with serious trepidation about whether people would talk. Some Haitians were tired of interlopers who arrived with cameras but none of the food, water or money needed so desperately by survivors. Many others, however, staggered Jean and Muse with their tales of resilience. There was the little boy who smiled brilliantly as he flew a kite adorned with messages of love for his mother, who had been killed in the earthquake. There was the woman who said she lived with new purpose after watching a building collapse on a man who had rushed in to save a trapped baby. There was the street festival where hundreds of children danced and sang songs of tribute about those who had perished. The brothers hope the film will introduce U.S. viewers to another side of Haiti, one that goes beyond the poverty, violence and suffering so often depicted in mass media. Growing up in Port-au-Prince, they saw the dark side of humanity but also reveled in warm households filled with extended family, days spent playing outside with packs of friends and a rich tradition of passing stories from one generation to the next. The brothers had different fathers and grew up in different households in Port-au-Prince.
Jean's father moved to the United States and worked as general sales manager at WIYY (FM 98) in Baltimore. In search of better education and more job opportunities, Jean joined him in 1996 and went to high school in Howard County. He was amazed at the things Americans took for granted - dependable running water, electricity that worked almost all the time. But at the same time, he missed the sense of community he felt in Haiti. Jean excelled in sports and academics and earned a track scholarship to UMBC, where he majored in electrical engineering. Muse, four years younger, had a rockier exit from Haiti. He finished high school in Haiti, where he earned top grades and starred in basketball. But when he began college in the neighboring Dominican Republic, he quickly learned how poorly the world thought of his homeland. "They treated us like we were crazy and dirty, like some sort of cave people," he said. "If they saw you in clean clothes, they would argue with you that you could not possibly be Haitian."
One day, Muse said, five men kidnapped him just because he was Haitian. They stole his money and clothes and threatened to shoot him. They let him go, but after he told the story to his brother, Jean insisted that Muse leave immediately. The brothers had sometimes gone years without seeing each other but had always remained close, exchanging letters in which they confided their dreams for the future. Jean helped Muse secure a student visa and moved him into his home. After boning up on his English, Muse enrolled at UMBC, where he is a senior majoring in information systems technology. He fell in love with a Baltimore girl he met in the campus library, and they are now married, with a home in Arbutus, Md., and a 9-month-old son, Jude. Jean, meanwhile, lives in Bowie and is working on technology that would enable computers to mimic human vision. The brothers put their everyday lives on hold when news of the earthquake came. Unable to reach their families by phone, they passed frantic days calling each other to check for the smallest update. One of Jean's uncles called to say his side of the family was safe. Muse had to wait a week, with little else on his mind, before a cousin e-mailed to say that his side of the family was safe as well.
As the days crawled along, the seeds of the film began to grow in Jean's mind. He had long nursed an interest in filmmaking; it began when he made a 3-D short for a high school chemistry class and continued after he penned a fairy tale for French class at UMBC. With Haitian resilience inspiring the world, he saw a story he wanted to capture. But he lacked technical expertise, so he called his old friend, Knowlton, who works as a video editor in New York and made a documentary about cyclists fighting diabetes a few years ago. Knowlton, a Silver Spring native, was a little nervous because he knew Haiti only from news reports of devastation and violence. As the brothers got off the plane, they sensed that their home city had changed. "That smell that reminds me I'm in Haiti, it was different," Jean said. He walked through the rubble of a once-majestic cathedral where he used to wait for the bus to and from school. The national palace was similarly destroyed. "It would be like seeing the White House in pieces," Jean said. The earthquake had not destroyed people's spirits, however. Over five days, the filmmakers captured scene after scene of children playing and people smiling as they remembered lost loved ones. "I didn't see any of the negative things I had always heard about," Knowlton said. "I only saw people coming together."
Muse and Jean, meanwhile, went to the hillside where the country's master kite makers collect their wood and picked up the flexible sticks that would form the frame for their kite. They had only a few days to build it between their return flight and the kite festival in Washington on March 28. They decorated it with a compass, which their younger brother, Jimmy, said would help guide their grandfather to heaven. After a few attempts, the kite flew. Jean and Knowlton spent much of the year putting the film together on their home computers during their spare time. They nailed down the final version during a marathon editing week in New York last month. Some viewers wept at the initial screening. Several told Knowlton that the film, which cost about $6,000, was the first to capture the beauty in Haiti's response to the disaster. The trick now will be getting a wider audience to see the movie. Knowlton said he plans to pitch the film to television networks. The festival circuit is another possibility. "I don't even know how we made this film," Jean said. "We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into." "We wanted to inspire people," Muse added, "and to keep our promise."

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