An Island Within an Island

Haitians in Cuba – “Two Homelands, One Blood”

Haitian-born, Toronto-based director Esery Mondesir talks with Jesse Cumming in Contemporary And (C&) América Latina about the topic of his new documentary “Una Sola Sangre” – the life of Haitians in Cuba – and about how he unexpectedly found a new home on the island.

C& América Latina: How did you meet the Galdes family?

Esery Mondesir: I met the Galdeses in the summer of 2011. I went to Cuba for vacation but I wanted to connect with the people on the other side of the fences of a resort. So I stayed right in Havana where I met a University professor, an anthropologist, and he told me “you should me those ‘Haitians’” – a term I put here in scare quotes because of course they were born in Cuba. We went to their neighorhood called San Antonio de Paula and that’s where I met Silvia and her siblings. I quite instantly recognized my own Haitian heritage in their way of living. I was speaking to them in Haitian Creole as well. They really welcomed me as if we were family, like we were distant cousins that had been reunited after a long time apart and were catching up.

I asked if they were interested in collaborating in making a film with me; they were happy and agreed. I went back in the spring of 2012, stayed at their houses and started to film.

C&AL: How long were you there?

EM: In 2012 I was there for only two weeks. It was more of a testing period. I was shooting everyday and got a lot of footage, they got used to my presence and the presence of the camera and I got acquainted a bit more with them, their routines. You can see in the movie: the camera is just there. They decide whether or not to look at it, but it’s not a foreign object to them. I went back in 2015, and stayed for 6 weeks, that is when most of the footage in the film was shot.

Esery Mondesir, Trailer of “Una Sola Sangre”, 2018.

C&AL: How do you position yourself in the film? You don’t hide your presence, which doesn’t exactly align with a lot of traditional observational documentary practices.

EM: It was very important for me to position myself very explicitly in the film. This could very easily have been some sort of ethnographic film: “Here are these people, this is how they live, look at their customs and the way they sing, etc.,” The sort of descriptive, documentarist impulse does attract me at times but with this work it became clear that it was more about communicating my experience with the Galdeses. The movie is as much about me as it is about them.

My voice is in the movie even without a first person voice-over. It is a very biased voice that chooses to speak about who these people are and not about who they are thought to be by others; it is a very partial lens, less interested in what they lack but fascinated by the riches of their cultural heritage. I think even if you didn’t hear my voice in conversation you could still feel my presence in the type of intimacy that emerges from the footage itself. But it was a deliberate decision to at times include my [off-screen] voice – there are other times when they’re singing and then you can hear me asking questions. That says something about who is behind the camera, and suggests that they’re someone who has a specific sort of relationship with the participants.

C&AL: The deep connection is interesting, as you’re filming in a country where you had never lived before and didn’t consider home in any way.

EM: When I met them in 2011 was my first time in Cuba. Growing up in Haiti in a very politicized environment, Cuba was for me some sort of idealized place where the revolution of the masses had triumphed; so I always wanted to visit. I also knew about Haitians in Cuba, particularly through the work of Jacques Roumain.

Cuba wasn’t home but on the streets people would think that I’m Cuban if I didn’t speak – they would see me as a black Cuban and that wasn’t always a positive thing. I did feel at home when I was with the Galdeses, which is interesting because it makes me think that home may not be a material space at all. That’s the only way to understand Silvia’s comment when she says in the film “I’m Haitian 100 percent”.

C&AL: Speaking a bit about access into the space, can you talk about the Vodou ceremony that becomes a major part in the final movement of the film? Silvia says, in voiceover, “not everything can be talked about,” but we also know that not everything can be shown. How did you go about negotiating your access to the space and producing that scene?

EM: That was my first time ever in a vodou ceremony, so I was very excited to be there, but I wasn’t the only person who was not blood family there; there were other people from the neighborhood. What she explained is that everyone is allowed to be under the public gazebo, but only the people they choose can come inside for the ceremony. Therefore, I went inside because they allowed me to. Filming the ceremony was a great experience for me and I felt like I had a huge responsibility in regarding the way to include it in the film.

In the earlier cuts the sequence ended with the sacrifice of the goat, but after many discussions I decided to cut the killing of the goat; I didn’t not want to represent the religious ceremony as some sort of spectacle to satisfy our voyeuristic desires. We know what’s going to happen. For them it’s just life, it’s not something that’s extraordinary, and I wanted to include it in the film as such. I didn’t want it to be the pinnacle.

C&AL: You represent this thought quite beautifully in the film, where you cut from the high energy ceremony sequence to footage of the men heading back to work, back to their routine.

EM: That’s exactly what life is for them.

Jesse Cumming is a writer and film programmer based in Toronto.

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