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Old Time Movie Going in Cap-Haitien

Posted: Sun Dec 05, 2004 7:44 pm
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The Movies of My Youth
by Guy Antoine

As I was growing up in "Cap Haitien" during the 1960's, movie going was a communal experience of extraordinary proportions. The movies offered the only form of entertainment that was accessible to most and that the entire community enjoyed and talked about all week long, children and adults alike, and seemingly with the participation of most social and economic sectors of the city's population, richer and poorer, small and large business owners, all sorts of wage earners, elementary and secondary grade students, members of the clergy (when suitable), etc, etc.

It was not at all like going to the movies in the U.S. At that time, we all saw the same movies (2 to 4 per weekend) and everyone was qualified to be Siskel or Ebert. From Sunday to Thursday, movies were mostly for the well to d
o, costing 1 or 2 Gdes ( 20 to 40 American cents, at the time) per movie. But the weekends! The theaters in the city ( two, most of the time, but eventually 3 or 4 owned by two principal and competitive owners: Anacreon and Ascencio) offered sweetheart deals on Fridays and Saturdays: everyone would get a package deal of 2 movies, showing one immediately after the other, for the popularly affordable price of 50 Haitian cents (or an American dime). All movie theaters were crowded on weekends.

The types of movies that we enjoyed:
  • Swashbuckling moviesIn this category, nobody was bigger than the just deceased (11/9/1998) Jean Marais. He was our Errol Flynn. He was "Le Bossu" ("The Hunchback"), probably the most sensational movie of that type, or the one that captivated ALL of HAITI, it would seem. He was "Le Capitan". He was the straight face to popular comedic sidekicks like Bourvil and Louis de Funes. But most of all, he was our HERO, the one who fired
    up our imaginations, and whose lines we could memorize and recite by heart in whatever occasion: "Si tu ne viens pas a Lagardere, Lagardere ira a toi!". We could all whistle the airs from his movies. In fact, in my generation, everyone whistled, and I continue to do so to this day. In America, I often startle people who ask me: "What are you so happy about?" What can I say...You had to be there to understand!

    The showing of Le Bossu was an extraordinary event in the annals of movie-going in Cap Haitien, and other Haitian cities as I have been told. In general, the theaters would show two movies starting at 5:00pm, and then again at 9:00pm. However, there were SO MANY PEOPLE lining up to see "Le Bossu" that Mr. Anacreon had to change the schedule. He showed this movie uniquely at 5:00pm, 7:00pm, 9:00pm, 11:00pm, and finally at 1:00am! Totally unheard of! Outrageous!! From what I heard, every showing was sold out!

    Even the faithful lady vendor of sweets across from t
    he movie theater, who made a comfortable living from selling "dous let, sik mant, chiklet de pou kenz, dous pistach, other uniquely Haitian confections whose names escape me at this time, went to the movies "for the first time", and was excitedly talking about "Le Bossu" to everyone who would hear her for weeks afterwards.
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  • Cowboys movies (Spaghetti westerns)It did not matter at all that these movies were not faithful to the old American West. Who cares? As long as we had poker-faced heroism and bad mannerism from the likes of Lee Van Cliff, Clint Eastwood, and various other actors sporting Italian sounding names. The faster on the draw, the better. My personal all-time favorite was a movie called "LE DERNIER JOUR DE LA COLÈRE" (or was that LA COLÈRE DU DERNIER JOUR or LA DERNIÈRE COLÈRE DU JOUR or LE JOUR DE LA DERNIÈRE COLÈRE) These guys were faster on the draw than anybody you could ever imagine. Some of us secretly hoped that a few of those guys would come to Haiti a
    nd single-handedly wipe out our infamous thugs, the indigenous Tontons Macoutes (a precursor to the American occupation? Nah! If it were, our thugs would not have been so protected and found so many places to hide. When the day of reckoning came, there was no escape or asylum for the bad guys).

