Difficult to conduct an interview with a filmmaker of Haitian origin without inquiring about her state of mind – and in a more sincere way than usual in this period when great political and geological upheavals are shaking the pearl of the Antilles. This is how I approached Michèle Stephenson, the director documentary Stateless, now based in New York, she whose family settled in Quebec (more precisely in Estrie) while fleeing the dictatorship of the Duvalier regime.

After studying in Montreal and Ottawa, her career took her to the United States, but also all over the world, including Haiti. Some of his relatives still live there and his roots are still deep there, a heartbreak well known to members of this large diaspora.

“I am lucky because the members of my family living there were not affected by the last tragedy,” says the one who is also a producer. In 2010, four weeks after the earthquake, I traveled to Haiti to shoot a series of short films: being there was downright traumatic. We understand better what they can go through now… ”

Horror then and now

If Michèle Stephenson, like so many other people of Haitian origin, knows the implacable character of uprooting and feelings of multiple belonging, this is also reflected in her cinema sensitive to questions ofimmigration, racism and identity (American Promise, Slaying Goliath). And the island of Hispaniola, shared between the Dominican Republic and Haiti in the Caribbean Sea, is not free from conflicts, dramas, racial tensions… and massacres. And it is one of them who was the basis ofStateless, drawing on the horror of yesteryear to better understand those of today.

Because in October 1937, the then President of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, who liked to feed hatred against Haitians, ordered the massacre of those living on Dominican territory. Between 17,000 and 35,000 people. In just six days.

And as if it were necessary to continue to open wounds rather than to heal them, in 2013, the Supreme Court of the Dominican Republic revoked citizenship from those whose parents were Haitians, thus making nearly 200,000 stateless. The then president, Danilo Medina, made some relaxations with regard to children, but which only tore entire families apart. One of them is one of the cornerstones ofStateless.

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Little is known about this 1937 massacre here, but “this genocidal act is part of our history”, that of America, specifies Michèle Stephenson. “And I couldn’t miss the issue of systemic racism, see how it manifests itself on an island where African culture is so deeply rooted. “

Three trajectories

To achieve its demonstration in Stateless, the documentary filmmaker surrounded herself with three guides, each with a unique, astonishing trajectory, whose existence reveals the multiple conflicts that afflict the Dominican Republic.

The most spectacular is named Rosa Iris Diendomi-Álvarez, lawyer, but above all ardent activist for the rights of citizens of Haitian origin, helping them to find themselves in the administrative mazes – that hidden cameras allow us to discover … -, n ‘ not hesitating to get into politics in the hope of shaking things up.

Sometimes at his side, his cousin, Teófilo Murat. “Rosa was very convincing about her,” recalls the filmmaker. According to her, it was absolutely necessary to tell her story, because it is emblematic. Indeed, forced to leave the country, unable to prove his Dominican roots, he has no choice but to live in Haiti and leave his children behind. It is for him – and for so many other people in her situation – that Rosa Iris leads an incessant fight that she has moved into the electoral arena. And which earned him serious death threats. “We weren’t worried when we were filming with her, the camera protected her, but when she was alone at home, we were always afraid,” explains Michèle Stephenson.

In contrast, confident in her openly xenophobic political convictions, Gladys Feliz arrives in the film as an aunt who is too kind and, above all, too overwhelming.

It is with candor that she unpacks her contempt for Haitian refugees in her country, which she equates to all thieves and worse. On the border with Haiti, in her home or in highly symbolic places, she embodies “the banality of hatred,” according to Michèle Stephenson.

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But how was the filmmaker able to convince this activist of the Nationalist Movement to participate in her film? She didn’t set her up, but didn’t tell him the whole truth.

“I have very fair skin, and many Dominicans cannot believe that many Haitians do. Gladys never asked me about my origins, seeing in this project, funded in part by the United States and Canada, a platform for her ideas. When she saw the film, she sent me a message to tell me that everything I say about Haitians is nothing but lies… ”Michèle Stephenson knows very well that her film is an awakening to historical realities, including the traces are still strongly present. “But I am an artist, not a journalist; all the subjects I deal with are very personal, and reflect my own vulnerability. And she multiplies, as much as possible in a pandemic context, the debates around her film, often in the company of Rosa Iris, whose personal destiny has changed a lot since the end of the shooting.

Militant convictions

As for the filmmaker, she never puts a damper on her militant convictions. His signature was recently found at the bottom an open letter addressed to the PBS network criticizing the lack of openness to filmmakers from diverse backgrounds, pointing out in the process the omnipresence of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (Jazz, Baseball, Hemingway). “Without the public media, I wouldn’t be where I am,” he says. Several of my films were shown on PBS, and in the 1970s I learned English through Sesame Street. It used to be a very radical show, before the network was threatened with closure by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Since then, he has cultivated the status quo, his audience is aging, and policymakers are ignoring it. demographic development of the country. With the current programming, there is no risk of gaining new viewers, hence the importance of deep reflection. “

Obviously, here as in the United States, even the television landscape is populated by stateless persons.

Stateless will be showing on August 20 at the Cinéma du Musée and the Cinéma du Parc in Montreal.

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