Owning Our Future: Haitian Perspectives in Film – Training Process
CSFilm and our Haitian partner, Groupe Medialternatif, selected the 10 trainees during the month prior to the training. After weeks of outreach across the country, through radio, print and word of mouth, we received 74 applications, interviewed 20 candidates and selected 10. There were many very worthy applicants that we could not include and not because they lacked capacity but because we needed to put together a diverse group of men and women coming from different parts of the country and with a variety of storytelling experience. The criteria for selection was their background as storytellers, their engagement with economic development issues, evidence of their leadership and self-initiative and their capacity to use what they learn in their future work.
There are three women participating and five areas of the country represented. We have one from community theater, 6 radio, print or multi-media journalists, three from civil society organizations, and one filmmaker. Four have had a previous training in video-journalism or video production. The other seven have not worked with video before.
The Training Begins
Ralph Thomassaint Joseph, CSFilm’s Haiti program coordinator, Gotson, head of Groupe Medialternatif, and assistants have made great efforts to gather a diverse group – in terms of gender, regional, media and community engagement backgrounds. We were blurry eyed and gleaming from the stifling heat but feeling very good as we called each successful candidate. This weekend we have finalized the setup of the training site, which is generously being provided by REFRAKA, Network of Haitian Woman Community Radio Broadcasters.
And now, after two years of dreaming, fundraising and planning, the team and trainees will gather in the morning to begin the work of Haitians producing a new series of broadcast-quality documentary films. Their films will add Haitian perspectives and experience to the local and international conversation about what has and has not happened since the 7.0 earthquake – one of the world’s worst disasters.
“Michael, it’s different in Haiti.”
The dominant approach has been oriented toward reporter-driven storytelling. It replicates what Haitians are used to doing with radio. Having a reporter talk to camera and tell you what is going on is easier and cheaper than presenting the information through the activities and perspectives of those involved. Another issue influencing the local approach to storytelling is that in countries that have seen long periods of dictatorship and the media controlled by those in power, as was true in Haiti for nearly 30 years from the 50s to the 80s, the first generation of journalists and storytellers tend to replicate the dictator’s top-down, authoritarian style of information sharing. The reporter is the voice of authority and the subjects are supporting evidence. This is making Haiti more challenging for teaching lived-reality documentary than Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan there hadn’t been any TV or filmmaking for decades. Most of the Afghan trainees were therefore fresh to the subject. Some of our Haitian trainees assume, even insist, that documentary filmmaking should follow the authoritative approach. The habit of wanting to tell the viewer what is going on and how to interpret it, rather than letting them experience the situation and draw their own conclusions, is hard to change. Often journalists and storytellers in places like Haiti are skeptical that “the poor,” the “rural peasants,” the “uneducated,” can communicate effectively about their experience and issues.
When I push on these issues I hear the repeated refrain, “Michael, it’s different in Haiti.” Their perception is that what you can do with a camera and how you can engage subjects, allowing the story to be told through their activities, conversations and interviews, is not as possible here as it is in the US or Europe. Lucky for me I have the Afghan-made films and others from Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Mozambique, Tanzania, and the many other places I have worked, to show the trainees that it is an approach that works in many difficult contexts. They’ve all acknowledged, in some cases somewhat grudgingly, that if lived-reality, character-driven documentary filmmaking could be done in Afghanistan, one of the most difficult filmmaking environments, then it is probably possible here.
Haiti Training in Action
The first week was all about visual storytelling – well composed, exposed and focused shots fitting together one after another to create a scene. They started shooting on day one and by the end of the week had shot multiple activities culminating in short simple visual scenes of local crafts people and manufactures. These folks had not used a video camera two weeks ago! Last week they concentrated on sound and scene-based storytelling.
Continuing on from the exercises from the first week, they shot and edited a scene with multiple characters working together and a scene with all of them meeting or talking. From the meeting they selected one participant with whom to practice their newly learned video interviewing technique. In addition, to emphasize the importance of natural sound in lived-reality documentary filmmaking, they recorded sound-only stories. What an intense week! They have to learn so much, so fast that they don’t have time to question their capacity to process it all.
Many mornings we start by watching a section of a documentary. Wednesday we watched part of Raul Peck’s Fatal Assistance, a controversial film about the post-earthquake relief effort in Haiti. Haitians take great pleasure in heated argument. During the coffee break the room broke into three groups of shouters, all debating the topics covered in the film and concerns about how the film presented these issues. When it looks to me like things are getting out of control, and the volume can’t get any louder, the storm breaks and laughter takes over. Not too different then the way it rains. The thunder is deafening, the streets turn into rivers of trash and rubble and then it stops. Never quiet, but calmer.
To Michael and CSFilm with Thanks – A letter from Haitian filmmaker Steeve Colin
Dear Mr. Michael,
I hope this letter finds you well. This is Steeve Colin, and I wanted to take the time to express my deep thanks for the training you gave on community film-making, and explain why it held a special importance for me.
I was raised in Cite Soleil, Haiti’s largest slum and its most dangerous ghetto. For more than a decade, our community has been plagued by gang violence. In 2004, 2005, and 2006 our community was literally a war zone, with UN soldiers and barricades and helicopters surrounding us. But then, as now, the violence and the gangs were just a small but powerful corner of our community. The vast majority of people in Cite Soleil are good, honest, hard-working people, just trying to make a living for their families. There are even a few among us, like my friend Robi from the documentary, who are actively working for peace, and risking their lives doing it. But despite that, we seem unable to shake the stigma that those few violent years have given to us. Everywhere young men like me go, as soon as we say we come from Cite Soleil, people think we are gangsters. Everyone seems to want that image: politicians and NGOs use images of poverty from the worst slums to ask for money for their budgets, the Haitian media is only interested in coming to Cite Soleil when there is a scandal or violence, and the international media only wants the sensational, Hollywood gangster stories they can find here.
And this narrative has to change – it’s suffocating us. All of the young leaders like Robi, myself, and the men and women I work with in the social movement Konbit Soley Leve feel like we are suffocating under the weight of this single, negative story. It’s not that this story isn’t true – we still have gangsters, and innocent people dying every week. It’s just that it’s not the only story, and for young leaders to bring peace, they have to be able to tell their stories. They have to be able to show that they exist. They have to be recognized.
This is why this training was so important for me – it gave me a chance to tell my community’s story myself. It gave me a chance to share the story of my friend Robi, someone who is fighting for peace. It gives people like me the chance to change the narrative about my community -to make it more complex, deeper, richer. And that is a power that I don’t take for granted, because it is rare that someone from Cite Soleil is given the tools to build our own narratives. So thank you for the knowledge, thank you for the training, and thank you for trusting me with my community’s story.
I know this is not an easy task and that it has its own complexities, but I hope this program grows. I hope that you get to bring this to other marginalized communities around the world, and that you can continue to give others the tools to build their own stories. And I hope that one day you come back to Haiti. I know my country can be challenging, but we somehow keep struggling and keep fighting. I hope you do too.