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concordia 25/02/2014 - 11:00AM

Guest Blog: Films on Haiti

This is an audience guest blog from filmmaker and former journalist Boyce Richardson, who regularly attends Cinema Politica Concordia screenings. This post originally appeared on Richardson's own blog, and is republished here with the consent of the author.

Haiti appears to be a puzzling country. To judge by the news stories that come out of it after each successive disaster, it is the most corrupt and mercilessly exploited nation in the world. Yet people with a closer knowledge of the place insist it is a nation of magical people whose culture, based on religion, is so strong as to be unbreakable by no matter what disasters may befall them.

These two sides of the country were on display last night when filmmaker Joseph Hillel --- a small, mildly spoken, and apparently highly intelligent man --- presented his 82 minute documentary Ayiti Toma, the Land of the Living  at Cinema Politica Concordia to a sizeable, and apparently knowledgeable audience who engaged him in a lively discussion after the screening.

Using anthropologists, historians, economists and spiritual leaders as interlocutors he presented the Haitians as an exceptionally cultured and artistic people whose main characteristic is their lively imagination.

One group of citizens from one of the poorest sections of Port au Prince, the national capital, that was largely destroyed by the earthquake a few years ago, told us that they have all the people needed to rebuild their community, if only they could get their hands on the resources --- primarily money and materials --- needed to do the job.  They were impressive as they made this argument, but it is about the closest the documentary came to suggesting actual means by which the situation in Haiti, acknowledged to be disastrous because of outside interference, could be improved.

Much of the film concentrated on religious observances: it was an amazing sight to see lines and lines of people on their way to some religious observance or another emerging from the surrounding chaos all beautifully dressed in spotlessly clean white gowns. These line-ups appeared to go nowhere in particular and to be replaced by equally impressive lines of women wearing the most colorful costumes imaginable as they marched on their way to some other observance.

A great deal of time was given to explaining voodoo, as a more or less normal religion, with a sort of implied suggestion that if Haiti could be freed from outside well-wishers and do-gooders, the voodoo priests and their followers would take care of everything. (The evidence of the presence of the United Nations, at present the occupying power in Haiti, came with shots of whole parking lots filled with their jeeps and pick-up trucks waiting to spring into action around the country. Commentators made clear their belief that MINUSTAH, the occupying power, had failed in its proclaimed mission to uplift the country’s life.) 

I always look for messages in documentary films, and one message I got from this was that the Haitian people, deeply admirable as they are, have been waiting for God to help them, and while waiting they have become the most brutally exploited nation on earth.  It made me think a little of Quebec when I first came to live here in the 1950s. One  could say that at that time, God was running things, and not doing a particularly good job of it. So in 1960 and thereafter Quebec decided to put God in his place, since when things have been going along much better than before.  I was left with a feeling that Haiti would be well advised to put God in his place in a similar way.

Now I don’t doubt that Haiti has been hardly used by the international community. “Hardly used” is a euphemism for “brutally exploited.”:  I acknowledge that. And I think Canada has much to answer for because of its treatment of Haiti as one of the triumvirate of powers with influence there. We collaborated with the Americans and the French in removing the elected leader of Haiti in 2004, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was taken to an airport and whisked away to be dropped in the Central African Republic, of all places, and replaced by a government more amenable to American interests.

Indeed, there is a strong argument for the case that Haiti has always been specially selected by France and the United States to be merely a source of cheap labour for international companies, the original motive for this apparently dating back to the 1804 slave rebellion, which set up a fear of similar revolts throughout North and South America and the Caribbean. To these metropolitan countries, anything would be better than the prospect of slave rebellions, and Haiti has suffered as a consequence of its brave and successful rebellion (which is the subject of the classic history Black Jacobins by C.L.R James, the Trinidadian historian.)

I’m not sure that Aristide was mentioned in Hillel’s movie, but what is sure is that, ever since he made clear his preference for serving the poor people of Haiti,  he has been opposed every inch of the way by the United States, and his recent return after seven years of exile in South Africa was strenuously opposed by Barack Obama. As is perfectly clear to anyone with eyes to see, any political leader wherever he may be in the world who does not accept the United States world-view --- which is dominated by the need to support the interests of U.S. corporations --- can expect to face the continuing opposition of that great power. Aristide has certainly suffered that fate.

For my taste, the vision of Haiti presented in this new film is of a country and a people who lean too heavily on their concept of God, and who appear not to blame their religion --- and that of others --- for their parlous state.

The proceedings opened last night when a young man whose name I did not catch showed the first part, quite brief, of a film he and his supporting group are working on under the title Democracy in Haiti. The extract shown was of a graffiti artist working in Port au Prince, a wonderfully imaginative and talented artist,   more of whose work I am anxious to see when that film is finished.

Meantime there is a great deal of activity in Montreal in the coming week or so that is relevant to this subject.  A Haitian lawyer called Mario Joseph is currently on a tour of Canada, and he will speak at the Centre St.Pierre at 1212 Rue Panet, close to Beaudry, on Thursday of this week at 6 pm. Then from today until March 1 a programme of films is being screened on the subject of LGBT rights in Africa and the Caribbean, by an outfit called Massimadi, at the Cine du Parc, and in the D.B Clarke Cinema at Concordia University.

 

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