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Changing the story: The Jacmel Ciné Institute

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

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.”

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