Stories From Rural Haiti

Stories From Rural Haiti

Between 1978 – 1982 I made three trips to Haiti to film scenes of rural life.

Initially I was asked by anthropologist Ira Lowenthal to film a Vodou ceremony that would take place in the extreme rural area that he was living in, a ceremony that usually happens only once a generation for each family.

The Vodou that takes place in the rural areas is a little different from that in the cities….for the most part it is less elaborate. It doesn't incorporate huge ve-ves or sequined flags and other objects, but is based more on nature. Most of the ceremonies take place at a sacred spot on the family land such as an old tree, entranceway to the property, etc. They incorporate food offerings, singing, drumming, dancing, spirit possession and an enormous sense of community. Each ceremony usually culminates in the sacrifice of an animal – the greatest gift that a poor peasant can give to his gods.

The gros sevis (large service) that we filmed was a very big deal. It went on for 8 days and was composed of a series of different rituals – each given at a specific time of the day or night on a specific day of the week, for a specific spirit. In between each ritual there was a lot of food preparation, and getting ready for the next ceremony to begin. Events went on around the clock, so for the entire week we slept outside on straw mats, ready at all times to film whatever was happening in the outdoor compound where the ceremonies take place.
Stories From Rural Haiti
There was great difficulty in the filming. For one thing, many of the rituals took place at night and we had no lights (even if we had them there was no electricity to plug them in, and a generator would have drowned out the natural sounds). Like much of what happens in Haiti, ingenuity was called for to solve the problem. We asked some of the children to help out by holding up Coleman lanterns, used to light the huts. These cast a lovely soft glow, but couldn't light an area further than 3 feet. We filmed anyway, hoping that the gods would be with us. With no electricity we had no way to recharge the batteries for the camera. Fortunately one of my cameras was a wind-up Bolex that didn't need re-charging, and got us through the shoot. These were the days before video was so prevalent, and because I was shooting 16mm film we never saw the footage until back in New York.

A year later when the film was complete we brought it back to Haiti. We got an old projector and put it in a jeep with 4 wheel drive, and somehow got it to the small village. We also lugged along a generator to power the projector and a king-size mattress to wrap around the noisy machine. For a screen, we stretched a white sheet across two trees. Peasants arrived from all over the area to see the film. The majority of the people had never seen a film before, and their response moved me very much. Some of the children reacted to their 2 dimensional friends on the screen as if they were right there and tried to go up and share with them the supper they had brought.

Stories From Rural Haiti In making TO SERVE THE GODS I was struck by how much of Haitian life is composed of rituals, and I wanted to return to Haiti to make a larger documentary about the rhythms of rural life.

To make HAITIAN SONG I spent 6 weeks living and filming in the same isolated rural area in the south of Haiti, filming the patterns of daily life. Each morning, my Haitian assistant, Patrick Moron, and I would get up early and follow Precis into the fields as he fed his pigs, moved the animals, made rope from sisal, weeded crops in the field. On alternate days we followed Zilmen as she went to the market (a good 2 hours away, gotten there by crossing the snaking river twice), went into her garden to pick vegetables, made rice and peas for her family, etc. We followed as well the activities of the larger community – working in the coumbites, the cockfight, children's games.

It was important to me that this film have a languid pace that emulated the mood of rural life. Also, I didn't want to make this as a narrated, informational documentary. Each activity that we filmed, I asked Gustave (one of the peasants) to explain on camera (in Creole) what was going on and his explanations - as well as the more personal interviews with Zilmen and Precis - form the narration. Throughout the film I interwove a lot of singing and this came from the hours of sound recording that we did. Several of the songs come from the women's coumbites, the communal work force. All coumbites are done to music – some accompanied by instruments, some accapella, but the singing of the women I found particularly haunting; it resounded through the countryside as they worked.

As with TO SERVE THE GODS we faced many difficulties with the technical logistics. Any time we needed to charge the batteries for the camera, it was a day trip back to Port-au-Prince, and a day to return. Drinking water was scarce. The very aspect that made our filming easier – not having a crew – also made it more difficult in other ways.

The peasants that we lived with and filmed and who shared their lives with us were so gracious and enormously generous that I just hoped the film would reflect that and be an honor to them.

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