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Guetty Felin & ‘Ayiti Mon Amour’, Haiti’s Entry in the Foreign Language Oscar

Guetty Felin on the set of ‘Ayiti Mon Amour’, with Anisia Uzeyman
Women directed 25 of the 92 films in contention for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2018 (27%), those submitted by Afghanistan, Argentina, Armenia, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Croatia, Ecuador, Georgia, Haiti, Hungary, Iran, Laos, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, Palestine, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand. This is an all-time record. There are also six LGBTQ-related films, from Chile, Finland, France, Norway, South Africa and Taiwan.

Guetty Felin’s Ayiti Mon Amour is a magical-realist film that centres on a young man, Orphée, who mourns his father’s death in the 7.0 earthquake of 2010. It is Haiti’s very first submission for the Foreign Language Oscar and Guetty is the first Haitian-born female director ever to have shot a narrative feature entirely in Haiti. She’d earlier made a post-earthquake feature documentary called Broken Stones.

Here in AotearoaNZ, we live with regular earthquakes, and over the last few years some of them have been major. I was immediately drawn to Guetty’s work because of this shared experience and intrigued to know more.

I’ve learned — thank you, Guetty, for clarifying some of this info — that Haiti is 27,750 km squared, about a tenth the size of AotearoaNZ but, with 10,000,000 inhabitants, has double the population. The earthquake killed many people, with estimates ranging from 46,000 to 300,000 (the government’s numbers).

And, like AotearoaNZ, Haiti was colonised by Europeans. There were three native tribes on Haiti — the Tainos, the Arawak and the Caribs and when the Spanish colonised the island they brought African men and women there, put them in bondage and then sold the island to the French. The islanders went to war with the French in 1802 and won the last battle (the Battle of Vertières) on the night of November 17th through the 18th, in 1803. They proclaimed the Island independent on January 1st 1804. Haiti is the second free nation in the Americas after the United States: it is the first Black republic.

Ayiti Mon Amour is in Haitian Creole, French, English and Japanese, with English subtitles. ‘Ayiti’ is Taino for ‘Land of Mountains’.

Agnès Varda and Guetty
WW When you were at TIFF with Ayiti Mon Amour, you met Agnès Varda and she said to you– 'It’s important to make and continue to make films about these parts of the world because news is ephemeral and cinema is permanent'. Are your two post-earthquakes films, the documentary, Broken Stones, and now Ayiti Mon Amour both part of ‘something permanent’ for you?

GF I don’t know why I make the films I make they just come to me and do not leave me alone until I make them. For Broken Stones that cathedral sits in the center of the city in one of the hardest hit neighborhoods by the earthquake.

from Broken Stones

I was not too much concerned about whether it would be rebuilt or not, I just wanted to know how my compatriots were mitigating this disaster and the cathedral was a metaphor for the reconstruction of self. Before we can rebuild edifices we must reconstruct our psyche, 'build our own cathedrals', your self as cathedral, as a sacred and solid place. I think it’s Voltaire who speaks to this.

Ayiti Mon Amour as a project was written before Broken Stones. I did not want to make a documentary about the earthquake; I wanted to make a fiction about life after disaster. Kind of like what Rossellini did with Paisa on the heels of fascism and amidst the vestige of WWII. Both Broken Stones and Ayiti Mon Amour are a kind of social and political reaction to the way our existence and experiences get framed in mainstream media, totally without context. I wanted stories, not sound bites. I wanted that permanence that cinema offers. No one goes back to a news story, but they revisit a film many times.

I think each story pretty much dictates its form, structure and genre. I like to say I don’t make films with a set agenda but there’s always an underlying agenda. For Ayiti Mon Amour I just wanted to put Haiti in conversation with the outside world on her own terms. I wanted Haiti to steer the conversation for once. We are always subjects of the conversation but never leading the discourse. My film is not just about Haiti, it deals with universal themes and issues. Healing is a human thing, so is loving. Our concern about the environment is global.

What inspired both films is mainly the grace with which my compatriots were processing this disaster. I wanted to encapsulate that grace. I borrow from filmmakers but I am deeply inspired by my people, their humor, their beauty, their flaws, their defiance… Like I said earlier, subjects dictate form. And so do resources. I conceived the project a few months after the earthquake, it had a great deal of momentum and then other disasters happened and the world had moved on. We were no longer in vogue. Just because the world is not talking about us or we’re not trending on twitter it does not mean we are no longer relevant. Our lives are so much more than an internet feed.

Disenfranchised peoples all over the world struggle with this constantly. Black and brown lives and poor people’s lives just really do not matter. Anyway, I did not feel like waiting around to get permission to make the film. It was a small film without bankable actors, with black folks about an obscure place that no one cares about. No one writes a cheque for that sort of film.

