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

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

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.

S&A: Can you give us a breakdown of your actual program.

BELLE: There’s three principle divisions: There’s Ciné Lekol which is the training division and that’s a two-year curriculum. First year students are immersed in all aspects of filmmaking and second year students have to choose a specialty skill to focus on whether it’s producing, directing, cinematography, sound, editing. Our second division is post-graduate which is Ciné Services and that’s our employment division. Clients hire us to produce work of all kinds and we in turn hire our graduates to produce that work. And then the third division is Ciné Support and that is set up to provide graduates with the technical support they need to produce their own projects. So they have a client that they’re producing something for and they need gear for the shoot, so they come to us. Or if they have simply an original idea, like I want to make this short film and I need 5-days of camera rentals. We will provide them with the technical support and studio time so that they can go out and do that. And those are just both set-ups so that we’re not just simply training people. We want to be training people and then giving them every possibility we can offer to ensure that they’re out working after their training.

S&A: You offer tuition free college education. Can you give us a breakdown of your studentship? Ages, gender, backgrounds. Seems like there’s a wide range of ages and some balance of both women and men there.

BELLE: We’re trying very hard for a 50/50 male to female ratio and it’s directed from the top, from those of us that are leading this. That’s what we’re really striving towards. We’re not there yet and it changes a little bit each year based on the quality of candidates. But we do national outreach to students from candidates all across the country and we get hundreds of applicants and then the most promising ones are then selected to be personally interviewed by an admissions committee which I’m not a part of. It’s all done locally. And from the admissions committee they then rate the candidates and choose the best top 35. The simple requirements to be eligible to apply are you must have completed high school. The age range is basically 18 to 35. We have had a few students over 35 but the vast majority are 18 to 35. It’s open to students all around the country. Unfortunately because we’re in Jacmel the whole financial obstacle to someone coming to the institute that they have to assume is moving to Jacmel. We do not yet have the ability to offer full accommodations room and board, something I’d like very much to do in the future. So our percentages in terms of origin are still majority South East region. I’d say it’s about 60/40 with 40 percent from other parts of the country.

S&A: Paul Haggis, Edwidge Danticat, Jonathan Demme have all done workshops at Ciné Institute. Tell us about the workshops taught by a strong roster of international filmmakers and other creatives.

BELLE: We have within the curriculum a few slots where visitors can come in our weekly schedule. So we encourage professionals, filmmakers, and even business people and artists from other mediums to come by and give a class if they’re in Haiti. I often go down with a group of friends and colleagues from New York and Europe and we make sure that everyone spends time in class as much as possible to share their own knowledge and experience but also to meet the students and to get to know Haiti first hand, not hearing about it from me. Go sit in a class and see what they’re doing. So we’ve had all sorts of people come through. I was there most recently with the head of Brioni which is an Italian luxury brand and he spoke about what it takes to build a brand and what creating a fashion line looks like. We’ve got writers, producers, actors and cinematographers, and all sorts of people. Michél Pierre-Louis who was the former prime minister of Haiti came and was a guest lecturer in our class for leadership and civic responsibility. So we’re just trying to – in addition to creating filmmakers- have them surrounded by leading voices, and local and international cinema. We’re also just trying to bring all sorts of leaders from business and the arts to Haiti to share their knowledge and experience. One of the remarkable things about Haiti is always that Haiti has attracted some pretty extraordinary people, extraordinary friends.  So we’ve been really lucky to have lots of really important, super accomplished people take notice of what we’re doing and want to be a part of it. We couldn’t be more proud to have all of these associations.

S&A: Speaking on international collaborations, do you foresee Ciné Institute partnering with any other local Caribbean industries as well, perhaps Cuba, Jamaica, or the rest of the Franco-Caribbean?

BELLE: Yeah it definitely is in the future. In fact there have been some collaborations already. And some of our work has gone on some of their festivals and there’s been some small co-productions. It’s obviously only natural that there’s collaboration regionally. And I think that’s only going to grow over time. It’s really important.

S&A: There’s also the current wave of Haitian filmmakers in the diaspora working in the states and abroad. I know you work with filmmakers like Stones in the Sun’s Patricia Benoit and others like Michelange Quay and Jerry LaMothe. How do you see Haitian diasporic filmmakers playing a role in Ciné Institute’s mission and in the builidng of Jollywood?

BELLE: Yes, all of those people are involved. Patricia and Jerry are dear friends of mine and of the Institute. They all come down and they teach. I think in fact Patricia is there right now. And Michelange was there for the whole first semester of the school year. Jerry was there earlier during evaluation week so I think that the Haitian diaspora is crucial to not only the institute but the future of Haiti. So much of Haiti’s talent and educated successful talent is living abroad as a result of Haiti’s instability so if we can create a stable, reputable and serious institution around film and music and the arts in Jacmel- in a place where people are interested by and comfortable in- they can then finally come back and start to share their knowledge as a teacher or they can hire people as a collaborator or as a client. Well that’s really important both for the institute and for local talent. But it’s also really important for them if they’ve finally got a tool they could go home and work with and use. So I think it’s all mutually beneficial and that’s why we’re seeing so many of them take part in it.

S&A: Let’s talk a bit about distribution. You mentioned Nollywood as a sort of model for production and I’m sure it’s a model for distribution as well. Obviously they had a huge video and DVD distribution model which was a response to Nigerian movie theatres closing down at some point. Haiti isn’t exactly known for its movie theatres either.

