Conversation: Students from Haiti’s Only Film School Keep Their Cameras Rolling

BY Arts Desk  January 19, 2010 at 1:30 PM EST

Students of the Cine Institute, Photo by Andrew BigosinskiWhen New York filmmaker Annie Nocenti became the first teacher at Cine Institute, Haiti’s only film school, two years ago, she was excited to see what her students would capture. In that time, they had made great strides, turning students who had never picked up a camera before into professionals capable of commercial work and artists who had their own vision and style. But last Tuesday, her students faced their most challenging test when a powerful earthquake ravaged the island.

The students dug cameras out of the rubble of the school and began filming, even though they had lost their homes, their friends and their family. The footage they shot, and the short films they have now edited, show the island’s vibrant and resilient culture, despite the chaos. The 27 students, ranging in age from 16-28, have limited access to internet and have been able to upload only short films, but they continue to produce new material. Three new videos were uploaded last night, and another is expected today of a Canadian aid shipment arriving in Jacmel.

Nocenti is currently in New York, but she has been in regular contact with the staff, including founder David Belle, and students at Cine Institute. I spoke with her this afternoon by phone:

A full transcript is after the jump.

Watch videos by students of the Cine Institute:

Student – Lesly Decembre reports from a makeshift refugee camp in Jacmel from Cine Institute on Vimeo.

“Priere” (Prayer) by Manassena Cesar from Cine Institute on Vimeo.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joining me now is Annie Nocenti of the Cine Institute in Jacmel, Haiti. And hello to you. First could you tell us a little bit about the film school, what the mission has been and how you are going about it?

ANNIE NOCENTI: Sure, Jeffrey. it was basically a dream that David Bell had, he’s been going there for 20 years and working with the community in Jacmel and he always noticed how film crews would come in and shoot films about Haiti and come away with a Western sensibility and his dream was to put the cameras in the hands of Haitians, because they have a very different sensibility. They want to film their dance and music and culture, and they don’t really want to film their slums. So David did it and he invited me down to do the first class, and it was enormously exciting. I’ve never met a group of more passionate, I mean, Haitians aren’t used to anyone paying attention them, let alone offering them a free film school.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who were the students that you were dealing with?

ANNIE NOCENTI: They ranged from 16 to mid- to late-20s from all over Jacmel. They’re all Haitians and various, you know, middle-class all the way down to students that we weren’t even sure where they were living.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’ve been doing it for a couple years, and what kind of stories were they telling? What kind of videos were being made? Where were things at?

ANNIE NOCENTI: Well the way that David had it set up ,there were about 10 teachers. I would come down and teach a kind of boot camp class where they would get a chance to learn every aspect of filmmaking and we’d developed stories. I found that they had a sense of high drama and they loved putting something spiritual or supernatural, they love the voodoo, the voodoo is the religion, very neorealism, because we were teaching them no-budget filmmaking. Ken Day is this wonderful Nigerian producer who came over and taught the Naliwood style developed in Nigeria, which is basically no-budget filmmaking. You want a cow in your piece and the farmer won’t lend you a cow, get a pig. I was starting to see what would I call a Haitian eye. I mean, they were not only learning the technical aspects and starting to get work in the film industry. They were shooting commercials. We had a commission to do three short water films for the International Water Project, that’s what they were shooting the day the earthquake hit.

JEFFREY BROWN: So that brings us up to date. What is the situation now in Jacmel? What are you hearing?

ANNIE NOCENTI: Well just today, today was a good day, because the Canadians got there, they are the first. It’s the very first plane to get to Jacmel with relief. To give you a kind of a picture, the epicenter was just south of Port-Au-Prince and in basically a slum. No one is talking about that slum. I think it’s just gone. They’re focusing on Port-Au-Prince, of course, because the problems are astronomical, but around the epicenter there’s many towns that also suffered enormous loss of life and injuries and damage, and Jacmel is just one of many little towns that is out of the aid loop. So today the very first plane, and our students were over there filmed it coming in, filmed them unloading and we’re putting the video up right now, so we’ve got an awesome little team going.

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re documenting what’s happening?

ANNIE NOCENTI: The school, the roof of the school collapsed, the walls cracked and no one knows what it means when walls crack. It means you can’t go in because the whole building could collapse. But they went back into the school and they dug through the rubble, they found cameras and they went right back out and started shooting.

JEFFREY BROWN: What are you seeing so far?

ANNIE NOCENTI: Well, I’m seeing very excellent reportage. The first two videos were a little shaky, I think because they were in shock. [A student] shot one even though she lost three family members. She was out there the very next day shooting. Anyone can go to our Web site and see all our videos and lots of photos, both of how vibrant our school was and how vibrant an arts community Jacmel was before the quake, and you can see what the town looks like now.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re saying that it looks like they are starting to get some aid in there even just today.

ANNIE NOCENTI: I know that for a fact the plane just landed, the very first one. The very first one. The Canadians love Jacmel. Canadians have been aware of Jacmel in a way that the United States isn’t, because the Canadians, they have a lot of relief organizations down there, they love Jacmel, they love going.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you know the extent of the damage in Jacmel at this point?

ANNIE NOCENTI: So far they know there are hundreds of deaths and hundreds of buildings down. The old city, which was very, very beautiful, is gone. They’re still pulling bodies out. The hospitals need doctors. They’re doing surgery without anesthetic. The other big problem is the population is exploding. [Jacmel] was a town of 40,000 people; I’ve heard that it’s doubled with just people pouring in from God’s knows where, so there are these enormous, I don’t know what you would call them, not refuges evacuees, enormous camps set up where people are just waiting for water and waiting for food. I mean, these are the sad stories that we’ve been hearing, but the great story is that, you know, it’s a wonderful community. Their spirit is fantastic, they’re out, they’re singing, they’re dancing, they’re praying, and our students are out there finding these stories and, you know, they’ve really stepped up. This is what they were trained to do and they’re doing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s got to be hard to look too far into the future now, but you know you were explaining the original, longer term goal sounds like it was to create almost, I don’t know, a film industry in Haiti but at least kind of filmmaking in Haiti.

ANNIE NOCENTI: Sure, we were going to the be the next Hollywood. We were calling ourselves Jollywood, for Jacmel because the H word was already taken.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what do you think now? I mean, what happens now when you think about the longer term?

ANNIE NOCENTI: It’s in the hands of David Bell. David Bell has the enormous drive, energy, creativity. He just got to Jacmel. He was in Port-Au-Prince until then. He’s just gotten to Jacmel today. I know David. There is going to be music in the town square, there is going to be spiritual singing, there is going to be, he’ll record and album, he’ll get the school back up and running again. It’s really, David Bell is really the driving force behind kind of the visionary aspects of the school. And then …our two reporters, our two administrators on the ground that are basically doing the nuts and bolts, which is enormous.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Annie Nocenti, thanks so much for talking to us and pass on our best to everybody there, and we’ll look forward to seeing the videos.

ANNIE NOCENTI: Yeah, let’s tell people our Web site. It’s www.cineinstitute.com.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thanks so much. Take care.

ANNIE NOCENTI: Thank you very much, Jeffrey.