In 2016, I saw ‘In Haiti: A roadtrip documentary’ conceptualized by Florian Wiesner and Fabian Bohnet-Waldraff. It was a gripping account of the nation and its conspicuously debatable circumstances. Florian who was born in Haiti from a Haitian mother and a German father realized the necessity to bring into forefront the rise and fall of once one of the wealthiest colonies of the world. While I was still absorbed in the gravity of what I had seen, in January 2018, the 45th President of The United States reportedly called Haiti a “shithole country”, a remark that made me evaluate the magnitude of ignorance we proudly live in and how we harbor egocentricity that completely awashes our empathetic state of mind.
Adding solemnity into this matter, today, I bring you an account of Haiti through the lens of a documentary film-maker and a proud Haitian, Florian Wiesner…
Let’s take a step back and time travel to the years 1791-1804: The Haitian Revolution, often described as the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. It is certainly the only servile uprising that led to the creation of an independent nation, Haiti and entrenched itself as a landmark in the history of abolition. History is resultant of our actions, big or small, the Haitian revolutionary uprising highlighted the abuses of slavery and dealt a blow to the Atlantic Slave Trade, the profitable and inhumane trafficking of human beings from the west coast of Africa to European colonies and countries in the Americas. Since then, over 200 years ago, Haiti has struggled with external and internal dilemmas. The revolutionary wars had destroyed nearly all the country’s colonial infrastructure and production capabilities. In the 1800s, Europeans and Americans ostracized the fledgling nation politically and economically, contributing to Haiti’s decline from one of the world’s wealthiest colonies to one of its most impoverished countries. As quoted in Haiti: 150 years of independence; The UNESCO Courier; Vol.:VII, 2; 1954, “The rich plantations had disappeared in the smoke of the incendiary torch during the fierce scorched-earth war of liberation. For over twenty years, until Haitian independence was officially recognized by the French in 1825, Haiti remained in complete isolation constantly fearing the possible return of the French. This kept the whole nation in arms and seriously retarded efforts at organization”.
It’s important to understand that, when Saint-Domingue/Haiti, the wealthiest and most flourishing of the French colonies, rebelled against France resulting in a struggle which lasted 14 years, amid ruin, destruction and catastrophe, its people declared their independence. Who were these people? Were they the owners of indigo, coffee, sugar-cane plantation or were they rich aristocrats or were they the poor tradesmen, craftsmen or labourers? They were 600,000 black slaves who had been brought from Africa during three centuries of slave trading, to be used as tools in promoting the colony’s prosperity. Under slavery, not only were their lineages fragmented but also, they were culturally and religiously suppressed. Force conversions into Christianity led them to pool their religious knowledge and that gave birth to Vodou Cult which had a major role to play in the Haitian Revolution. On August 24, 1791, a prominent slave leader and Vodou priest Dutty Boukman called for a meeting with the slaves in the mountains of the North. The meeting took the form of a Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman where the slaves admitted consensual resentment over their condition and swore to take revenge against their French oppressors. A week later, 1800 plantations had been destroyed and 1000 slaveholders had been killed.
In Haiti, there is extreme poverty, overpopulation, food insecurity, bad healthcare and bad education. Unfortunately, these are the only things the media focus on and now, that has become the image of the country. The American media, for example, has equated Haitians with savage voodoo ceremonies, HIV/AIDS, and “boat people” refugees beginning in the early 1900s. Aside from ignoring factual evidence, these accounts disregard the complexity and richness of Haiti’s resilient culture and people. Despite its poverty, Haiti is clearly an exceptional nation, and one that has had a profound impact on the world since it was claimed by Columbus over 500 years ago.
Do you know the French abolitionist Abbé Henri Grégoire once viewed the Haitian republic, not the United States of America, as the custodian of revolutionary ideals and a beacon to the world?