I wanted to work with non-professional actors, not because of money because it was a choice. I knew I wanted to shoot mainly in natural light and I knew my film was going to be simple and yet complex in form. I did not need special effects… car crashes, I was going to use what was there at my disposal. So I streamlined the stories to fit within that financial and geographical environment.

Haitians are very spiritual people so I knew my film would have a spiritual aspect, the magic realism really comes from our folk tales, I was making a film in a place where people have beliefs that are a bit esoteric. You can find this magic realism in our literature. I also wanted to make a film that resembled the place as much as possible. I don’t purposely set out do anything.

Filmmaking became me. I loved cinema from the time I could have a conscious thought I think or at least the time I could reason. It feels organic to who I am. I am constantly playing with form and learning. I don’t like efficient films, they lack heart and soul to me, I like films where the borders between genre and structure are porous… That’s just what I am attracted to...

WW Whose work influenced you conceptually and visually? Julie Dash’s work, perhaps? Did Agnès Varda’s work along the borders of documentary and fiction influence you?

You mentioned two filmmakers who are quite important to me. I am not trying so much to emulate them but I know how I feel when I see their work. Julie’s Daughters of the Dust is one of those films that is so memorable to me that I even remember what I was wearing, who I was with and where we went to eat after the seeing the film. I had seen impressionist films before I just had never seen black people in them. There was something divine about that film.

Julie Dash and Guetty at TIFF 2016

Kiarostami is a filmmaker I revisit often whenever I want to do something a bit daring, like putting my actor in the crowd and letting things happen… like allowing for my actor to interact with a real life person, and not mind even if that person looks into the lens…

My documentaries are always very personal they are more essay films. I am physically in them at times, not in a navel gazing way, but it’s just me revealing my connection to and with the story. Varda reminds me to have fun with the process. We have an impression that she is always enjoying herself. There’s so much generosity in her work. I am not influenced by filmmakers, I am inspired by them, their process and struggle to bring their work to fruition. My first love is literature, I am more influenced by writers, but I do like to pay homage to filmmakers in my work.

WW How did film school in France affect your artistic choices? And the rich artistic heritage of Haiti?

GF We don’t learn how to tell stories in film school. We learn how to make films efficiently, we learn technical things, methodology…. I think if you are a sensitive and curious, observant person, you can be a pretty good storyteller and filmmaker. Most of us make films and tell stories not because we want to impart our views on the world, we do it because we are trying to understand the world we live in and trying to find how we fit in the equation.

I was always telling stories from the time I was little, I even got in trouble for my stories. The adults were strange to me. They did strange things, like oppress each other for no reason, they carried weapons, wore uniforms and dark sun glasses even at night…(referring to the goon squad in the Duvalier regime of my childhood). They (my parents) whispered whenever they were talking about a serious matter, they often wore these worried scowls on their faces and they sang songs and played music loved and laughed… all in one day… I think I learned much too early about the fragility, intensity and complexity of life. This environment informed my imagination and creative gaze.

I also learned the most from working on the films of others, watching films and talking to older filmmakers especially and to actors. I love to entertain, I love to cook. Even when I lived in a small apartment, my husband and I always had people over. We never changed our life style even after the birth of our first son, we continued to entertain. Our sons grew up in a household of frequent dinner parties and dance parties. I love big dinner tables. Sometimes we could be 15 or 20 at the table…Those conversations were never about the business of filmmaking, they were about cinema, they were about personal experiences and approaches to telling stories… we also talked about novels that we were reading at the time and then we would talk politics and if it got too depressing we would talk about cinema again.

I speak of this only in the past because I am in such a flux these days. I have been in transit for the last two-three years, between Haiti, San Francisco, Paris and now New York and also traveled with the film for about 18 months. I am pining for one of those dinner parties now…

WW Where does the Japanese language element come from?

GF Why not Japanese? I can eliminate our boundaries and cinema allows me the space to do so, so I take it, use it. It was my own subtle way of connecting our experience to that of Japan that suffered a huge tsunami just 13 months after our earthquake. The Japanese have always inspired me. Haiti after the earthquake evoked for me the images of Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think about the stories and the abundant art that followed the carnage, how Japanese film directors crafted beauty and poetry out of cruelty and restored the dignity of their people. Also, I am always trying to place Haiti in the larger global conversation.

WW When you finished Ayiti Mon Amour, did you see connections and themes that surprised you because they weren’t at the top of your mind?

GF No, not really. The film was scripted. However, I edited locally and let myself be inspired by some of the political current events that were going on at the time. I integrated some of those things into the story, like the student protest scene for example. But I had written that in the script too, I know there would be some protest of some form.

