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“Haiti is the ultimate destination of Caribbean culture and history; all veins, all roads lead to Haiti, the source,” declares filmmaker Yao Ramesar, honoured as one of the Pioneers in Film at this year’s T&T Film Festival. Although his latest feature, which has the provisional working title Haiti Bride, wasn’t screened at this year’s festival, as it’s in the last stages of post-production, the trailer was launched on YouTube last week, giving those unfamiliar with Yao’s work a tantalising vignette of what’s in the can. As a whole new generation of local filmmakers emerges, many of whom Yao has mentored in his capacity as UWI film lecturer, Ramesar continues on his solitary and sometimes stony path of originating and developing an indigenous film aesthetic, he calls “Caribbeing.”
Explaining its genesis, he says, “The Caribbeing aesthetic came about because I wanted to develop a cinema language that would represent the light, the landscape, the people and the sounds of the geo-political Caribbean through its own prism, and not laundered by Hollywood.” In this era of postmodern globalisation, with regional consciousness as moribund as Caricom, national identities compromised by ad-hoc political agendas and the arts still scrambling for recognition and support, despite all the usual hot air about cultural industries, Yao’s voice and vision are easy to lose in the hurricane of homogeneity. Yet, despite the problems of projecting his quintessential Caribbeing film imaginary amid more dominant discourses of postcolonialism and mass culture, Yao has been stubbornly consistent since the days in the 1970s when he travelled on the Federal Maple on a voyage through the islands, with other passengers from across the region. “I noticed in some islands Caribbean was pronounced ‘Caribbeing’ and I started calling the region this.”
In the 1980s, after graduating in film studies in America, returning home he “used the term to describe my film aesthetic”—which he was rapidly developing in independent music videos and then his prolific multi-award-winning work with the Ministry of Information, documenting virtually every aspect of T&T culture, with his unique style of shooting and organic directing. This allowed his subjects to dictate their own pace, rather than being rigidly scripted and gave an unmatched authenticity to his cultural documentaries. His first full feature, SistaGod, remains the sole T&T feature to be officially selected at a major international film festival, premiering at the prestigious Toronto festival in 2006. Haiti Bride represents a natural progression of Yao’s Caribbeing aesthetic and continues the metaphor of the bridal dress, which appears in both SistaGod and its sequel Her Second Coming. The Haitian setting is, however, both a departure and a logical development of his exploration of the Creole space and experience, which was appropriately precipitated in true Haitian style, by a dream.
“I was directing Stranger in Paradise, a Mandarin/Caribbean joint venture feature in Barbados in 2010, when the earthquake hit. I was heartbroken, I had a lot of friends there. I decided my next feature would be made there. I felt more than ever I needed to go and tell stories there. On the night of the earthquake, I had a dream of a bride and groom standing in their wedding clothes in the rubble of a church.” Some months later, taking up a long-term 2006 invitation from the Jacmel Film Institute, “I arrived in Haiti, camera in hand.” The opening sequence of Haiti Bride, true to his dream, features a bride and groom amid the ruins of the cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Yao has always been both advocate and practitioner of “guerrilla” filmmaking, a pragmatic as much as an aesthetic expedient in the low-budget Caribbean film industry environment. He’s turned obstacles into innovations and with Haiti Bride takes his Caribbeing aesthetic into a new realm that he defines as “the eyalect”—“which finally includes Caribbean-spoken Kreyol in the on-screen dialogue in concert with a more indigenous, visual vernacular.”
Besides the spoken Kreyol, there’s also the hauntingly plaintive a cappella soundtrack of eight Vodou folksongs and one song composed by Yao, sung by 21-year-old Kathy Francois. The decision to incorporate Kreyol was as deliberate as his cinematographic technique: “The film is entirely in Haitian Kreyol, in contrast to other films originating in the Haitian diaspora that combine English and Kreyol. I felt it politically imperative not just to film entirely in Haiti but to completely immerse my audience in Haiti, of which language is an intrinsic part.” His improvisational/guerrilla approach immediately came into play when he arrived in the devastated Port-au-Prince. “On a visit to a primary school in Cite Soleil, the sprawling slum that is home to 500,000, I cast the groom…A teacher who spoke English approached me and asked what I was doing in Haiti. I asked him if he owned a black suit. He did…and Lentz Durand became the groom.”
Other directorial decisions were also dictated by the realities of the pre- and post-quake Haitian environment: “The conditions as I found them in post-earthquake Haiti lent themselves to the literal deployment of many applications of the Caribbeing aesthetic. Shooting was done entirely in falling sunlight, without reflectors. “It’s a ‘daylight film,’ there is no night. This is consistent with the reality in Haiti and the need to accomplish activity during daylight hours since frequent power outages and general lack of access to electricity ordinarily severely limit night-time activity.” Yao’s combination of hand-held and tripod shooting was another conscious decision aimed at capturing the lived experience after the earthquake. “I felt that the hand-held visualisations…along with dreaminess of the image could reflect the daze, the dust and the rugged ground.” When he did use a tripod it was randomly placed without levelling it and rather than creating “the illusion… of a consistently even plane” he wanted to “render the symbolic juxtaposition of stillness, dislocation and disruption. Observing Haitians moving through/over the broken landscape balancing bundles on their heads, I thought of an internal gyroscope and how the camera movement could mirror such a kinesis: people continually righting themselves.”
Yao is confident that “My film shows Haiti in a completely different patina from that of western media.”
He makes no attempt to romanticise or idolise, wanting to avoid “compassion fatigue” and concentrate on “the matter-of-factness with which the protagonists pursue their own lives…focusing on the business of life going on even in the face of catastrophe.” This apparently mundane approach was reinforced by his own childhood experience of listening to his mother (historian Marianne Ramesar) recounting tales and singing Kreyol folk songs learnt during her visits to Haiti, and another early memory of his mother and CLR James “sitting at our kitchen table talking about the historic Haiti versus the reality on the ground among contemporary Haitians.” Without disclosing too much of the plot (and spoiling viewing) which focuses on three protagonists “who are brought to question what Haiti means to them” it is relevant to note that Haiti Bride is a significant new phase in Yao’s ongoing Caribbeing aesthetic—the Eyalect mode. If we’re exploring the Caribbean through film then it’s logical Haiti is crucial and central.
As Yao says: “The action is set in the Caribbean, in Haiti ‘mother’ of Caribbean space…significant…to explore the nature of Caribbean identity in the space first to conceptualise itself on equal terms with the coloniser, unshackled by the colonial complex of inferiority.” His Caribbeing is as much a praxis as a practice, one which is crucial in the face of globalisation, mass culture and a growing amnesia of and apathy about regional cultural identity. Haiti Bride is intended “to populate the screen with images of Caribbean Africanity, which is to represent what has typically been rendered invisible or presented in negative or subservient portrayals.”