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Interview: Haiti's Ciné Institute Founder David Belle On Cultivating A Local Film Industry & More

Shadow and Act By Shirley Bruno | Shadow and Act March 17, 2014 at 12:14PM

Interview: Haiti's Ciné Institute Founder David Belle On Cultivating A Local Film Industry & More
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Cine Institute

Ciné Institute, Haiti's only film school is at the helm of fostering a new generation of Haitian filmmakers. For those unfamiliar with the school which launched in 2008, Ciné Institute's mission “gives a powerful voice to Haiti's storytellers” bringing in local and international leaders and filmmakers to help build an emerging film industry.

The non-profit film school's program includes creative and hands-on training, employment opportunities with international clients as well as workshops taught by luminaries like Paul Haggis, Edwidge Danticat, and Jonathan Demme.

Offering a unique tuition free two-year college education made possible by private donations, the Institute is building a reputation for producing fresh talent like Amiral Gaspard, director of Le Bon, Le Méchant et L'apprenti (The Good, The Bad, and the Apprentice) who won our Shadow and Act Fantastical Short Film Contest in January. Other standout projects in the pipeline include Funérarium (Funeral), an enigmatic TV pilot developed by Miguel Alvarez with other second year Ciné students as well as the release of Reincarnation, the first feature film produced by Ciné graduates last year.

Based in Jacmel, a stunning seaside town in Haiti's South East region, the Institute has ambitious plans to jump start “Jollywood” Jacmel's answer to India's Bollywood and Nigeria's Nollywood by emphasizing local talent and resources. 

Haiti Optimiste is the school's annual fundraising gala in New York City every February led by David Belle, the founder of Ciné Institute.

David is an acclaimed American documentary filmmaker himself and splits his time between New York City and his second home in Jacmel, Haiti. We had a chance to talk with David Belle about the history of the school, its mission, and upcoming plans to continue to empower Haitian storytellers and build a sustainable industry.

Shadow And Act: Can you start by telling our readers about the history of the school and how the seeds for the idea were first planted some years ago?

DAVID BELLE: We started originally as a film festival [in 2004] and through the festival in the town in Jacmel where we're based, we would always ask visiting filmmakers to do little mini-masterclasses about their work and about the industry. Those were filled to capacity instantly. The moment we announced so-and-so was coming to do something it was like every young person in town was just banging on the door trying to get in. And so we knew right away that there was a real desire to learn about filmmaking. Then we put a few other pieces together. The second major piece was like everywhere, Haitians want to see content from Haiti before really going out and watching foreign content and we learned that directly through the programming of the film festival. The third piece was really getting in touch with some friends in Nigeria and learning about the economic viability of the film industry based around digital technology and direct-to-DVD release and low budget production models. We kind of put those three things together and moved from doing a major international film festival in Haiti over to starting a film school.

S&A: Jacmel is an interesting place to have a film school. It's a special place and it's almost like the unofficial cultural center of Haiti.

BELLE: Ha. Well some other cities might argue with that but it's definitely one of the creative places.

S&A: Yes it's a great city. It's also one of the most stable, peaceful places in Haiti. Could you talk about why you chose Jacmel as the home for Ciné Institute?

BELLE: I think there are a lot of special places in Haiti so I don't want to say it's the most special. For me, it's been the place where I've built a home in over 15 years ago. It's been my second home for many, many years. It also has a really long wonderful rich tradition of a lot of artists coming from there and important artistic movements. Many Haitian poets and painters come from Jacmel and of course its tradition of Carnival and papier-mâché masks and wonderful artisans which is something that's contemporary and really important. So it's just one of those special places in the world that's a hub of creativity with really talented energy and people. And it's beautiful. So it was a natural extension of living there, working there, and having many friends in the arts there. We all put our heads together and started the film festival. Obviously it's a place that has touristic potential as well and we felt as artists and filmmakers we could help celebrate local culture and create a way to bring people from other parts of the country, even other parts of the world to come and show movies. And now today it's about coming to teach about filmmaking and even coming to produce.

S&A: You could say Jollywood is the new movement there. Jacmel is becoming synonymous with Haitian cinema. 

BELLE: Yes, that's good!

S&A: Ciné Institute seems at the heart of that. What are some of the defining characteristics of the films coming Jollywood. What kind of cinema is it developing to be?