WW As I understand it from Shadow & Act, you made Ayiti Mon Amour out of a desire 'to make something out of nothing…the desire to no longer be waiting for approval, for funders, for bankable actors.' In practical terms, what did this courageous decision mean?

GF I raised $25,000 through crowdfunding. I invested some of my own funds and kept raising money as I was editing. I had a great deal of in-kind contributions, like my editing space and post-production…and raised more money towards the end. At the end the budget was nearly 10 times that amount.

Anisia Uzeyman and James Noel

WW Is your cast all Haitian?

GF There are only two professional actors in my cast. One is the most prolific Haitian poet alive today, James Noel. He has acted before. He was one of the leads in Patricia Benoit’s Stones in the Sun. The more seasoned actor is Anisia Uzeyman the only non-Haitian in my cast. She is Rwandan-born. She was last seen in Tey (Today) by Alain Gomis. The rest of the cast are local people except for the teenager who is my son, Joakim Cohen.

Joakim Cohen and Pascale Faublas

Jaures who plays the fisherman is a real fisherman his name is Jaures Andris and Odessa who is played by Judith Jeudy is the wife of another fisherman.

Judith Jeudy and Jaures Andris

WW What informed your choice of locations?

GF Just like everywhere else on our planet there is beauty and dreadfulness, Haiti is no different… The media always shows one side of our complex country that is so rich in history and culture… because of that, people have a very myopic view of the place and who they think we are.

Joakim Cohen and Jaures Andris
The bulk of the film takes place in a fishing village that I lived in for two years with my sons and my husband. We have a strong connection to the people there. They trust and accompanied us through the process, I could not have done it without their participation and total collaboration. They knew that I was not going to portray them in unflattering ways. I like the rhythm of life there, people breathe and walk at a different pace there. That was vital to me for shaping the aesthetics of my film.

WW Having Mira Nair as Executive Producer must have made a big difference?

GF I met Mira at a film festival in Milan back in 1999 where my doc was showing and she was president of the jury for the feature narrative. When she told me about her work in South Africa (where she was living at the time), she was about to embark on this project to teach cinema to young people from the various townships. I told her I wanted to make a film about it and she invited to come down. Less than a month later I was on a plane to Capetown. Unfortunately, I never finished the film because I fell gravely ill and had to be flown back home to Paris.

Mira has been instrumental and inspirational in my life. My friend the filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako calls her a ‘bulldozer’. She just gets things done, no task is ever too big. She’s constantly challenging herself. Furthermore she is very generous. When you are a budding filmmaker you need these kinds of individuals around you. I asked and she said yes. It happened organically. It was about kindred spirits coming together to shed light on a place that it is often kept in obscurity.

WW What is your advice to women around the world who are setting out on a similar journey?

GF If I knew then what I knew now I would do it the same way. Be bold, audacious, take risks, be passionate about you do, don’t get complacent, keep learning, make mistakes, rectify them, take a fall, you have to fall in order for you to rise.

Have fun with the process, make films with your heart, do it as though it’s a calling like you don’t know how to do anything else. Make no excuses, take blame for your mistakes graciously, don’t blame others, don’t tell yourself lies… Know your truth, your beauty, your dark side, your strength and weakness and share it with the world.

WW You’ve been back to Haiti to organise a film festival and curate other projects. Can we expect more films from Haitian women living in Haiti or from the Haitian diasporas, soon?

GF Yes we can expect more films from women in Haiti. There’s a new generation coming on the scene and I mentor some of them. Most of my mentoring is about helping them find their creative voices and connecting them to resources when the project is ready for that phase.

I think one of the main reasons I am doing the upcoming film encounter called Les Lumieres du Sud Rencontres-Cinematographiques de Jacmel, is to create a network of support with the outside world. I am personally connected to many folks and groups because I am fortunate to have lived in different parts of the world. I can travel everywhere, I have the right documents. But most of my compatriots can’t, it is extremely difficult to get a visa to go anywhere as a Haitian.

Through this cinematic encounter, we hope to bring about 20 films never been shown in Haiti before, plus some locally produced works. We’re bringing filmmakers from the developing world to share their experiences with us, there’s a shorts writing lab and co-production film forum as well…We hope to do it every year in January around the anniversary of the earthquake as a way of commemorating the tragedy through the arts.

WW I’m excited by what you might do next. What do you have in mind?

GF Besides the film encounter, I am also in the packaging stage for my next film; a period piece, a political thriller about love, family, sacrifice and betrayal. It’s called A Rooster On The Fire Escape. It has been in gestation for over a decade. I wrote the first draft in 2005, but I think it’s been alive in me for practically most of my entire life.

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