Poto Mitan: A Documentary Honoring the Strength of Haitian Women
Haitian women are the lifeblood of Haitian society and Claudine Michel, Dr. Gina Athena Ulysse and co-directors Mark Schuller and Renée Bergan wanted the whole world to know this through the project Poto Mitan. The award-winning and widely screened documentary, narrated by the award-winning author Edwidge Danticat, recounts the lives of five women in Haiti and through these five women, one learns how vital women are to every sector of society in Haiti.
Haitian women are the street entrepreneurs who are up before dawn to sell their goods at sidewalk-side supermarkets. They’re stitching and assembling in factories in the smaller cities in Haiti for billion dollar companies overseas, hence the Pillars of the Global economy subtitle. Poto Mitan is a tribute to these women.
Poto Mitan has been screened at countless documentary festivals, including in Ethiopia, Trinidad and Tobago, Austria, and major U.S. cities like Seattle and New Orleans. It has earned, among other honors, an Indie Spec Best Documentary Award from the Boston International Film Festival. At the 2009 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, it was a nominee for the Social Justice Award. The documentary is now available on DVD.
Born in Haiti, Dr. Ulysse is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She is also the Director for that the college’s Center for African-American Studies. She is a sought after commentator. She is also the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica.
Schuller co-wrote Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake (with Pablo Morales), and along with Dr. Paul Farmer co-wrote the book Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs.
Michel heads the Black Studies Department at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and was born in Haiti. A cultural anthropologist, she is the editor of the Journal of Haitian Studies and the president of the Haitian Studies Association. Michel is also the co-author of several books including Black Studies: Current Issues, Enduring Questions. She was not available to answer questions, but is a great supporter of the project.
Q & A
Tell us about yourself. SCHULLER: I’m an activist anthropologist who works on social justice issues in Haiti and elsewhere. Before becoming a grad student, I was a community organizer, in the Twin Cities. I spent the most time with the St. Paul Tenants Union, organizing people to defend their housing against forced eviction, etc. I began working in and on Haiti when I was a graduate student, beginning in 2000. Now that I’m a professor my role in Haiti is changing a bit – I am training students at the State University of Haiti where I’ve taught since 2004 to do their own fieldwork. Being a blan – a foreigner – in Haiti poses particular challenges, particularly after the earthquake and an ongoing UN occupation.
Do you feel that writing and doing research for your book Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, ULYSSE: A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica prepared you for the work on Poto Mitan? Working class women all over the world are more or less treated the same way. That’s just a fundamental aspect of gender inequity and in the global capitalist system. And that is exactly what my book Downtown Ladies is about how women in Jamaica are navigating structures that are impeding their advancement.
Did your involvement with Haiti begin by reading an article or a book about the country? SCHULLER: My involvement in Haiti began in 1994, when I was the co-coordinator for our campus chapter of Amnesty International. This was one of the most violent chapters in Haiti’s recent history following a bloody coup d’etat against Haiti’s first democratically elected government. I was taking a class in “world history” and my professor who works on Latin America just didn’t mention the Haitian Revolution. And growing up in Chicago, I was told it was founded by a “black French.” So Haiti and its contribution to the US and freedom around the world was systematically erased. I had to be actively involved as a solidarity activist to learn these things. Paul Farmer’s Uses of Haiti had just been published.
How did Edwidge Danticat get involved with the project? SCHULLER: Both of our Associate Producers, Gina Ulysse and Claudine Michel, had put out feelers. And she was invited to a fundraiser in Miami in 2007, where she read from her recently published Brother, I’m Dying. She gave us a contribution then, and she pledged to do what she can to help. My co-director, Renée Bergan, had been telling me that we needed a break in between the hard-hitting scenes of poverty and inequality. We both wanted to frame these within Haiti’s rich cultural traditions and wanted to have a krik, krak. One day, we were waiting for one of our camera assistants, and his wife was braiding her daughter’s hair just then, so Renée filmed it. It seemed a perfect metaphor to weave the women’s stories together, and to weave the audience into the story. It was serendipitous that Edwidge – who is extremely generous with her time and talent – ended her collection, Krik? Krak!, on a piece with a mother braiding her daughter’s hair. We asked Edwidge if we could use this and adapt it and she was thrilled.
