Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Monday, July 07, 2003  

A film whose makers claim is the first ever feature film to be shot in Haiti, is set to open in that country soon; the word from advance screenings is that it's quite the hit.

I don't know if Royal Bonbon is actually the first feature film to be made in Haiti - I suspect it isn't, and will have to check on that - but it has been gathering quite a lot of interest. Royal Bonbon tells the story of a man who deludes himself and a village into thinking he is the second coming of Henri Christophe, one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution, 200 years after the events that saw Haiti wrest independence from Napoleon's France.

In a country that continues to be as troubled and as poor as Haiti is, any sort of artistic endeavour seems to me remarkable; making a feature film seems quite incredible. Of course the film isn't a totally local project (the director is French, for example) but the cast, and more importantly the story being told, is completely Haitian.

The paradox here is worth noting. Haiti has long been, economically, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, but its revolutionary history, which saw it become the first black nation in the western hemisphere to gain its independence from a European nation, means that Haiti at least has a greater sense of identity and self than many of her more affluent Caribbean neighbours, and can look to her past and say, “We did something."

(Of course, had Haiti not completely tore herself away from the mother country and done away with the colonial system, she might not be in the dire straits she finds herself in today. Then again, various dictatorial regimes and US-backed puppet governments haven't helped, either.)

In this way Haiti resembles Jamaica, a country with a history of slave resistance and the like which has led to the forging of a strong national identity, a country whose citizens like to say is "serious" and has "serious" problems; unlike, say, an upstart of a country such as Trinidad, a jokey, half-made society with no real history of anything to speak of. (But I don't intend to get into the Trinidad-Jamaica rivalry here.)

The reason the story of Royal Bonbon so struck me was that quite a few feature films have been made in Trinidad. Yet with the exception of Bim in the early 1970s, they have all been another's idea of what the Trinidadian/Caribbean reality is. Basically that reality has been the one of sun, sea, sand and sex; a reality foisted on us, yet which we have done nothing to change. Even the film of Naipaul’s Mystic Masseur, whatever else it may have been, whatever incidental merits it may have had, was, ultimately, not Trinidad.

And it is not just in film, but in almost all the other arts that we are yet to grasp any real notion of an idea of Trinidad – TV, theatre, music (with the exception of pan – calypso has gone to the dogs). And let’s not even talk about literature.

Yet I ask myself: would I rather live in Jamaica or Haiti, with a proud past of resistance and revolution, but a present filled with unspeakable crime, gang warfare, grinding poverty, the widest of gulfs between the haves and have nots? A present born out of such a tumultuous past? Or would I rather T&T, cynical and apathetic, sure, but (broadly speaking) tolerant, open and – in the best sense of the term – easy going? I may grind my teeth sometimes at our willingness to allow all manner of wrongdoing to pass unchecked, and lament our lack of seriousness, but when I take a look around at some of our neighbours, and the many other countries so much worse off than we are, I find myself thinking, well, in many ways, we aren’t as bad as all that.

And in any case, there are some things in life more important than movies.

posted by Jonathan | 5:16 PM 0 comments


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