Haiti in focus at Chicago Latino Film Fest

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Dominican “Broken Island”
and Chilean “Petit Frère”
represent Haiti
and its role in
Latino culture, cinema,
and politics.

Last weekend, the 35th Chicago Latino Film Festival (CLFF) screened a pair of films that focus on the Haitian experience, the Dominican Republic’s La isla rota (Broken Island) and the Chilean Petiè Frère.

Reel Chicago sat down with La isla rota’s Luis Arambilet and Algenis Perez Soto (Captain Marvel, Samba) and spoke with Petie Frère’s Isabel Orellana Guarello and the CLFF’s Pepe Vargas about the films and Haiti’s role in Latin America.

The Chicago Latino Film Festival runs through April 11.
To view the full schedule, click here.

 

Pepe Vargas states that Haiti has been “a part of Latin America, a part of the family since Columbian times.” He also notes Haiti’s special role as the first American country to abolish slavery, one of the first to gain independence, and its pivotal role in aiding Simón Bolívar in the struggle for South American independence.

According to Vargas, every year the CLFF aims to include Haitian films at the festival. Unfortunately, due to lack of resources, natural disasters, and financial deprivation, few films come out of Haiti. Still, Vargas states, “I am confident that we will see films coming out of there, and we will be making an extra effort to seek out films that portray the Haitian society.”

Both the Dominican La isla rota and Chilean Petit Frère utilize their countries’ unique positions to represent Haitian society at the film festival.

 
PETIT FRÈRE | TRAILER

 

To see photos from the CLFF’s
opening night fiesta, Noche Cubana,
click here.

 

A Chilean film about the Haitian community
After the horrendous 2010 Haitian earthquake killed hundred of thousands of people, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet partnered with a United Nations program and welcomed Haitian refugees to Chile. Since then, the Haitian community in Chile has boomed.

Petit Frère Producer - Isabel Orellana Guarello
Petit Frère Producer – Isabel Orellana Guarello

Directors Roberto Collío and Rodrigo Robledo’s Petit Frère is a documentary that takes place in Chile and follows Petit Frère-Wilner – a gas station attendant, writer, magazine editor, and Haitian community activist. Petit Frère is truly a filmmaker’s film that includes traditional documentary footage but also goes off into experimental and stunning sequences that feature the poetry of Selgado, the YouTube videos of Roody, the Haitian music of Prestige Rará, and sci-fi inspired visits to Mars.

The film’s producer Isabel Orellana Guarello states, “Even though we understood that it is still a Chilean film about the Haitian community in our country, we tried to allow the different characters the ability to get involved creatively in the making of our film, and that is why I think we directly represent (Haitians), because we didn’t only portray them. We gave them creative space in the process of the documentary.”

 
A tale of Hispaniola
As for writer/director Félix Germán’s La isla rota, both the Dominican Republic and Haiti share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Despite linguistic and cultural differences, the two nations’ histories are intimately intertwined and its peoples are neighbors.

Associate producer Luis Arambilet states, “The border on the island was not always a border. It was like a no-man’s land, and (there was) mixing of the cultures. We have names for food, for example, that come from the French and the Creole, and vice-versa.”

Arambilet continues, “We have a mixture of DNA as well, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I have an ancestor from my mother’s side who was Haitian because there was no real border.”

Algenis Perez Soto is a Dominican actor who plays the lead character of Guy, a Haitian. Perez Soto states that, besides learning Haitian Creole, acting in the role of the Haitian Guy took no unique preparation.

Perez Soto states, “I don’t think it was hard for me because, since I was a kid, I used to play baseball and we were mixed. Dominicans, Haitians, we used to play together like one.”

At one point, he was asked to learn how to cut sugar cane in preparation for the role. Perez Soto remarks, “I was like, ‘you know what, I don’t even have to do this because I have done it all my life’ – not as work but as a hobby.”

Arambilet emphasizes that many Haitians were involved in the making of La isla rota. For example, Dominique Telemaque worked as Perez Soto’s Creole coach, the film’s language advisor, and played the role of Guy’s father, Guito. Marie Michelle Bazile played the role of Zule and collaborated on the La isla rota’s score.

