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Haiti, Raoul Peck

The Auteurs Daily

The Man on the Shore

For those of us hundreds or even thousands of miles away, the devastation in Haiti is unfathomable, however many articles we've read or hours of news footage we've seen. For most of us, two days on now since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, reading on, watching more and perhaps contributing what we can seem to be our only options. Or maybe there's an organization nearby that could use some help. The Haitian American Association of Filmmakers, for example, a non-profit based in Miami whose aim "is to promote and educate Haitian Filmmakers through showcasing, research and production assistance," has leapt to action and is now setting up a relief effort you can read about at their site.

But there are also less immediate steps to be taken. "Much of the devastation wreaked by this latest and most calamitous disaster to befall Haiti is best understood as another thoroughly manmade outcome of a long and ugly historical sequence," writes Peter Hallward in the Guardian. He retraces those sequences and then argues: "Along with sending emergency relief, we should ask what we can do to facilitate the self-empowerment of Haiti's people and public institutions. If we are serious about helping we need to stop trying to control Haiti's government, to pacify its citizens, and to exploit its economy."

For the sake of a tad more historical context, then, I thought I'd turn briefly in today's entry to Raoul Peck, a filmmaker born in Haiti where his father was arrested and jailed for trying to unionize farmers during the dictatorship of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. The family fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Raoul Peck would eventually study in the US and Europe. "He came to New York in 1980," wrote Garry Pierre-Pierre in a 1996 profile for the New York Times, "awaiting a job with the United Nations, but the agency was facing a severe budget crisis and was not hiring. Meantime, he took up driving a cab and began to realize that his true calling was in filmmaking, not in settling international disputes."

Also in 1996, and also in the NYT, Lawrence van Gelder reviewed Peck's 1993 film, The Man by the Shore, the first Haitian film to see a theatrical release in the US: "The setting is Haiti in the 1960s, during the tyrannical regime of Francois Duvalier, the dictator whose titles included President for Life and the falsely fatherly Papa Doc. But the setting could be Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Trujillo's Dominican Republic, Idi Amin's Uganda, Saddam Hussein's Iraq or any of a thousand of history's hells on earth. The narrowly focused story told by Peck achieves its universality by magnifying the impact of oppression on one family."

That summer Peck was still Haiti's Minister of Culture, a post he wouldn't hold for long; he resigned along with then-Prime Minister Rosny Smarth in June 1997. Recently, he's been appointed President of La Fémis, the prestigious French film school, and of course, he's been asked to comment on the current disaster. Those comments are here, and from what I can tell, via Google, he'd likely agree with much of Peter Hallward's assessment.

Just last year, Peck returned with a new feature that premiered in Toronto and then screened at MoMA in December. From the Museum's introduction: "Peck's film transplants Alexander Sokurov's psychological investigation into Hitler's last days, Moloch (1999), into his own indictment of a deluded, murderous Haitian despot, Moloch Tropical. Yet although the setting (a secluded mountaintop castle) and circumstances (a monstrous leader loses his last battle on the home front surrounded by his few remaining devoted followers) are similar, the film's overall sensibility couldn't be more different." Peck's film "becomes an indictment of political collusion and the corrupting force of power everywhere." More from Tambay in Shadow And Act.

If you've got comments or tips on further exploration of Haitian cinema, they'd be appreciated. For now, I'll note that presents documentary shorts, immediately viewable for free; there's Bob Corbett's "List of Films Dealing with Haiti"; and, from the World History Archives, a few articles on the "history of cinema in the Republic of Haiti."

Updates, 1/15: "Many of Annie Nocenti's film students at the Ciné Institute in Jacmel, Haiti, lost their homes in this week's devastating earthquake," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "Some may have lost friends and family members; as in much of the country, the scope of the disaster is not yet clear. 'But they are out on the streets now, shooting and editing,' she says. 'They can get into places nobody else will ever go, and interview people outside news crews will never meet. This is what we trained them for.'"

"[T]he gulf between native son and tourist lady in the Haiti of Heading South is a socioeconomic chasm as big as the physical destruction we're now witnessing, aghast, in a Haiti ripped by nature as well as by man-made misery." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum: "Make a contribution to a reputable relief organization on behalf of the Haitian earthquake disaster. And see this movie."

For Esquire, Mark Warren talks with Bill Clinton: "[W]e will reconstitute the UN effort. And I think it will be the most passionate effort you've ever seen."

Image: The Man on the Shore.

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Eat, For This Is My Body, a French-funded film made in Haiti by Michelange Quay, divided film festival audiences but I’m decidedly in the ‘pro’ camp. An elaborate art film with documentary aspects, it deserves to be re-viewed in context of the recent reaction among certain international commentators to the tragic earthquake and aftermath.
Seconded on Quay’s film, which turns the Haitian / French colonial relationship into a Surrealist fever dream from which all parties are attempting (in vain) to wake up. All the more powerful viewed in light of Robertson’s unconscionable, moronic “pact with the devil” comment. Quay depicts an all-enveloping evil. Who made “the pact” with whom?
Thirded. “Eat” was a favorite of mine at New Directors/New Films the year it played.
Thanks, all. I’ve been hoping to be able to see this one ever since your dispatch from Sundance, Brian… … but unfortunately, that opportunity just hasn’t come along yet. Hm. Time to drop a note in the suggestion box here, I believe.
Any idea where I can get a copy of the Man on the Shore in NYC?

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