Children of Haiti premieres on Independent Lens on Tuesday, January 11 (check local listings) — a day before the one-year anniversary of the deadly Haiti earthquake.
Although her film wrapped before the quake, filmmaker Alex Hammond has returned to Haiti several times since and joined us to talk about making the film, what has become of her subjects, and why she fell in love with the country.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope it will enlighten more people about Haiti, and give voice to the children who don’t have a place in that society.
What led you to make Children of Haiti?
I first traveled to Haiti in 2002 to shoot a short documentary about the impact of the largest private hospital in the north part of the country, called Hopital Sacre Coeur. I spent a month documenting the need for medical attention, while also learning about Haiti’s remarkable history and rich culture. But the epidemic of homeless children, who I saw everywhere, was impossible to ignore. During my time in the city of Cap-Haitien, I visited a small center for street kids, and was introduced to a few boys who shared their personal stories of survival. I was moved immensely by the challenges and obstacles these children were up against, and determined to capture all the contrasts in their world that were so surreal to me.
What were some of the challenges you faced?
Of the many challenges in such a project, the greatest is that it’s a film about children. Children are typically complicated and difficult subject matter. Depending on their level of maturity, many only want to show off for the camera. The work becomes finding those who can articulate their situation honestly.
On a personal level, gaining the trust of the people in the city was never easy. The film was shot before the earthquake, and though they were used to missionaries, rarely were blans (foreigners) seen hanging around with cameras. Safety was certainly an issue, especially when shooting at night. Street boys are constantly being abused by older boys, gangs, and police. Their sleeping spot is considered the most sacred place, and we generally had to be very sensitive about filming them in public spaces. The final challenge was the edit. Translating and building a film in a foreign language, while working freelance film and television jobs to support the project, was no less a task than shooting it.
How did you gain the trust of the kids?
We gained trust because we had a wonderful guide, Alfred “Jah” Castel. He was our translator and friend, well known in town for his years playing soccer. He also knew where the street boys hung around, because he divided his time coaching soccer at a private school and working in a small school for street children. Having Jah explain our intentions to the children, that we would be unobtrusive and respect anyone who didn’t want to be on camera, helped lay the foundations of trust. We committed 10 hours or more each day to seeing what these children had to face, and many of them were very responsive and respectful of what we were doing.
What would you have liked to include in the film that didn’t make the cut?
There are several boys we followed that just couldn’t make the cut because their stories weren’t developed enough. It was painful to do away with these small portraits because I wanted so many of them to have a chance to be heard.
Why are there no girls in your film?
The truth is simple: Getting access is virtually impossible. Many of the girls in Haiti are restaveks, which means domestic servants. They are essentially slaves, taken in by families who don’t necessarily have much, but they clean the house and cook in exchange for food and shelter. Most of these girls never go to school, and many are exploited. My focus ultimately had to remain on the street boys, as the girls really would have required a film of their own.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
We were with the boys at sunset. Though many of them were high on paint thinner, fooling around and acting like little kids, our main character Denick began preaching about his dreams for Haiti. It was a shining moment for him. His words connected with the children, with us, even with passing strangers. This 14-year-old street boy’s incredible understanding of his country, people, and history moved every one of us.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the boys featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
We shared the film with Denick in July 2010. He loved it, but had a very hard time watching the scenes with his stepfather, who died in 2008. Nickenson saw many of the scenes cut in 2009, but we were saddened we couldn’t find him on the last trip to share more.
The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
Discovering new stories and subjects that I want to explore. There are so many beautiful and fascinating things happening all the time, and I just can’t wait to immerse myself in these new worlds and listen to stories and watch interesting people tell me their dreams. I like subjects that are not common, and places most people might not know much about. Haiti is enigmatic, but it has a bad rap among people that don’t know any better. I wanted to prove them wrong. I wanted to share the beauty of the land, the people, the remarkable history, and what I fell in love with. There’s always a lot of rejection in the making of such a film, and many times I felt like it was going to kill me, but the boys kept me strong to finish.
How has the earthquake affected the boys who you filmed?
While Haiti is a relatively small country (the size of Rhode Island), its rough geography and landscape keep everyone isolated. The film takes place in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, a 10-hour bus ride through treacherous mountainsides from the capital city of Port-Au-Prince. The earthquake only hit the southern part of the country, so thankfully the boys I know were fine. Cap-Haitien is relatively safe and unharmed, but these children are still facing the same problems. In fact, nothing has changed for them. I hope the film can bring awareness to this issue that should not remain unaddressed.
What has happened to the people in your film since shooting wrapped?
When I visited Haiti last month I was able to locate Denick, the main character. When I first started filming him was a 14-year-old boy. Now he’s 17, with a 5-month-old child. I could say I captured the transition from boy to man. He dropped out of school, claiming the teachers were hitting him and the other children were mean. He seems to be doing well despite the poverty he lives in, still a smiling boy with a huge heart, and is working everyday at SOIL, an environmental non-profit that specializes in composting and turning waste into soil. Everyday he burns the garbage, moves the compost around, and mops the floors. We got to see him do some of his chores, and explain what he does.
We couldn’t find Nickenson. He supposedly went up to the mountains and moved from the small house he was living in. Antoine was also nowhere to be found. Many of the kids move around the city, finding new hiding paces and hangouts, and it’s difficult to keep up with exactly where they go.
I went up to Milot near the San Souci Palace and located Napoleon Dupin, the old man who guided us through the palace. He now has some form of dementia, and is being taken care of by a brother. Though his mind has almost gone, he still remains happy and full of life. Nothing seems to beat this man down.
Alfred “Jah” Castel, our guide and translator, now lives in Turks and Caicos, where he is a police officer. It’s been a few months since I last spoke to him, but he visits Haiti twice a year to see his child.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I felt that this film could inspire, bringing people together to share compassion for these children. TV reaches a huge audience in towns across the U.S. and the world that might never get a chance to see such a place in their lifetime. I wanted to transport them to Haiti. I wanted others to see what I did, to show them that Haiti is complex, grand, and an important part of world history.
What do you wish you’d done with the film that you weren’t able to do?
There are always things you miss, which might be one of the hardest things to accept about making documentaries, but I don’t think about it. You return from each trip thinking you missed something, and in the editing room it feels even worse, but you have to accept that it’s impossible to predict the future.
What are your three favorite films?
Empire of the Sun, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Sorry, that’s four. I have so many favorites, but these films I watch again and again. They are uniquely powerful films by true masters, and every time I watch them I see something new.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Don’t get into film if you want to make money. Trust your instincts and observe your subjects — let them guide you. If you believe in something whole-heartedly, don’t give up. It takes just one person to believe in you. Be aggressive about pushing your films and networking, but also know when to back off.