Changing the story: The Jacmel Ciné Institute

The Jacmel Ciné Institute offers free training to budding Haitian filmmakers — with even more ambitious plans afoot

A scene from an institute student production. Photograph courtesy the Jacmel Ciné InstituteKeziah Jean. Photograph courtesy the Jacmel Ciné InstituteThe Ciné Institute provides free training to budding Haitian filmmakers. Photograph courtesy the Jacmel Ciné Institute

There are countries that tell their own stories, and countries whose stories have been told for them. Haiti has long been one of the latter, portrayed in film and on TV as a conflicted, mysterious land of poverty and corruption. But now Haiti is attempting to change that narrative.

“A film industry in any nation is an important part of cultural heritage and identity and economic activity. On an international level, the news and image of Haiti abroad for too long have been negative and led by a foreign or certainly sensationalistic narrative,” explains David Belle, founder of the Jacmel Ciné Institute, in a telephone interview from New York. “Over the next ten years we’re going to have hundreds of filmmakers coming through the institute. That might start to balance the narrative. Haitians telling their own stories. That’s really important.”

A city of forty thousand people, located on the country’s south coast, Jacmel is celebrated for its arts scene, its papier-mâché craft workshops, and its annual Carnival. Belle, a US filmmaker, founded the institute there in 2008, after the success of Festival Film Jakmèl, which he began in 2004 as a retrospective of the history of film in Haiti. The institute has about seventy students, who learn documentary, narrative, and advertising film techniques. Additionally, the institute offers an income-generating production centre for film school students and graduates, and hosts public screenings promoting film literacy. International filmmakers, actors, and other film professionals offer training at the school. They have included the actor Jimmy Jean Louis, cinematographer Hermes Marco, and directors Annie Nocenti and Zach Niles.

“All of our training is entirely free,” Belle says. “Only one per cent of high school graduates in Haiti can afford college, so from the beginning we were determined to make this a programme that would let talented underprivileged youth afford training.” He adds that the real cost is about US$5,000 per year for each student. “It’s not cheap — it’s a proper college environment. And we’re able to do it because of the generosity of friends and partners and donors around the world. We need to grow constantly our network of supporters who believe in the power of education to change lives and transform a nation.”

Belle’s vision is to make Jacmel a centre of film production — he styles it “Jollywood”, after Hollywood, Bollywood, and Nollywood, the US, Indian, and Nigerian film industries, respectively. “Nigeria has the third largest film industry in the world, and it’s an industry model that I think is applicable to Haiti and other developing countries,” Belle says. Nollywood emphasises fast-track, low-budget local productions that use digital technology and direct-to-DVD distribution. Movies are sold inexpensively throughout the country through open-air markets, Belle explains. The UK Guardian said in a 2006 article that the industry was worth some US$200 million a year.

“The ideal objective is creating something similar, on a smaller scale. In a Haitian context, there’s ten to twelve million people living in Haiti, and a huge desire for entertainment products, and we’re building local capacity to produce that.”

Keziah Jean, a 2011 graduate of the institute, studied “realisation, how to write a screenplay, editing, and cinematography.” She praises the school’s work. “Ciné Institute is one of the best gifts we could give to Haiti,” she wrote in an email. “To train young people without money through the cinema, how to show or explain a story by images — this is the future of the country. Thanks to the Institute, now I can say that I am professionally fulfilled and my dream is to become one of the best Haitian filmmakers.”

“One of the first intensive exercises for first-year students is making a short film on a budget of twenty-five cents,” Belle says. Students have “one day to prepare, one day to shoot, one day to edit. It’s an exercise in efficiency and working with locally available resources. It’s purposely challenging, to make people think simply and be efficient and use local resources.” Twenty-five cents is about ten gourdes in Haitian currency — dix gourdes in Kreyòl. Keziah Jean’s Dix Gourdes films were titled PEK and Mr Josue, and are available for viewing on the Ciné Institute website.

PEK is a simple vignette about a boy who is late to collect his milk ration, because he stops to pick up a piece of bubble wrap from the road. It leads to a hilarious confrontation with a security guard, and an unexpected resolution. “There was a big collaboration between me and my team,” Jean says. “We analysed the script together to identify what was missing, and we were also working with a lot of creativity.”

The creative approach seems to be paying off for the institute’s graduates. The 2011 annual report states that the average Ciné Institute graduate made US$6,000 a year, compared to the national GDP per capita of $733. And the institute created over three hundred jobs that year, the report says.

“There is a tremendous lack of institutions in Haiti, and first and foremost we are giving the local community and local young people access to higher education and job opportunities,” Belle says. “The country needs lots of things like this: projects that are not short-term aid projects that leave nothing behind.” He adds that the institute is “locally run, and an essential part of the local society and community.”

In January 2013, the institute hosted a gala benefit in New York City called Haiti Optimiste. “Thanks to collective and individual pledges received, we were able to secure significant funding to continue educating our students,” the institute’s Winter 2013 newsletter announced.

And the Jacmel Ciné Institute has embarked on a new phase of its development. “As a filmmaker, film was the first thing I was committed towards,” Belle says. “Now we’re taking this model and expanding the institute into a college of art and technology. The next division we’re adding is a division for audio engineering and music production. It works hand in hand with film, and will strengthen production of all audio products in Haiti: radio, TV jingles, music products. Music is a huge and vibrant part of Haitian life and economy. Hopefully it will give life to a new generation of musicians, and new and different music.”