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Haiti filmmakers struggle to keep cinema alive

The Caribbean country has been crossed off the list for film distribution for more than a decade

Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cisse (left), guest of honour of the second edition of the Festival Les Lumieres du Sud - Rencontres Cinematographiques de Jacmel (Southern Lights festival), in southern Haiti. AFP
Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cisse (left), guest of honour of the second edition of the Festival Les Lumieres du Sud - Rencontres Cinematographiques de Jacmel (Southern Lights festival), in southern Haiti. AFP

In the Haitian port city of Jacmel, watching a film is something of a labour of love.

At one recent seaside showing, the shadow of a palm tree fluttered in the corner of the screen and the crashing waves could be heard during the quieter parts of the movie.

But with no theatres to speak of in town, it was the best-case scenario – and better than nothing.

People set up for a film projection next to the beach as part of the Festival "Les Lumieres du Sud - Rencontres Cinematographiques de Jacmel" in Jacmel, southern Haiti, on January 10, 2019. In the Haitian port city of Jacmel, watching a film is something of a labor of love. Jacmel is hardly alone in its struggle to keep movies alive: due to the widespread availability of pirated films, Haiti has been crossed off the list for film distribution for more than a decade. / AFP / Pierre Michel JEAN
People set up for a film projection next to the beach in Jacmel, southern Haiti. AFP

The problem of piracy

Jacmel is hardly alone in its struggle to keep movies alive: due to the widespread availability of pirated films, Haiti has been crossed off the list for film distribution for more than a decade.

"Copies of major Hollywood studio films used to take three months to get here," explains Haitian director Richard Senecal.

"By then, television networks had time to pirate the films, broadcast them and even show re-runs. The film was dead on arrival in cinemas."

After that, Senecal recounts, "piracy reached the masses: Haitian films were available on DVDs in the streets before their official premieres."

Then came the devastating earthquake of January 2010.

A death knell for film houses

Most of the remaining theatres in the impoverished Caribbean country, concentrated in the capital Port-au-Prince, were destroyed.

Access to the basics – clean water and power – were not guaranteed, and films were an afterthought.

It was the death knell for any talk of revival of Haiti's film houses.

In 2015 there was a glimmer of hope when the storied Triomphe theatre-cinema, which had closed in 1987, reopened thanks to $7 million (Dh26 million) in aid from the state.

But that hope was quickly dashed when the country's directors found themselves refused after they asked to use the venue. Instead, only the occasional government conference has taken place at the Triomphe.

Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cisse (L), guest of honor of the second edition of the Festival "Les Lumieres du Sud - Rencontres Cinematographiques de Jacmel", answers students' questions after a screening at the local Dessaix-Baptiste music school in Jacmel, southern Haiti, on January 10, 2019. In the Haitian port city of Jacmel, watching a film is something of a labor of love. Jacmel is hardly alone in its struggle to keep movies alive: due to the widespread availability of pirated films, Haiti has been crossed off the list for film distribution for more than a decade. / AFP / Pierre Michel JEAN
Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cisse answers students' questions after a screening at the local Dessaix-Baptiste music school in Jacmel. AFP

'The industry needs to have standards'

Logistical difficulties have not discouraged those in the homegrown film industry, who wrack their brains to come up with creative places for screenings of both their work and foreign films.

One of those sites was the mega seaside screen in Jacmel, where director Guetty Felin staged the opening events for the Southern Lights festival, which this year was dedicated to African film.

"The lack of theatres is not the problem: the industry needs to have standards," says Felin. "We don't have a lot of money, but why remain mediocre?

"That is the challenge we are taking up with the Southern Lights event: screening quality films for people who are thirsty for cinema."

Felin may be onto something – several dozen chairs were set up for the festival's opening night in Jacmel, but the crowd far exceeded expectations, with many standing to watch the Zambian and Ivorian films on offer.

'One-day shoot'

Without government subsidies or any real system of private sponsorship, producing a film in Haiti is a painful, pricey experience that few complete.

Haitian filmmakers living abroad have more access to funding, but oddly, they are not part of the movement to revive cinema in their home country.

"A producer in Miami who wanted a film called me and said, 'Do what you want, I have $5,000, give me something I can put on DVD in three weeks'," Senecal said bitterly.

"That's a one-day shoot, and there are people willing to do it. Tasteless films like that flood the DVD market, and kill it for those of us who are more demanding in terms of quality."

Malian director Souleymane Cisse, the guest of honour at the festival in Jacmel, said he experienced similar funding dramas in his country, and came to Haiti to plead his case.

The deputy mayor of the municipality of Jacmel Marie Lourdie Cesar (L) hands the keys of the city to Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cisse, guest of honor of the second edition of the Festival "Les Lumieres du Sud - Rencontres Cinematographiques de Jacmel", in Jacmel, southern Haiti, on January 11, 2019. In the Haitian port city of Jacmel, watching a film is something of a labor of love. Jacmel is hardly alone in its struggle to keep movies alive: due to the widespread availability of pirated films, Haiti has been crossed off the list for film distribution for more than a decade. / AFP / Pierre Michel JEAN
The deputy mayor of the municipality of Jacmel Marie Lourdie Cesar (left) hands the keys of the city to Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cisse. AFP

"In Mali, when we pitched film ideas, embassies told us, 'No, we have other priorities.' But supporting culture helps countries develop," Cisse adds.

"When culture is cut off at the knees, you effectively keep countries in poverty," added the 78-year-old filmmaker, who screened his movie Yeelen (Brightness), which won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987.

The handful of Haitian filmmakers gathered in Jacmel, conscious of the dire situation their industry is in, refuse to throw in the towel and say they will keep fighting the good fight.

"You have to be a bit bonkers to take on a challenge like the one we are facing, but I don't have a choice," Felin admits. "The Southern Lights festival is my way of getting involved."

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Updated: January 14, 2019 03:08 PM

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