In the final installment of this modest little film festival preview, I wanted to take a moment to talk about one of the films in the Toronto Film Festival that I knew very little about, but which a little bit of research (and the power of persuasion) have me very interested to see; Michelange Quay’s Eat, For This Is My Body. One of the first things film festival goers learn in their travels is how to recognize the signs of promise in an otherwise overwhelming program of movies; In the case of Eat, For This Is My Body, there were several factors that piqued my interest. First and foremost, the subject matter (a white women confronting her outsider status in Haiti) appears to me to be related to several other films in the festival (see my write-up of Santosh Sivan’s Before The Rains for only one example), but also, in terms of its interest in the anti-colonial/revolutionary impulse, it seems to be a look at a history about which I know very little. So, a movie with a big idea that appears to be in the zeitgeist. Check.
Then, with a little digging (it’s my job, what can I say?) I saw that the cast list includes one of my favorite actresses, one whose appearance almost guarantees that something engaging will be happening on-screen; Sylvie Testud. I have been a big fan of hers since I saw her in Jean-Pierre Denis’ Murderous Maids back in 2000 and I’ve been following her work ever since. I think she is unique in that she has the ability to be both treacherous and hilarious at the same time, which is no small feat. And while Eat, For This Is My Body doesn’t seem to promise any laughs, her ability to generate empathetic responses in me, even in a film like Murderous Maids, is something I am always looking for in a performance. So, double check. I’m looking forward to seeing this one.
Sylvie Testud in Michelange Quay’s Eat, For This Is My Body
Last week, the director Michelange Quay e-mailed me with a press kit, and having reviewed it, I thought it might be of interest to publish his Director’s statement, which obviously captures his intentions better than I could (not having seen the film yet) and does a fantastic job of articulating the ideas that I find so compelling. If the movie can deliver on these ideas, well, I’ll be very interested to hear more from Quay. As it stands, I’m looking forward to seeing it and deciding for myself.
“Although some of the scenes for this film where also shot in other places, its absolute reference point is the country of my origins, Haiti. The film was nourished by what I’ve seen, heard or felt there, and these impressions rearranged themselves into a invisible world with its own language. It’s a completely subjective vision, a dialogue between present day images and ancestral memories, an exchange between the generations inside me… a repository of unconscious themes – much like a dream. The icons and actions that contribute to this atmosphere should, like in poetry, allow each viewer his own dialogue with the image on the screen as well his or her image of himself – an infinite double mirror of meanings and identities most appropriate to the ambiguous political and spiritual situation that Eat For This Is My Body illustrates. The film plays out in a filmic “no time” somewhere between documentary and surrealism, a space somewhere between the terrain of the political pamphlet and the realm of lyric poetry, where contemporary iconography and ancient archetype should intermingle in a way that is, in my sense, typical of Haiti, a country that has been swallowing and reinventing icons, “creoleizing” them, since its beginnings, in the nightmare years of slavery, a country whose Vaudou religion melds the most concrete elements of everyday past, present, and future into one twisting, turning tree of dreams.
Most of the roles are played by non-actors. Actually, the only roles for which I did cast experienced actors were those of Madame (Sylvie Testud) and her Mother (Catherine Samie), perhaps intuitively, because these two white women were strangers to Haiti, “actors” by essence – strangers to the dream, and thus dreamers themselves – perhaps echoes of Haiti by white relief. They played their roles face to face with Haitian non actors who bore with them the undeniable honesty of a “real” person on screen, and this hybrid performance, at the same time ultrareal and completely theatrical and arbitrary brings to fore the feeling ‘what is real?’, a dissonance that enhances the dream experience of the film’s viewing. The film plays out in a state of narrative self consciousness, similar not only to the dreaming state, and to the suggestive state of hypnosis, but also to their sister in the narrative arts – allegory. It allows us to plunge into the soup of our unconscious spiritual, political, and sexual symbols, in order to explore, play, fear and rejoice in them in a natural and healthy way.
First and last, Haiti is the land of my fathers, the land of my mothers. They told me that this little island, tiny in the shadow of the American colossus, is where something new happened – 1804, a revolution – slaves, killing their masters, reinventing their names, creating new Gods, rewriting History. They told me we turned distant forgotten Africa into a Nirvana a bridge of resistance between the ancestors and the unborn. That we turned the shame of slavery into a badge of honor, an arrogant, glorious flag declaring each year to be the Year Zero. Now, it seems that this island is a lost phantom boat, abandoned in the middle of the diplomatic sea, cursed, adrift in its own dreams of glory, nightmares of submission. Perhaps while some dreamed of conquest, building castles, and pillaging the treasury, others where patiently dreaming of a good harvest, hoping to win a cockfi ght, or that week’s lottery, dreaming the road from the obscure countryside to the nearest big city, from the capital, Port au Prince to New York or Miami, or Philadelphia, or Paris. From far away, I hear many call Haiti a hell, a nightmare – they call it a nation that does not exist, but is a nation a president, a throne, a financial aid package, an interim government, a Constitution, or is it more than anything, the land of our fathers, the land of our mothers?”
The time for previews has ended for me. As I pack up my bags and get ready for Toronto, I am looking at my calendar and staring down four consecutive weeks of film screenings. Reality is setting in; The season is starting again! I took a walk outside this morning and felt September in the air, and while I am more than ready, I also feel reflective. My way of preparing for watching, thinking and writing, I guess. I am excited to get started and to see what’s out there this year. Come on, let’s go.