In Haiti: A road trip documentary – The kickstart
“I wasn’t particularly precipitated to make a documentary on Haiti; the desire and motivation came in phases. I was introduced to Photography and Documentary Film making by a dear friend and I fell in love with the whole process of it. But, why on Haiti? I was in Germany and conversations with friends and people around gave me a fair idea of how little they knew about my country. They thought it’s a paradise, which in a way it is, discounting the acquired problems the country is suffering from. That’s when I wondered how informative it would be if I make a documentary on Haiti, but not in Western voice, rather Haitian voice. A voice that does not victimize its people and sends out a strong message to the world, a voice more realistic and authentic in nature.”
After a long hiatus of five years when Florian moved to Haiti to shoot a documentary, it wasn’t as much the local flora and fauna, the folklore that had changed as it was him and his outlook. “I had become an alien to the place while every corner of my heart was still beating for those happy familiarities – the food, the sidewalks, the jokes, family, friends and idiosyncrasies, everything that made me a Haitian. In my attempt to document Haiti, I grew closer to my country’s problems and the reasons behind it. If you see my documentary, there is a 6-minute animation in the middle that depicts its history which is primarily the root cause of all the problems in Haiti. It’s a history of colonization, genocide, of white supremacy and slavery. Haiti became a country where the originals disappeared and what’s left was foreigners living as slaves for hundreds of years who eventually kill all the whites to take their independence back but what after that? The vast majority had no knowledge of democracy, they were not educated, they didn’t even speak the same language. So, it’s a long trail of calamities that fell on Haiti one after the other. It disheartens me to see its aftermaths still persisting. I believe time will heal, with time stronger institution will develop. Also, there is a big diaspora of Haitians living abroad, those having access to credits, quality education – they must come back and invest in their own country. Once the political situation stabilizes, Haiti will become like a dream for entrepreneurs and business minded people. Everything needs to be built.”
In Haiti: A road trip documentary – The process & impact
“Making this documentary was not an easy process, we made a lot of mistakes. Neither Fabian nor I had previous experience with Film-making. My background is in Genetics and Plant Physiology. Fabian studied Physics. You would notice the movie has been shot in lower definition, its 4:3 not 16:9 and then, there was a problem with the sound. My plan was to sell it to the TV and make some money but, the quality was not good. It struck me, why not put it on YouTube (in different languages) and educate people for free? I was experimenting all my way till the end. I uploaded it and left it there thinking most foreigners would be interested in watching it, to my surprise, it was the Haitians living abroad who viewed it the most. Right now, we have half a million views which seemed impossible at the beginning. In fact, a lot of teachers used this documentary to teach in their History class and it’s also being used by the U.S. State Department which prepares people going on UN missions.
You know, one of the most unique features of Haiti is its culture. The culture that emerged out of the amalgamation of different African tribes that were brought to Haiti as slaves is exceptional, it’s a culture that mixes with French and Latino heritage and what adds well is the rich history of rebellion and Vodou religion. Our culture and art is very unique, but, you don’t hear much about it. It’s not visible to the world anymore.
I’ve been wondering since long what to do next. What should I do with this half a million audience of Haitians living abroad? What I know for sure is they are scared – Haiti’s image is not positive. What should I do to make Haiti attractive and meaningful for this diaspora to invest? What may help is “Re-branding” with “Storytelling” – moving away from catastrophe-framing to opportunity-framing. That is where I would like to contribute. At some point in future, I wish to spend time at capturing the essence of Haiti’s culture and beauty on film. I want my fellow Haitians living abroad to be proud. It’s pure resistance to the “shithole” remark. I am a very privileged person and if I can mix my passion for film-making with a useful goal then it is the least I can do for a country that has given me so much.”
(Article written in collaboration with Florian Wiesner)
Florian Wiesner, b. 1983, Haitian-German. Graduate of the University of Freiburg, 2010. Florian is a molecular biologist, documentary film-maker and producer. He has worked for the UN in Italy and Haiti. His first film, “In Haiti: a road trip documentary” has over half a million views on YouTube. He is currently Head of Video at “The Forest Trust”, a non-profit, where he produces documentary shorts about environmental and social topics. In addition, he is an associate producer of “The Mayor’s Race”, a documentary about Marvin Reese, UK’s first directly elected mayor of African-Caribbean descent. The movie will hit the film festival circuit in 2018. Florian lives and works in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with his wife and totally wild son.