Haiti’s Ciné Institute Founder Discusses Cultivating a Local Film Industry & More In Interview

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?

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SOURCE: Indie Wire Shadow and Act – Shirley Bruno