BELLE: Ha, yes.

S&A: So how are people getting to see Ciné’s films. Of course there’s internet and VOD, what’s Ciné Institute’s plan to build your local and international audience for your growing roster of films?

BELLE: Great question. It’s sort of top of the list in terms of our next great big challenges and what we’re all now really starting to focus on, now that we have a training capacity. The distribution pipeline everywhere is changing obviously as DVDs are becoming more and more obsolete and so there’s obviously big opportunities and paths paved through broadcast and also for streaming and video on demand. And so we’re really just starting to position ourselves to identify the right partners and the right opportunities locally and then regionally. And that’s a big part of our 2014 objectives. And then the theatre stuff is happening in Haiti in a more, sort of grassroots way. We just released our first feature film Reincarnation last December and it was screened all over the South East through basically creating projection spaces because there aren’t too many. And there was sort of a street guerilla marketing campaign. There were even some outdoor screenings. And then internationally, some stuff is starting to get picked up by festivals and the Haiti Optimiste [gala] screening that we did in New York is going to go on in Montreal. Miami, and Los Angeles. And I think ultimately once there’s a number or series of feature films, we’ll start to really look at theatrically, what can happen in the US and Europe to first get it to the diaspora communities.

S&A: Speaking of your screenings, I’ve seen the grassroots movement and the projections in great, unconventional spaces throughout the community. It really does feels like Ciné Institute has sort of turned Jacmel into a film town where there’s just a natural buzz around the culture of film.

BELLE: It’s getting there. I really want to get a theatre and I think, another thing probably for a year or two from now is that we take a rental space, convert it, and make it into a theatre.

S&A: How has Ciné Institute impacted the local community and what’s the response been like? And likewise how’s the community playing a role in Ciné Institute’s development. I know it’s a symbiotic relationship.

BELLE: That’s a great question because there’s so many different facets to the relationship and our impact and our place in the community. Obviously the first one is we’re giving talented youth the opportunity to go on to college and most of them would never have had that opportunity because unfortunately they couldn’t afford it. 1% of High school graduates in Haiti go on to college so we’re fulfilling a huge need and hopefully making a huge difference in young people’s lives. Whether they become filmmakers or not I think doing two years in this program is transformative. They’re coming out with a whole different worldview and skills that they never would’ve had. So that’s transformative in the lives of all those young people and obviously for those young ones who are becoming successful locally and earning a living it’s having a reverberation through them and their families because they’re not only making money, but in most cases they’re making really good money.  So that’s really helping to deal with some of the financial challenges on the home front.

And then beyond the scope of the students, so much work is being produced locally by students and graduates and that’s touching down in the community in very, very real collaborative ways by bringing in local talent to act, by using local locations and local labor. And sometimes it’s purely voluntary on student films and other times we’re employing people throughout the community to produce some sort of commercial project for a client. And they’re both important. Making money is not the only important thing. It’s about collaboration, artistic collaboration in the community. Like there’s a whole group of now actors who weren’t acting a couple of years ago, who didn’t even know they were actors a couple of years ago and they love it. They’re really excited. There’s a lot of artistic possibilities that are opening up. A lot of ideas. So that’s really amazing to see.

Then I think further out from that there’s a real increasing sense of pride locally amongst Jacmelians that there is a film school and it’s Haiti’s only film school. And it’s in Jacmel which is a place that’s known as you said, for its cultural creativity. So I think it’s a real source of pride and prestige for the town. It’s obviously attracting some extraordinary leaders in international film that are coming to Jacmel. Ben Stiller and Susan Sarandon were there, Jackson Brown, Paul Haggis, Jonathan Demme and even President Clinton. That’s great stuff for Jacmel. So that’s obviously a huge source of pride. I think it’s now playing the other really important role in terms of the larger community, the global community of giving young Haitians- and many of them not just a few- the opportunity to share their own stories and their own perspectives on Haiti with the world. And we all know how important that is because so much of the narrative about Haiti has been one sided or a negative narrative. So in the larger sense, the impact this is having on the global community is going to be important because it’s going to start to change the narrative and the overall impression and brand of Haiti.

S&A: What are the schools’ biggest upcoming initiatives and how can people get involved and or donate?

BELLE: The really exciting news is that we’ve just launched a new division of Ciné Institute and that’s a sister college for audio engineering and music production called Audio Institute. So now we’ve got film and music going on side by side and that’s a partnership with Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie. We’re really excited and really proud about that. It’s going to be really cool to see all the cross pollination that happens around these two programming on the same campus. So that’s been a huge new endeavor. We all came back from Carnival recently from Haiti and we did a huge public concert with six Haitian bands. Arcade Fire headlined and that was our first big music production. So we’re going to grow that. I think we’re going to grow that into an annual gathering in Jacmel that brings the film festival back alive. So that there’s film and music for the beginning of Carnival. And there are a ton of projects in various stages of development in production and post, all different kinds. I’m really excited that we’re going to start working with Leyla McCalla who’s a Haitian- American recording artist. The New York Times just did a review on her for her first album. She’s going to come down and shoot a video soon. We really need everyone’s support to keep doing this work. And the best way to lend financial support is to go to the website and hit the donate now button. And if someone wants to help in a bigger way and have a more private conversation about that they should contact us directly.

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