Struggle and Triumph for Haiti's Ciné Institute

On January 12th, Haiti’s only professional film school, Ciné Institute, lost its main building in the massive earthquake that devastated the Port-au-Prince region. But in the quake’s aftermath, Ciné Institute’s students and staff have found something just as substantial as bricks and mortar — namely, a profound story they are uniquely qualified to tell.

Since the quake, Ciné Institute students have been documenting the experiences of the people of Jacmel, the southern port city where the institute is based, in a series of powerful news clips and short documentaries posted on their website. Their work has also aired on CNN, PBS, and the CBC. A small city known for its picturesque colonial architecture and its vibrant arts scene, Jacmel is located just 25 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince — and less than 15 miles from the quake’s epicenter.

“Pretty much overnight, the school became a newsroom,” says faculty member Annie Nocenti.

While no students or staff members perished in the earthquake, some lost family members or friends, most lost their homes and all were deeply affected by the enormity of the tragedy. In a way, says student filmmaker Ebby Angel Louis, “you feel like you’re already dead, watching other people who are in such pain.”

“The first thing we said to each other was, ‘How can we help?’ ” says Andrew Bigosinski, director of Ciné Lekòl, as Ciné Institute’s two-year film school is known. (The institute also runs Ciné Services, an income-generating production center; Ciné Klas, an educational outreach program with area high schools; and Ciné Klub, a film series open to the general public.) “It was obvious, pretty much immediately,” Bigosinski continues, “that as filmmakers, our tools are cameras. I made the students a commitment: if they could dig up the cameras, I would find a secure Internet [connection], and we would start recording immediately. They just got it — this is what they could do to be of service to the community.”

Or as student Simeus Fritzner puts it in his remarkable documentary short, Le Jour du Seismé, which includes footage Fritzner shot in the moments immediately after the late-afternoon quake, “I have a mission. It is to grab my camera and record the people’s suffering, all their suffering, all their miseries, and show it to other people in order for them to see and live what they had lived themselves.”

The Ciné Institute’s students — 50 in all, young men and women ranging from their late teens to early 30s — fanned out all over Jacmel, documenting scenes of suffering and grief, but also great heroism and compassion. “I think our students have a lot more access to the true story and into the lives of the people that foreign journalists would never really be able to get at,” observes Bigosinski. “They have a greater context for what this catastrophe really means to the people who are left with it. They are from that community; they are a voice of that community.”

“This is an opportunity to show our strength and our potential,” adds Louis. “These are all part of our character.”

So is tenacity. Even without its main school building, Ciné Lekòl is continuing to hold regular classes; Nocenti has been teaching her screenwriting class out of a large tent. “It’s like having a training camp in a war zone,” she says. “The students’ learning curve has been like a rocket. They’ve become extraordinary filmmakers.”

That’s exactly what American filmmaker David Belle had in mind when he founded the Ciné Institute just two years ago. Belle, who first visited Haiti in the early 1990s to film a documentary about then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, became fascinated by the country’s rich culture and complex history, and went on to film several more documentaries in and around Jacmel, where he also bought a home. In 2004, he co-founded Festival Film Jakmèl, which screened hundreds of international films free of charge for Haitian audiences, and then in 2008 launched the Ciné Institute.

The immediate goal, says Nocenti, a New York-based filmmaker and journalist who became one of the institute’s first teachers, “was to put cameras into the hands of Haitians.” Belle’s long-term goal is nothing less than fostering a thriving Haitian film industry. “Using the power of cinema, integrated educational programming, technical training, and media production support,” reads the school’s mission statement. “Ciné Institute educates and empowers Haitian youth who seek the creative, technical, and business skills necessary to grow local media industries that can provide jobs and spur economic growth needed to improve their lives and the lives of others.”

With support from foundations, prominent filmmakers (including director Paul Haggis, a Ciné Institute board member), and Haitian-born writers and artists (such as novelist Edwidge Danticat and fashion photographer Marc Baptiste, both visiting faculty members), Belle has put together an ambitious curriculum, with “fast-track professional training” in all aspects of both fiction and documentary filmmaking, as well as television advertising. Students learn still and video camera techniques, field and studio sound recording, editing, screenwriting, acting, producing, and directing. They also study the fine points of business and project development, marketing and distribution.

“Our students had been well trained prior to the earthquake,” Bigosinski says, training that included workshops with Jonathan Stack, director of the acclaimed documentary The Farm: Life Inside Angola Prison. “As they were doing this, we discussed the short form journalistic approach, so they went out with an idea of exactly what they were developing in these news pieces.”

Nocenti, who was in New York when the quake hit, used her journalism connections to bring the students’ footage to the attention of major news outlets, including The PBS Newshour and short, Miss Body Plastik, was screened at New York’s French Institute last year), the lessons have been multi-layered. “The hardest part for me is to be efficient, to still be a good filmmaker in all these situations,” he says. “In fiction films, all the pictures are already in your head to tell the story. But in documentaries, the pictures and stories are in reality, and you have to catch and use them as tools to help people understand a topic and a story.”

Not all their work takes place behind a camera. Both students and staff have done “a huge amount of relief work,” says Nocenti, including helping to distribute and install 15 generators, which had been donated by members of the New York City film community, at several hospitals, an orphanages and a radio station. “And one of the best things we have done,” says Nocenti, “has been to bring movies to the tent camps,” large, outdoor screenings for camp residents they’ve dubbed “Ciné Lumière.”

But Ciné Institute’s largest production will be reconstructing their school. “We can’t work out of tents forever,” Nocenti says with a rueful laugh. “We have to find land, raise funds, and rebuild. So we have a big journey ahead of us.”

“We’re talking to a lot of very interesting people about how to build the school,” adds Bigosinski. He envisions a design that will not only withstand earthquakes, but also be environmentally sustainable — and serve as a model for the wave of rebuilding that awaits Haiti. Another goal: Adding courses to the Ciné Institute curriculum on how to maintain these green building and energy technologies, so that “the school will be a training ground where we can help build [new projects] and, more importantly, maintain what is left once the aid organizations leave.”

It’s a tall order, especially for a group that is already working in extreme-hardship conditions. But the students’ spirits are surprisingly good, says Bigosinski, “because they understand that the work they are doing is bringing international attention to Jacmel. It really makes them feel good about what they are doing. It is a good way to heal.”

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