BELLE: We're at the tip of the iceberg. We started the Institute in 2008 so that's five years ago and there was obviously the massive earthquake in the middle of it which severely derailed and delayed a lot of our progress. We had to rebuild. And so really it's just a baby. But as we're growing, we're constantly improving our curriculum and our admissions process. The results are increasingly real and increasingly exciting. There's an amazing amount of talent and our founding principles are really about celebrating local resources and local talent. We're celebrating local stories and using local resources with whatever we have to produce. We're very much not pretending to be or even aspiring to be something any different then using what we have locally because it's so rich. There's so many extraordinary resources, ideas, and stories. It's not about how much gear you have and how much money you have. It's about, is there a really good story and can I tell this well in a simple, efficient fashion so that I can actually get the film made and not sit around having to go raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in Port-au-Prince or even internationally. That's just outdated at this point. If you have a little bit of gear and some training anyone, anywhere in the world can make a movie. It really comes down to if the movie is good. It comes down to is the story good? Was there good direction, good acting and performance, good writing? If you've got those elements, it doesn't matter what the gear is.

S&A: Can you tell us about some of the other challenges your filmmakers are facing?

BELLE: I can say institutionally, we are a free college. And in order to be free and remain free we're out raising money each year to pay for all of the expenses and basically provide each student with a full scholarship. We're doing it and we're really proud of what we've done. We're proud of the fact that the school itself was founded on the principles of let's use what we have and let's not make perfection the obstacle of progress. So we're doing it but we could use a lot more resources than what we currently have. Limited resources are certainly a primary obstacle to the institution and to the students and graduates. Resources are few and we've got a lot of people so we're all sharing. So if there are kind, generous souls out there that want to help grow our resources, financial or technical, please come our way. That would relieve some obstacles.

And I think that the main obstacles for any young filmmaker are really experience and confidence. The two kind of go hand-in-hand. You can have no experience and be totally confident and you can fall flat on your face because you're over ambitious...films are complex. But that's also a good thing because it's a learning experience. I think for any young artist that's both a blessing and somewhat a curse. It's really what you make of your mistakes so that next time around you learn and you don't repeat them and you're growing in a different direction. The other obstacles historically has been Haiti's instability. Right now things are moving in a more positive direction because there is some stability and the Institute is more stable. It's growing and maturing. The real challenge going forward is how people are going to dig deep, remain original, be really creative, and stick to the ideals of celebration of local resources.

S&A: Some Ciné students and grads have done some great work recently from Le Bon, Le Méchant, et L'apprenti, Funerarium, your new TV series, to Miss Body Plastik, a great short film about addressing Haiti's plastic pollution problem. Can you tell us more about your standout films over the past five years?

BELLE: I'm really excited by them. I go down to see the work at the end of every June, we do an evaluation week and we bring filmmakers from Haiti and filmmakers from other parts of the world to watch the work and literally critique it with students. That's when I get to see most of the work these days. At this point being the founder, I get to see this immense, super exciting progress each year. Those evaluation weeks are fascinating because there's so much work that's being produced. I mean in the  first year alone, they're 70 short films produced in one exercise. So there's so much content that's happening that I don't even know about. Out of all the stuff that we've selected and played recently it's obviously the stuff that we as a group feel is the best example of what we've done most recently. And some of the stuff is really starting to stand on its own as films that can play in front of any audience not only Haitian films for Haitian audiences. We had 365 New Yorkers in the French Institute theatre in February. And you guys in your competition had international viewers watching and voting on [Le Bon, Le Méchant, et L'apprenti]. I think in just a couple of years, we're starting to see some young talent coming out of Haiti who have minimal training, just a couple of years of training, and they're starting to really make stuff that can play on a world stage. That's really exciting.

S&A: How would you say these young filmmakers relate to other more established Haitian filmmakers like Raoul Peck or Arnold Antonin? Are there any kinds of shifts or nuances in the voices of this next generation of filmmakers?

BELLE: Of course, you can't characterize them yet because there's 35 students graduating each year and they all are coming to the school and certainly leaving the school with their own ideas, their own tastes. There's this great variety that's coming out of the school. Even between Arnold Antonin and Raoul Peck, they are two completely different Haitian filmmakers working for their whole careers in different ways. I think that's also really exciting, that those two giants from Haitian cinema have contributed in their own important ways to different aspects of Haitian story, Haitian history, the importance of certain world events and world leaders. And if we can have a couple coming out of Ciné Institute that are contributing in that way, that's brilliant. And if we could have a couple more that are contributing toward simply local advertising, local bands, journalism or reportage. There are people going in so many different directions. I just think that as a whole and collectively ten years from now, it's going to be really interesting to see the range of people that have come through the institute and the range of work that they'll be producing at that point. That's what I'm eager to see. Ten years from now, what happens.


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