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Rachelle Salnave on Filmmaking and Documenting the Haitian Elite

Rachelle Salnave’s documentary La Belle Vie [The Good Life] is set to show a side of Haiti that remains hidden for the most part, even to Haitians. The documentary which is as much of a journey as it is about self-discovery and Salnave’s personal sense of identity. La Belle Vie chronicles the lives and lifestyle of Haiti’s traditional elite.

Salnave’s background as the New York-born daughter of Haitian parents—who fled Haiti under repression—affords her a particular perspective. So much of what Haiti was in the past has been obliterated by bad press, and just plain ignorance, not merely by non-Haitians, but Haitians as well, who are not knowledgeable about their past, nor seem to have any interest in uncovering it. Rachelle Salnave, for her part, wants to bring this vintage side of Haiti to light, and she hopes to do that with La Belle Vie. In addition to directing the project, she’s also wearing hats as researcher, writer and producer.

You were born in Harlem to Haitian parents. 

My brother and I were the first generation of Haitians born in the States. Most parents moved to Brooklyn, Queens or Long Island so it was a bit unusual to be in the big city while everyone else was in the suburbs. It was fun living in Harlem. On one side of my street, there was Black Harlem and the other side Columbia University. It was nice to grow up with a mix view of the world but for whatever its worth I was always attracted to Black Harlem. As a kid, I grew up confused about my identity—Harlem formed me. Harlem taught me so much about my Haitian History and actually made me think of Haiti in worldly context.

So Sylvain Salnave, one of Haiti’s presidents from the 19th Century is a relative of yours. How cool is that!

Definitely cool to have a President in my family. Born in Cap Haitian, my great-great-great-great grandfather was the 13th President of Haiti. During those times, when you were of mixed heritage it usually meant that you were from the higher class and you had certain access to resources. You had a different mentality of the world and of your people. My grandfather clearly looked more white than African but his heart was black. He fought for the rights of “people who wore no shoes.” He tirelessly wanted to give more power to the mass but unfortunately he spent more time fighting the opposition until he was executed in the front of the National Palace in 1870. What I take most from his legacy is that he put others before him. He was a nationalist!

So prior to La Belle Vie, you directed this other documentary: Harlem Mart 125: The American Dream

Harlem’s Mart 125: The American Dream was a 9-year study about the changes of the gentrification of Harlem. I used the history of Mart 125, a public market located across the street from the world famous Apollo to describe the struggles of the revitalization of this special urban community. This examination has been the root of how I look at the African Diaspora specifically Haiti now that my focus is on my country. When we stick to our motto L’union Fait La Force [Unity Builds Strength] our community can move mountains, if we stay stuck in our own comfort zone and don’t work together, others will always see our worth and Take our land, take our culture and we will always be at the bottom. You’ve spoken at length about how when you were growing up, you weren’t always proud to have Haitian roots. 

I always had a keen awareness of my blackness through my Haitian identity but it was tough growing up in the 80s. Haitians had such a bad image such as the AIDS propaganda, the constant corruption that lead to the great migration of folks running away for economic and political reasons…the list goes on. As a kid, you just want to fit in. So yeah, I wasn’t always open with my identity and when I was, I would get “You don’t look Haitian!” It was hurtful but as I started learning about African and Caribbean history, I came out of my shell. Knowledge helped me see the truth and to share it!

When did it first occur to you to do La Belle Vie?

Actually, I always wanted to do a film on Haiti, but I would say the ideas for La Belle Vie became to shape in 2009 when I completed the edit on Harlem’s Mart 125.

Did you find anything surprising as you conducted your research on the project?

Yes, lots! I realized that just as Mart 125 was a case study that actually mirrored historical African communities across the world, My Haitian story is also shared by many as well. I found out that my entire generation has either suffered identity issues or battled their way through life proving themselves. As I traveled to Haiti, I also found that the core of what keeps Haiti divided is identity. If you ask many of the Mass how are they doing “sak pase” they normally respond: “Nou lèd nou la”, which means “We are ugly, but we are here.” What is that? That’s crap and I don’t ever want anyone in Haiti responding to me that way. It’s indicative to the way we view ourselves.

How did your love for film and filmmaking transpire?

Image is everything. Identity is important. Always loved seeing beautiful black actors on TV. Exploring Black identity has always been my focus.

Who do you count among your favorite directors? 

Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Mel Gibson Telio Deetjen, Geebee Barkley.

What advice would you give to some who are new to the craft?

Never give up!

You’re planning on doing some feature films, including a narrative feature with Haiti at the crux. 

Yes. With God’s will, Haiti and I will have a long love affair making movies, commercials, docs, bringing commercial film festivals and more film schools .

How does Haitian culture and your heritage manifests itself these days?

I am truly blessed that God has allowed me to be Haitian in this lifetime. As I mentioned, I look at Haiti in a worldly text—spiritually, intellectually and creatively. Do you think it’s important for Haitian-Americans to pass on their culture to future generations?

It’s up to my generation—the generation X—to do this if we don’t we will lose Haiti. We are the most important generation because we are the one’s that need to plant the seeds and pass the harvest to our children. We have already lost the language. Many of us have never even been to Haiti and we have the means to do so but we prefer to go to other places to vacation. We are the missing link in the rebuilding of Haiti. We can’t fix Haiti from the outside. We must go back. . . in droves. . . and it can start with a vacation!

Have you seen any Haitian movies? 

Yes. Kaleb, a story about a Haitian Seventh Day Adventist family directed by a Haitian-American from Long Island. Kidnappings by my favorite director Telio. A must-see! I also recently saw the TV movie “Toussaint Louverture.” Great! I’ve seen a bunch of docs on Haiti. We need more films about Haiti and created by Haitians. Its time for the Lion to tell his/her side of the story.

Do you network with other filmmakers in the Haitian community?

I network with everyone.

What are some of the challenges that you face as a woman in film, and as the head of Soulfood Films, LLC.

No real challenges that are not shared by men. When you are an indie filmmaker you get to make your own rules so it has its advantages.


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