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Director Guetty Felin and her son, sound mixer Yeelen Cohen, during the production of Ayiti Mon Amour.

When Ayiti Mon Amour, a self-proclaimed “magic, neorealist tale,” screened at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, it did more than just transport viewers to post-quake Haiti. It captured the country and its people through beautiful, relevant cinema.

I had the privilege of talking with director Guetty Felin about inspiration and what it means to not only be seen in the media, but to truly be visible.

Roni Canieso: I saw the film and I was pleasantly surprised! I thought it would be more like a docu-drama or a documentary, but it’s really a blending of a lot of different genres! As someone who’s from Haiti, what was it like for you to make the film? 

Guetty Felin: The film had its homecoming here (in San Francisco). I had already had this project, and it had morphed into something else. It was born in the wake of the earthquake in 2010. I was living in Florida at the time, and Haiti is only an hour and a half by plane. I remember feeling powerless and helpless. I really needed to get down there. 

I managed to find my way onto a relief effort plane. I remember seeing it and being heartbroken. I didn’t lose anyone in my family, but I felt like the victims of this quake were family for me — the larger Haitian family. At the same time, there were all these people filming and taking pictures of everything … I just couldn’t bring myself to take a camera. I just wanted to be there for my compatriots in their mourning phase.

But just a few days after the quake, people were up and they were singing, they were upright, there was joy at the same as confusion … and I wasn’t seeing any of that in mainstream media. We’re seeing the bodies, we’re seeing all the undignified ways we portray Black bodies and bodies of the poor whenever there’s disaster. It made me angry, and I felt like I needed to be telling the stories about how my compatriots are really mitigating and negotiating this disaster: with hope, confusion, joy, laughter, fear and all that. So the film was born out of that, inspired by the grace of my compatriots and this uprightness that they had in the face of disaster, and still keeping hope alive.

I get my lessons of hope and life from my compatriots. I live in the diaspora and I have a visa, a passport and access to travel and go to these different parts of the world and they don’t. They have to make do with what they have, and I pay homage to that strength. The film was born out of that (too).

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I wanted the film to be a multiple, layered story and as years went by, it morphed into a sort of essay/hybrid kind of film that would be a kind of love letter to this country. I am not complacent at all with the kind of corruption or the way the government runs the country — not at all. I wanted to salute my compatriots. It’s a piece of land that I really really love. It’s broken, it’s fragile, but I’ve always been attracted to those things any way.

At the same time, there’s so much strength and power there. It’s a contrast and I wanted to deal with that in this film. Calling it Ayiti Mon Amor is also thinking of Hiroshima. When I think of Haiti cinematically, I think of Japan and Italy. These two cultures in different sides of the world use cinema to break out of their solitude. To let people know what was going on in their country in spite of carnage, in spite of the vestige of fascism. It behooved me as a Haitian filmmaker to put Haiti in that sort of cinematic landscape as well, saying, “Listen, we’re all in this together, lets find our common humanities.”

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RC: When you decided to go back and start filming, what was production like? Did you have a script? A casting process? The film has intersecting stories; how did you decide how to tell them?

GF: I had an expanded treatment, one might say. One of the stories was really developed with dialogue. The other one was dialogue (mixed with) what I would get while I was there, being inspired by that. And the third story was also very well constructed because of the scenes I wanted, and I would throw in what the dialogue would be. I would work more with the images, and the symbol of certain images.

While I was making this film, I was looking at the sea and the role of the sea in our culture as well, but what people are doing to the sea and polluting it with clothes that come from America in huge boats — it has become their huge dump! (The images of the pollution in the sea) was sort of my was to pay homage to the wandering souls.

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While I was editing the film, there were a lot of bodies being found of refugees and immigrants coming from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa to find a better life in Europe; I wanted to pay homage to those souls as well. We’re all linked in this big universe, and in our experiences as human beings as well. I just keep trying to find ways for us to communicate.

For me, Haiti has always been a place that people have these cliches and stereotypes of what Haiti is, and I wanted to make a film that would allow Haiti to be in conversation with the world, but as an equal, and not as these perpetual “others”.

Follow Ayiti Mon Amor’s Facebook page to see find out where you can see the film.

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