How did you settle on just five women—Marie-Jeanne, Solange, Frisline, Thérèse, and Hélène? SCHULLER: First of all, it should be noted that these are not their real names; we wanted to help protect their identities. Back up a little bit: these women were part of a grassroots group supported by a women’s NGO, who wanted me to make a film about them. I said that I would write a book, but they said that it wasn’t good enough. They know the power of media to move people; as you know the Haitian expressions tande ak wè se de and sa je pa wè, kè pa tounen. So why these five women? We initially interviewed eleven women from this collective and noticed six, seven who were the most comfortable with the camera. When we got back to the U.S. we began to outline what the story is. We shifted our focus to a woman by woman approach, where each woman highlighted a particular element of Haitian life: Marie-Jeanne was education, Solange violence, and so on. So from this six, seven we chose five based on what story they would highlight.
Did they have any initial hesitation about having their lives chronicled? SCHULLER: Not at all. It was their idea. We met with them four times before we began filming, to discuss the risks and the logistics—that I wasn’t even fully aware of—of making a film.
Do you think Haitian women are given enough credit for what they contribute to Haiti? ULYSSE: No, they do not. But then neither do most women all over the world. That is just the sexist, male-dominated world we occupy, which I would in some circles—in Haitian communities—is more like the middle ages. I have absolutely no patience for it and am in awe in seeing what women in Haiti—of different class positions, locations color and so on—must negotiate on a daily basis. I am very much a dyas when it comes to this issue and know that it is dyas privilege that allows me to not have to deal with it.
After the 2010 earthquake some additional footage was added to the documentary to inform the fans of the documentary about the whereabouts of these women. Is Potan Mitan the start of an entire series? It could go on forever. SCHULLER: Respectfully, no. I personally meet with them whenever I’m back in Haiti. But the purpose of the film was met: helping them share their stories with people who buy the clothes they sew, citizens of countries like the U.S. who have a heavy influence in Haiti’s affairs.
What are some of the things you learned from being part of the Poto Mitan documentary team? ULYSSE: We, especially those of us in the diaspora, do not need to speak for Haitians in Haiti. We have to make sure we help the ones who are so limited get access to the mike. Haitian women can and do speak for themselves they understand their conditions and are doing what they know in order to redress them.
What are some challenges that came with producing the documentary? SCHULLER: The filming was done after the worst of the violence, but it was still dicey. I visited a woman’s house to set up a shoot and because of my presence, neighborhood thugs roughed her up. We’ve been in touch many times since, and she’s okay. We also drove 12 hours to meet with the Dominican owners of the free trade zone, only to be told that they weren’t available. So we handed a camera to one of the union leaders, who said he would be able to film, no problem. But he was pressured by the managers all the same.
Which of the women featured in the documentary inspired you the most? ULYSSE: Each woman represents a different generation, situation and set of issues. That’s why I like the film and supported it to the extent that I have. It give you something that is quite rare for us, because Haiti is too often explicated in singular terms. As I have mentioned elsewhere, we have always been plural. There is a single story for women in Haiti but a number of stories. Years ago I met this woman who said, “Chak moun gen ti istwa Ayiti pa yo”, and she is absolutely right. Everyone has their own version of Haitian history or story of Haiti. In other words they all inspired different things in me and made me proud to see them come together the way they did to confront these enduring problems.
Haitian women are rightfully called Poto Mitan, the epicenter of Haitian economy, and as your documentary points out, the crux of global economy as well. So how come they’re so little valued by some? SCHULLER: In short, what Black feminists call “intersectionality” – the multiple forms of oppression based on distinct but overlapping identities, such as of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and parental status – and “structural violence” – the long term inequalities built in systems of colonialism and slavery. As Faye Harrison argued, structural violence is gendered. Neoliberal globalization increases burdens on women in several ways. Women are often targeted for low-wage work, in part because of patriarchal norms and the ideology that sees women as more submissive, because women’s traditional caregiving role precludes organizing trade unions, or because of recitations of older gender ideologies of “nimble fingers.” Transnational feminists argued that despite implicit male biases, the social welfare state provided a modicum of legal protection and social services that benefited women and other marginalized populations. The shift towards a neoliberal model eroded these protections, especially through structural adjustment programs. The privatization of public services, placing greater burden for social reproduction onto individual families, is more greatly felt by women because of traditional roles.
