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Michele Stephenson Reflects on the Haiti Cultural Exchange Film Festival

One of the most looked-forward-to events of the New York-based organization Haiti Cultural Exchange is its annual film festival. In its second year, the festival offers Haitiphiles and film lovers a peek at little-seen films. The projects screened are largely Haiti-themed or were produced by visual artists with a Haiti connection.

At this year’s edition, actress and director Martine Jean’s The Silent Treatment was on the cinematic menu, as well as Wòch Nan Soley (Stones in the Sun), a feature by screenwriter-director Patricia Benoit. Rachelle Salnave, whose documentary on Haiti’s elite, La Belle Vie, has been garnering a great deal of buzz since pre-production, offered—The Father of Little Haiti—a short documentary on the life of Viter Juste, a pioneer in the Haitian community in Florida. The Canadian-Haitian community wasn’t left out of the programming. Créer Pour Se Recréer [Create to Recreate] by Marie-Denise Douyon of Canada was also part of the festival’s programming, as were several shorts from Ciné Institute, Haiti’s film school.

Michelle Stephenson, the co-director of the festival, shared some thoughts on this year’s edition.

The HCX Haiti Film Fest is in its second year. What were some of the lessons that you learned and some things you noted from the first edition? The biggest thing we noted from the first edition is that in NYC there is definitely a demand for films about and by Haitians. We had sold-out crowds to our events and screenings. This just motivated us to regroup and continue a tradition. This second round is equally as exciting. Our plans are now to have this event on a bi-annual basis. We hope it becomes an integral fabrics to New York City cultural life. Something people look forward to and plan for.

As someone who has a film background—you are the co-founder of a film production company Rada Film Group—does being a part of a film fest…is that an easy task? It’s never an easy task. Putting a film festival together is like producing a film. It’s a production. Luckily, I have not had to do much of the heavy lifting. Regine Roumain and her team have been able to produce the festival in such a seamless way that it appears effortless. but that is the beauty of hard work. I have simply had the pleasure of watching films and help in the curation of the festival programming. It was a delight.

What do you think of the current state of the Haitian film industry? Hmmm… what I do know is that there is a vibrant community of Haitian filmmakers, both in Haiti and abroad, who are eager to tell their stories and share their experiences in such a variety of ways. Support for making these films, is not as easy. That is the missing link. We know there are audiences and the talent exists. The question is really about how do we bridge that connection. We need to think outside of the box when it comes to getting these stories told and made. The internet has somehow made some of this possible.

The film fest also features an Emerging Filmmakers Networking Event, a rare, if not a first in the Haitian community in terms of being an all-around networking and connecting opportunity for industry newbies and veterans. We believe it is crucial for there to be an exchange between the generation of filmmakers. So lessons learned and opportunities for collaboration and mentoring can happen. It is truly crucial to have mentors in this industry, in order to be able to move ahead and share knowledge. We hope our event can foster those relationships

In terms of the long terms objectives of the festival—what are you and the HCX Haiti Film Festival team planning for fans for next year’s edition? HCX has actually planned to have the festival on a biannual basis. So the next edition will be in 2015. Having the festival biannually allows for more new film product to be made and for us to choose from.

Among the projects being screened are some of the works from Cine Institute, Haiti’s only official film school. Our Cine Institute pieces are part of the fabric of the festival. We did this during the first film fest in 2011 and I believe we will continue to do this for the upcoming festivals as well. We need to support the school and the students’ work in Haiti, and what better way than to showcase their stories.

What factors went in programming the festival? You co-chaired with David Belle. Was it difficult eliminating it down to 21 films? Yes, paring down the films is always difficult. Part of our approach was to make sure that Haitian filmmakers were represented from all walks of life and from different parts of the diaspora. In some ways, we want the festival to be a reflection of our own varied Haitian experience and just how our diaspora is spread out, while many of us still maintain such strong ties to our families and friends in Haiti.

One of the selections of the festival is Viter Juste, The Father of Little Haiti directed by Rachelle Salnave. When you first viewed this film, what was your overall impression of this pioneer? He felt like family even though I had never met him. The stories his son told about him seemed so familiar to the black immigrant experience. At the same time, Viter seemed like such an exceptional man who wanted to not just leave a legacy for those who would come to Miami after him. But it seemed like he wanted to also send a clear message to the majority culture in this country. We are here, we are proud and we are here to stay and be respected. I was blown away by his commitment to community.

What do you think viewers will get from viewing that documentary? It depends on the audience. Some will connect, like I did—like family. Others, unfamiliar with Haiti and its diaspora will be taught something new, and hopefully will gain a more complicated sense of what Haitian identity means.


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