Film Festival Jakmel brings to Haitians their own cinematic legacy -past and present
by Tequila Minsky (photos available)
The room darkens and before the main attractions a very short "trailer" film begins.
A lush green tree afar in a field, the sounds of cows and animals and a young boy straddles the trunk, climbing up, machete in hand, to harvest. He begins to chop and (surprise!) reels of film fall to the ground.
Next scene: the young boy and his mother gather the reels into large market baskets, then, carrying them on their heads, they fall into line with the other market women-- all with baskets of film atop their heads-and walk along a path to market.
The scene cuts to one market woman at her stall, surrounded by the film reels, hawking her wares: film.
Cut to an animated coffee grinder, sprocketed
film comes out. Written on the film spills the words: Festival Film Jakmel.
This is the intro to the screenings at Haiti's first Festival Film Jakmel (Jacmel Film Festival), an ambitious project which, in the works for a year, took place in Jacmel, July 9 to July 18, 2004.
Two hours from Port-au-Prince, Jacmel lies along Haiti's southern coast on a picturesque bay once a port of great significance exporting coffee and precious oils to the world. Jacmel's legacy as an intellectual and cultural center is almost a faded memory and today Jacmel finds itself struggling to preserve its heritage, struggling along with the rest of Haiti for survival.
This festival is an expanded and more ambitious project than its recent predecessor the Haiti-on-Screen Film Festival, spearheaded by NYU's Institute of African American Affairs, held in April 2004 in New York.
The vision and labors of the Jakmel Festival's co-directors, David Belle and Patrick Bouchard, with consultancy fro
m Guetty Felin (co-director of the Haiti-on- Screen Festival), produced an amazing selection of films.
The ten-day festival screened a vast array of Haiti-themed films never assembled before. Some were hard to find and were accessed from the Smithsonian archives. Films dealt with historical or social issues-documentaries and fiction. There were profiles of Haitian artists, writers, and poets. Screenings of popular cinema, Haitian fiction, Hollywood fiction, animation-as well as a selection of non-Haitian films focusing on globalization were part of the eighty-five film mix.
Appreciative audiences of locals from Jacmel, and film lovers from other parts of Haiti and the international arena filled the five indoor venues. A dedicated cadre of volunteers and supporters ran the festival which also included one outdoor space.
Some of the great joys were small actions. Outside of the Ecole Musique technical director Andrew Bigosinski encouraged passersby to watch the films. Two youn
g girls, one selling magi, soup bouillon, the other with a basket of bread finally, after much convincing, entered the screening room. Children, teenagers, adults were part of the audience to view the 3 films shown at this venue included director of FOKAL, one of the Festival's sponsors, Michelle Pierre Louis and others who came for the day from Port-au-Prince. Andrew slipped the girls playing hooky from the market some money before they left so they wouldn't "get it" from their mother.
The packed audience was delighted by a 13 minute innovative documentary film, L'Evangile du Cochon Creole, a montage of images and ideas by Michael Ange Quay, a Haitian-American, now living in Paris. "Conakry Kas" a documentary by the African director Manthia Diawara was screened, as was the feature film "Royal Bonbon" shot in Cap Haitien, Milot and San Souci palace by French filmmaker Charles Najman. Ange and Najman attended t
he festival and fielded question after the screening.
Open-air, nightly screenings starting at 7:00 pm filled the closed-to-traffic main street of Jacmel's business district, when residents watched on a giant screen three different films every night. A pick-up truck would drive through town in the afternoon and using a public address system announce to Jacmelians a reminder of the evening's screenings. For some it was the first time they saw a film. All the films in the six screening venues were free of charge.
Another joy and success was the outreach program, which brought a group from a different region near Jacmel each day to the Festival to attend that day's screenings. Transportation was subsidized. 20 youths traveled by bus from Cayes Jacmel and watched two films about AIDS followed by discussion.
Screened was "A Closer Walk" by Robert Bilheimer about the global impact of AIDS, and "La Vi Ka Bel Pou Tout Moun" (
Life Can Be Beautiful for Everyone) by Haitian filmmaker, Laurence Magloire: a film of testimonies of the stigma experienced by those trying to live a full life with HIV/AIDS. This film with English subtitles will be shown on PBS within the year.
One of its subjects, Linda Mathwin, a woman from Port-au-Prince living with AIDS, whose two children also have it, fielded questions from a very engaged and participatory audience.
Another day, a theatre group from a neighboring mountain village attended the festival. Former Peace Corps volunteer, and festival assistant coordinator, Drury MacKenzie initiated and organized the outreach program. As the festival proceeded, co-director David Belle was amazed by the feedback, "People are calling us to ask how they can help."
Bringing recent Haiti film festival experience to the mix curator-consultant Guetty Felin's pet project was the daily film workshops held after morning screenings at Jacmel's Alliance Francais.
"I didn't know if th
ere would be interest when I proposed to have a film workshop with a director everyday. This has turned out incredibly successful. The morning films are full and the attendees to the "atelier", film workshop, are very engaged."
These workshops covered various aspects of filmmaking: the director and his/her language, documentary, and the editing, sound, music, and analysis of a film.
Over 20 directors attended from France, Spain, and the U.S., delegations came from Jamaica and Cuba.
While the history of cinema in Haiti was the principle theme-78 films and videos spanning over 70 years by Haitians and foreigners were screened-the secondary theme was subject matter relevant to Haiti, but not necessarily set in the country.
Seven internationally acclaimed films covering AIDS. globalization, poverty, capitalism, migration and exile were presented in a special global selection.
Co-director, artist and Jacmelian, Patrick Bouchard formed the Fondation Sant D'A Jakmel (Jacmel
Center for Art) in 2003 with his South African-born artist wife Kate Cross. The art center is dedicated to providing education and economic development by encouraging culturally based initiatives. Film Festival Jakmel is one of its projects.
During the Festival, an art exhibit was mounted in the spacious gallery on the ground floor of the former coffee warehouse that is home to the Centre d'Art.
The Festival included concerts, book signings, an awards ceremony, a vodou ceremony, and other gatherings for visiting filmmakers and festival attendees. In all, thousands of film lovers attended during the 10-day run.
Glitches were a mere hiccup. There was the heat of July. Non the less, the effort of organizing a full schedule, bringing to Haiti the projection equipment, attracting the audience and having all the films start on time was heroic. Subsequently the Festival turned the heads of the business community which paid little attention during the planning phase.
"We also of
fer the world an opportunity to discover Haiti," the Festival's Mission states. "It is our hope that this exchange will allow Haitians to extend their horizons to other cultures and allow foreigners an opportunity to challenge their own understanding of Haiti."
As of 2005, the Festival Film Jakmel will become an international venue for films from around the world. The selection process has begun, and carries through to the submissions deadline of March 31, 2005.
Organizers hope to have the festival institutionalized by the Haitian government.
or Fondation Sant D'A Jakmel (FOSAJ),
5-7 Rue St. Anne, Jacmel, Haiti (509) 288-2071.
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