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DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Victoria Campbell – ‘Monsieur Le Président’

DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Victoria Campbell - 'Monsieur Le Président'

I am a visual artist, performer, and filmmaker. My first film, House of Bones, is a personal memoir and meditation on family, past and present, and the way a house/space defines a person.The film won awards at the Irish International Festival and the Woods Hole Film Festival, as well as the Chagrin Falls Documentary Film Festival. I have also made an experimental road-trip film all across the USA with Abby Pope. The film is titled The Hunt for Good Americans and has been exhibited in art galleries in NYC and Massachusetts.

I trained as an actress in NYC before attending grad school for film. My current film, Monsieur Le Président, is premiering at DOC NYC as part of the Viewfinder section (one of 10 films chosen for “noticeable directorial voices”). (Victoria Campbell’s official site

Monsieur le Président will play at DOC NYC on November 14 and 20. 
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
VC: My film is Monsieur Le Président, which traces the ascent and confusing downfall of Gaston Jean Edy, a charming and much-loved voodoo priest in the Christ-roi section of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I spent 3 years filming him in Haiti. I had gone to help translate for the doctors a week after the earthquake and met this charismatic, extraordinary man. His response to the earthquake was to resurrect a defunct neighborhood clinic and set an admirable example of ingenuity and self-reliance in the face of government corruption.

We became close friends, and the film charts our friendship and the strange, sad turn it takes towards the end when Gaston absconds with foreign donations and seems to have transformed into an entirely different man — or has been “summoned by an evil spirit,” as some of the neighborhood people claim.

W&H: What drew you to this story?
VC: Initially, I was drawn to the story by the voodoo. My intention was to make an updated Maya Deren voodoo film, experimental and in color. I had no intention of making the story I did, but Gaston turned into such a crazy, fascinating character that I had no choice.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

VC: Because I did not start out telling the story of Gaston, I had to really stitch and cull pieces of footage to create the story, which was tedious. I felt I did not have enough of Gaston in the beginning to make a strong arc — to show how much he changed towards the end when he betrayed the neighborhood. I was sifting through hours of footage to pull out pieces when was he acting the Good Samaritan (which he did for two years straight).

I also shot on 5 different cameras: standard Panasonic, Super 8, Flip, DSLR, and Sony HD EX 1. It was very hard to get a fluid sense with all of this footage. I wanted it to look good so people would not be jarred by the change and texture in the footage. I wanted it to create this canvas of sorts — of colors and texture. In the end, I think it does more or less accomplish this.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
VC: I really want people to be left with a sense that things are always gray and never fixed in the good-versus-evil sense. And that although Gaston stole, lied, and cheated his own neighborhood, the audience will understand why he did what he did and not peg him as a scoundrel so much as part of a world we can never fathom.

It’s survival in Haiti day-to-day, and the code of ethics operates much differently there — they don’t have the luxury of holding a grudge and there is little recourse — so sometimes the best weapon is collective forgetting. It is survival in an environment of sheer chaos, lawlessness, violence, and desperation. Life operates very differently under these circumstances and our linear, decent laws don’t apply to Haiti no matter how much we hope or try to impose them down there. I think this is the failure of aid in general.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
VC: Be fearless and make the story you want — and stick to your vision no matter how many people tell you it is wrong or off-beat. Go to a good grad program for film/documentary.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
VC: That I only make documentaries about strange, conflicted, complicated characters. I also want to make fiction films and have a wide swath of characters to draw from. I think we are in a time of mixing nonfiction with fiction, and I love this hybrid. I don’t think of myself as a documentarian so much as a storyteller. And I don’t set out to make social documentaries by any means. I am more interested in the human condition and how we all exist on this earth in so many different, crazy ways. There are simply so many wonderful stories to tell, and I really don’t want to be limited as only a documentary filmmaker.
W&H: How did you get your film funded?
VC: It was a struggle, and yet, because I shoot alone, I was able to manage the costs. I had friends and family help with tickets to Haiti, and I did some basic fundraisers for the clinic in Haiti and my travels there. My family bore the main brunt of the costs. I went to School of Visual Arts for grad school in 2011, where I was able to have excellent access to cameras, professors, editing suites, and workshops with classmates. It was there that the film truly became a film. It was the best decision of my life.

I had made two films prior, but really winged both of them in my own self-taught way. In school I really learned so much — how to film, do sound, and tell a good story. The film is my thesis film. Overall it was not a hugely expensive film. I am doing crowd funding (Indiegogo) now to get the color correction and pay my amazing sound designer the right fees.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

Cleo from 5 to 7 by Agnes Varda. I love this film because it takes a day in one woman’s life, and you follow her through her waves of thought and changing emotion. She is given a diagnosis of cancer — which may or may not be fatal — and you follow her as she journeys through Paris. The mundane becomes sublime and lyrical. We are subtly thrust into not only her life, but the life of the city and the times in which she lives (the 1960s). In a taxi we hear the muffled news headlines of war in Algeria — all the while watching Cleo’s sad eyes. It is a wonderful juxtaposition: how the mad news of the world seethes, and yet we are all dealing with our personal tragedies and disappointments quietly and alone.

It was a way to tell a story so simply without the big fanfare of a Hollywood storyline or big drama. It seemed a reasonable budget — possible to do and personal, and political without being overtly political. The political threads are delicately in the background and hints at the times in which we live. That is how i have always wanted to make films.

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