La isla rota is a sweeping historical epic that depicts the Parsley Massacre of 1937 through Guy’s personal struggle and trauma. Perez Soto comments, “This is not a movie about Dominicans against Haitians. I play a Haitian character, and then, I have a conflict with my own people… but I also have a conflict with the Dominicans that killed my parents.”

Despite the fact that La isla rota places its characters in the context of Rafael Trujillo’s campaign of organized violence against Haitians, the film’s associate producer Luis Arambilet emphasizes that the La isla rota emphasizes the “human conflict. It is not a nationalistic conflict.”

Still, Arambilet states, “What we have in the Dominican Republic today is a clear reflection of the past, of things that are unresolved.”

 
LA ISLA ROTA | TRAILER

 

Unfortunately, 82 years after the Parley Massacre, prejudice towards Haitians still exists within the Latin American community.

 
Prejudice in Chile
Orellana Guarello reflects that at the start of production in 2013, the issue of prejudice was not as urgent, and the decision to focus on Haitian art and the life of the optimistic Petit Frère-Wilmer was an easy one. Chile itself is a nation of tremendous earthquakes, and there was a “natural empathy” towards those Haitians who fled the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

The filmmakers did not want to make another depressing film about the typical immigration issues of bureaucracy, poverty, and discrimination. Orellana Guarello states, “We wanted to make a happy film. A film that was joyful.”

They wanted to document the Haitian community’s voice and observe its contributions to Chilean society. By the time the film was released, things had changed.

Orellana Guarello states, “When we released the film in Chile, there was a huge controversy. There was more than 800 racist comments in the trailer on YouTube… and it was not spontaneous. They were organized on an internet cite called Al Antro – an alt-right forum where they make a threat on the documentary and called out people to denounce the trailer.”

She continues, “During the making of the film, there is something about kindness and empathy that we wanted to focus on… What we realized, when we released the film in Chile, is that to put a Haitian protagonist in a Chilean film was a political act itself.”

When Chileans, Haitians, and others familiar with the situation in Chile watch the film, the context is obvious. Despite Petit Frère’s direct involvement in the positive aspects of life in Chile as a Haitian, an undertone of injustice and prejudice is clearly present.

 
Chicago Latino Film Festival
However, while prejudice towards Haitians in Chile is an urgent issue with real consequences, the ever-optimistic Pepe Vargas makes a point to state that Haitians originally moved there “thanks to the generosity of Chile.” According to Vargas, any new immigrant community receives pushback when it begins to thrive, but that does not mean that the community will go away. Vargas comments, “That is what immigrants do. They stay… and Chile became the land of opportunity for these Haitians, and I think they will be from now on forever.”

Also Read: Chi Latino Fest’s Vargas on cinema, culture, and the wall

As for the La isla rota and Petit Frère screenings and the CLFF itself, Vargas states, “This is a great opportunity to get to know each other and celebrate the differences among ourselves, and our cultures. But it also serves as an opportunity for us as a collective of many nations to reach out to the non-Latinos to come meet us and see us.”

He continues, “That is what film gives us, the opportunity to travel to all of these countries without leaving Chicago – just getting off the sofa and living room and coming to the theater.”

The Petit Frère and La isla rota’s screenings at the CLFF provide a fantastic opportunity to explore the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Haiti, and while these films inherently showcase the interconnectedness of American cultures, they also reveal what makes each Latin American country unique.

Despite the existence of animosity and prejudice throughout the Americas, events like the CLFF represent the fluidity of culture. Art has a special way of demonstrating the distinctive and the universal at the same time, and that, in of itself, is a political act.

La isla rota screens at 6:00 p.m. tonight at the AMC River East 21 Theatre. For tickets and information about this and the hundreds of other films screening between now and April 11 at the festival, click here.

Contact Joey Filer at Joey@reelchicago.com or follow him on Twitter
@FilerJoey

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