Sophia Désir: The Interview
Sophia Désir is a woman who’s in a class all by herself. In the early 2000s, Désir became the first woman in Haiti in more than a decade to have her own radio series. “Vanités, Intrigues, Passion”—or VIP as it was called—with its juicy plots and subplots concentrated on the inner going-ons of Haiti’s corporate and social elite. More importantly though, the show captivated audiences and garnered addicts, among Haitians in Haiti who were ravenous for original entertainment. At the show’s center was Martine Delarue (voiced by Désir herself), an overtly ambitious woman who’s navigating Haiti’s patriarch-dominated society and an assorted bunch of high class society women from the suburbs of Haiti, who are part of Delarue’s circle.
After a hugely successful run, as well as a movie version (co-starring Sandra Lobir, Nadine Stephenson, Smoye Noisy, Réginald Lubin, and the late Farah Ménard) Désir and her co-stars took a final bow in the mid-2000s. The actress-dramatist-screenwriter, who left Haiti for Canada shortly after, filmed a movie entitled Minuitwhile living in in Montreal. Désir says that she’s never stopped dreaming of her island, nor has she stopped writing (she’s working on a novel that she hopes to publish by next year).
As one of the few women scriptwriters in Haiti, you wrote “Vanités, Intrigues, Passions”, for radio. Please discuss how you were inspired to write out the characters, bringing together the radio version, and adapting it for the screen. Well…as a teenager, I was a huge fan of “Woye les Voila”[ a radio soap opera] written by Mona Guerin. I started to dream about participating one day in a project like this. In fact, I created my first radio series “Pile ou Face” at 17-18 years old. About 20 episodes had been broadcasted. The show stopped because of a few problems. But I kept dreaming. Then, one day, I started working at Radio Métropole [a radio station in Haiti].
I was in contact with all those actors I used to admire. I was close to making my dream come true. Then, I dared to ask them to join me in a project and they did. So VIP became real. I read a lot of novels and followed numerous American soap operas. Also, I have always been observing Haitian society. I guess all that had influenced me while I was creating the characters of VIP. During the first season, the fans of VIP were asking for a TV version. We did not have the means to do so. But Réginald Lubin suggested we produce a movie. It was a challenge for him as a director and actor. To adapt the show for the screen, two actresses had to change their roles. There was no way Nadine Stephenson who plays Melissa—my daughter—at the radio show could do the same in the movie. So she became Elisabeth. And Sandra Lobir, Roxane in the radio [version] is Laura in the movie.
At 17-18 years of age? How did you ever manage to get your show on the radio? Even though I was pretty young, it was not very difficult for me. I conceived the show and wrote the dialogs using an old typewriter. (I did not have a computer at that time) Then I did a kind of casting, asking my friends to join the project. I even convinced one of my teachers to play a role. Then we talked to the priest who was in charge of the radio station—RMK—to have the show broadcasted. And it was on the air…Sincerely, I can’t remember all the details. It has been a while.
What was the response to your first radio show? I would say interesting. My classmates, some of my teachers, my friends, everyone had a comment on one episode or another. Once, a teacher called me to congratulate me after an episode he had just listened to. Another time, another teacher advised me not to neglect my studies because of the show…That means they were listening to the show.
You starred in a movie called Minuit. I did. I also wrote the script. I had the script and Fabienne Colas wanted to direct the project. So, we worked together in Montreal.
Can you please discuss Minuit in more elaborate details? You know, when you create a story, you want…you need to share with the public. This sometimes leads you to accept things you’d rather avoid. In Minuit, the director changed the story I wrote. The story has lost its essence…From this point of view, I was not satisfied with the final product. But technically, it was much better. Fabienne Colas did her best with very limited resources. Let’s say it was an experience like any other. With good and bad memories…
Was it difficult being an actress in a country like Haiti? I don’t consider myself an actress. I did play a role in those two movies but for me, it was more like having fun among friends. If someone expects to earn a living by being an actor, it is damn hard. The majority of the actors I know in Haiti earn almost nothing for their work.