What have you observed about the way viewers have reacted to the documentary? ULYSSE: Well having screened the film in several different venues—mostly universities and colleges and or at conferences— it has been fascinating to see the range of response. From the folks who get instantly involved in the politics and want to find out what they can do to the ones who are more concerned with issues of aesthetics and what it means that this film was done by white people. I like reactions and think they are good because at least it means viewers are not being passive they are actually engaging with the work.
Have the five women featured in the documentary have had the chance to screen it? SCHULLER: Yes, two of them who lived in camps had a screening in their camps. They both reported a turnout of hundreds of people, and the screening triggered a conversation that lasted for hours. Other grassroots groups have used it as well in their consciousness raising efforts. It strikes a raw nerve, portraying a day-to-day lived experience but the women connect these realities with a very articulate, intersectional analysis as to why low-income people, particularly women, find themselves in marginal situation.
What advice do you have for those who want to create a documentary in Haiti or elsewhere? SCHULLER: I would start with the question of why you want to make the film? Is the impulse coming from the subjects of the films themselves or is it coming from somewhere else? Really it’s important to consider what our roles are, and what the camera amplifies. If you’re a filmmaker from another country, even in the Diaspora, there are systems of inequality behind the camera. In addition, people in a foreign audience will have a lens that will reinterpret based on their own realities and worldview, so it’s important to be aware that what is being portrayed maybe radically reinterpreted.
We know that your involvement with Haiti goes beyond Poto Mitan. SCHULLER: Wouch! I’ve been teaching research methods at the State University of Haiti and working with these students to complete research on the internally displaced persons—IDP—camps. I’ve written dozens of Huffington Post articles and a couple of reports, and took the research – with my Haitian students at CUNY – to Washington, both Congress and the State Department. I’ve been collaborating with grassroots groups in Haiti on the research, on reporting findings, giving talks at events, etc. I am working with colleagues at the State University to revise the research methods text I’ve written, and will focus on supporting the research capacity. In 2011 I worked with dozens of colleagues – half in Haiti – activists and journalists as well as scholars – to put together a collection of analyses, Tectonic Shifts: Haiti since the Earthquake. It was published in advance of the second anniversary of the earthquake. We got support from FOKAL to translate it into Kreyòl and it will – sidyevle – be ready to launch in October, for the International Creole Day.
What were your impressions of Haiti the first time you visited? SCHULLER: I had difficulty sleeping, even though I was tired. Haiti’s problems, to the extent that they were discussed at the conference, were portrayed as discrete: Haiti needs a change in the social contract, and it is coming. Being there, alone save for two large boxes full of kitchen supplies, research materials, and a couple of nice outfits, it felt anything but simple. I remained overwhelmed for quite a while. Two months before I went to Haiti, a free trade zone was created along the Haiti and Dominican Republic border in Wanament. One month before, Amiot Metayer had been assassinated, triggering a violent response from his group of hitmen. A political crisis, talked about for four years, began in earnest. People began counting the dead. NGOs, especially those friendly to Aristide’s opposition, began to close, with their staff and board members in mawonaj, in hiding. My contact at a women’s NGO stayed at a few of her friends’ houses during this period. Needless to say, it was difficult to meet with NGOs to plan my research.
What do you wish some non-Haitians knew about Haiti? SCHULLER: First, the role the Haitian Revolution played in ending slavery worldwide. It was the first time slaves gained their own freedom – on their terms. And it triggered the abolition of the slave trade three years later. We in the US owe our ‘manifest destiny’ to the successful slave revolt in Haiti, as France abandoned its stake in a third of the US landmass, virtually giving it to the US after losing Haiti.
Second, the poverty and vulnerability to disasters that the media portrays is in no small part because of the way that the US and other foreign powers have done to punish Haiti for this act of independence. In 1825 Haiti had to pay France in order to recognize Haitian independence, to compensate French plantation owners for their loss of “property” – including slaves. The US occupation begun in 1915 set the stage for Duvalier. Finally, policies championed by the US – ‘neoliberalism’ – opening Haiti for the “free market” systematically destroyed Haiti’s economy. All of these impact Haitian women’s lives and create the problems that are visible.
Finally, despite all this, Haitian people are extraordinarily good at supporting one another, at collective survival, and at building a life. Haitian culture is rich with proverbs, language, music, poetry, food, etc. Haiti has so much to offer the world, if only people would be willing to listen.
Do you hope to be involved with a project like Poto Mitan in the future? ULYSSE: Not necessarily. I will continue to support different projects that require more hands on deck as they arise and when they are in alignment with I believe in.