    The one movie of that genre that created a sensation of "Le Bossu" order was "DJANGO". Django was different... He was gruff, sported a cigar, and was a man of few words. This was fairly typical, but this actor managed to out-Lee Lee Van Cliff and out-Clint Clint Eastwood. Throughout the movie, and wherever he went, he pulled along a rope attached to a full size casket, leaving everyone to wonder what treasure he could be hiding inside. The secret was revealed at the end of the movie when, cornered and a multitude of enemies surrounding him, Django finally opened the casket and removed a machine gun. You can imagine the rest... The audience went absolutely WILD!
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  • Hercules movies<p align=jus
    tify>The big draws were Steve Reeves and Mark Forrest. For my American dimes, these guys were the best specimens mythology ever had to offer. I could go on talking about those movies, but I'll spare you...
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  • Romy Schneider moviesAmong them, the Sissi series: "Sissi, Sissi l' imperatrice, ..." Loved by both men and women, for probably different reasons. The assertion that "Romy was lovely" went unchallenged at the time, and probably ever since.
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  • Le Cauchemar de Dracula (The Nightmare of Dracula)This movie had a profound impact on movie-goers in Cap-Haitien, adults and children alike. It scared the bejesus out of us! It started a trend of scare movies, prominently among them the Dracula series, but pound for pound or bite for bite, none ever matched the collective effect of the Nightmare of Dracula. It was C-H-I-L-L-I-N-G. I remember going back to my home, alone, and to enter the house, I had to thread a long alley bordered with olean
    der trees. It was dark, and I was livid with fear, my heart racing. In the couple of minutes it took to get to the relative safety of my bedroom, I swear I must have signed myself with the sign of the Cross, to ward off the meandering and maleficent spirits of Dracula, at least a hundred times. At no other time in my life was I so intensely Christian as I was in those terrifying minutes.

    I did not have a nightmare, I had the biggest daymare you could imagine a young boy having. It was only a small consolation to find out in the following days that everyone in my house suffered a nightmarish dream about Dracula, even my INVINCIBLE father. To my surprise, I did not get one. But my own experience had been so intense, my fears so real, that a few days later I willingly went back to the theater to experience the sensation all over again.
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  • Les Dix Commandements (The Ten Commandments)Of course, this was not a genre, but as a movie, the impact was such that it deserves to
    occupy a category of its own. If there ever was a MUST SEE movie, that was IT! From its run in Port-au-Prince, we knew it was coming to Cap-Haitien. People saved for months to be able to go and see that movie. In first run at Eden Cine, the ticket prices were commensurate with the majesty of the movie: $1 (or 5 Gdes) for general audience (poulailler), $2 (10 Gdes) for privilege seats (places reservees). Though expensive, the movie was a big success, but progressively the theater owner acceded to populist wishes and lowered the prices, step by step. I first saw it for 2 Gdes (40 American cents). Later, I saw it again for 50 kob (or one American dime).

    There were other waves of popular movie genres ( Dracula, Martial Arts, Rodan, etc) but in my day, none matched the fervor and loyalty generated by the first three genres that I mentioned. Granted, these movies were directed mostly to boys of all ages, but the girls did not seem to mind. After all, they could secretly fantasize about those heroes of ours
    , in ways that we men never imagined. And there were a whole lot of romantic movies too, to satisfy the female population though I would forget them two days after seeing them (with exception for the "Sissi" series).

    In one of the Sissi movies, one of the leading actors greeted Sissi by saying "Ma Sissi!" (" My Sissi! "). Only Haitians would understand the loud but playful heckling that followed this simple phrase. A memorable moment! And the kissing noises that were made whenever two characters in a romantic movie seemed irresistibly drawn to each other... let alone those times when they shared more than just a kiss. Immature audiences (by some people's perspective, yes!) but what an unforgettable communal experience these movies provided. I went to the movies without parental supervision, by myself or with friends, every weekend, from the age of seven. My nephew started when he was only 5. It was a SAFE experience. It was a COMMUNITY experience. It was a GRANDIOSE experience. It was one of the many
    JOYS of LIVING in Haiti when I was young, one of those experiences that will keep me forever young. I hope that other generations have been and will be as lucky. [/*:m]
Copyright © 1998 Guy Antoine - Windows on Haiti