What of the current state of Haitian cinema? I have not seen any new Haitian movie recently. But I read and I heard things are pretty slow. I even heard that [the] Haitian movie[industry] has died. I do not think so. However, we have to admit there is a lot to do in order to make our productions more professionals. We need training, money…etc.
As a writer, is there a book that has had a big impression on you? I was very impressed by The Autobiography of Malcolm X—as told to Alex Haley. Malcolm X said, “People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.” This book did not change my life, but it changed my opinion on Malcolm X. One thing that makes me angry is injustice. And though I am against any form of violence, I had to agree with him when he says “Sometimes you have to pick the gun up to put the gun down”. A controversial human being, this man!
There’s Sophia Désir, the public woman; there’s Sophia Désir, the private woman. I grew up in Les Cayes, in the south of Haiti, with 2 sisters and 1 brother. I am the youngest of my family but I was not spoiled. My childhood was very simple. I was very talkative at school. I was very active as a teenager and created with friends a socio-cultural group (Éclair) and an entertainment group (Galaxie). We organized several activities in the city. I enjoy writing, reading, dancing, watching TV…I hate the smoke of cigarettes and physical activities. Do not ask me to exercise one hour a day. Not for me. Who do you credit for making you the person you are today? My parents for sure, and also myself. They gave me the best they could. But I had to work a bit to make myself a little place in society. I am also thankful to some people I met in my life—boss, colleagues, friends, sponsors—who believed in me and therefore supported me in some projects. What are your hopes and inspirations for the future? I would like to see Haiti taking definitely the path of development. I want to see the new Haiti we are all dreaming about. On a personal level, I would like to be able to create much more. In the movie Vanités, Intrigues, Passions, your character Martine Delarue a career woman gives up her corporate-climbing ways for a simple life as a housewife. Please comment on this. Is this your own view of life? Do you think some feminists might find this disturbing? Well…To me, Martine Delarue is a woman who is torn between her job and her family. Sometimes, she gives the priority to her job and some other times she prefers her family. My view of life? I think we are free to choose what makes us happy. Family, job, whatever…As the author of VIP, what I wanted to show is the fact that sometimes, we have difficulty in choosing. Martine Delarue adores her family and she is passionate about her job. I do not see why some feminist would find this disturbing, VIP is a fiction. Come on!
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Depending on the meaning you want to give to that word. If it is a movement that targets the end of oppression or discrimination against women, yes I am. If being a feminist means acting as an emancipated person, yes I am. If it means being independent, I sure am. I want to have the same job [as] a man as long as I have the same [qualifications]. I want to have the same salary as a man, as long as I am doing the same job and giving the same results. I want to decide my life as long as I am in charge of my life.
But I am sick of the speech of lots of women who claim their feminism and at the same time are living as parasites on men’s charge. They are feminist but they let men hit them or decide in their place. It is one thing to stay you want equality, but it is another one to prove you deserve it. I strongly refuse to be associated to that kind of feminists. Yes, I believe men and women should be equal before the law. I believe we have the same intellectual capacities. But above all, I think that men and women are different and should not be afraid of the differences. I like to say to my friends I enjoy being a woman. And I am not going to refuse to have a man open a door for me. You’re living in Canada for the moment. Are you thinking of returning to Haiti eventually? Actually, I recently moved from Canada to Mexico. If you had asked me the same question a few months ago, I would have answered I want to move but I did not know where. A door has been opened [for me] in Mexico and I took it. I am trying to catch the opportunities life is offering me. For the moment, it is not in my plan to go back to Haiti but things change so quickly. I am not closing the door…One thing for sure, I love Haiti. This is where I found my inspiration for all I am creating.
What actors and directors do you hope to work with in the future? If you allow me to dream, I would be proud to work with Denzel Washington. But realistically I would enjoy working once again with Reginald Lubin. He is such a talented guy. We get along so well. When you’re not acting, or writing, what do you like to do? I enjoy working. I can work round the clock. I also enjoy hanging out with friends. But when I am home, I am addicted to TV. Shame on me, I do not read as much as I should.