Ayiti Mon Amour: Césaire Updated

It starts with a wistful, brooding drift through a thick reef. Every frame is crystalline. You get the feeling in your chest that you’re holding something in – somewhere between an eruption and an aftershock.

A coral reef in the film Ayiti Mon Amour

Ayiti Mon Amour, directed by Guetty Felin, is Haiti’s first submission for the foreign language Oscar. For Felin, who has previously worked on documentaries, it’s a new venture into narrative filmmaking. She taps a vein of surrealism inhabited by Apichatpong Weerserthalkul and Carlos Reygadas for a remarkable debut that channels one of history’s most admired lyricists, Aimé Césaire.

Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, or Return to my Native Land, serves as a preface both literally and historically for the film. Felin, a resident of San Francisco, is returning to her native land too, and thus the parallels are abundant between the two pieces. Following introductory credits, Felin offers text from Césaire’s canonic 1939 poem:

“I would arrive sleek and young in this land of mine

And would say to this land whose loam is part of my flesh

I have wandered for a long time

and I am coming back to the deserted hideousness of your sores.

I would go to this land of mine and I would say to it:

Embrace me without fear…

and if all I can do is speak, it is for you I shall speak”

Césaire writes of a different origin—the nearby country of Martinique—but cites Haiti as a role model for black revolution and autonomy: “Haiti where negritude rose to its feet for the first time and said it believed in its own humanity”. As the world’s only nation founded by a successful slave rebellion, Haiti has long represented triumph and pride, but since the devastation of the 2010 earthquake the land has been saddled by an extreme dichotomy of glory and pain.

As Césaire describes the volcanic eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pelée, we cannot help but think of Haiti’s 2010 disaster, “humiliated by the greatness of its future when the volcanoes will erupt and naked waters sweep away the stains ripened by the sun till nothing is left but tepid molten simmering pried over by sea birds… the town now nothing but a bouquet of songs”. Although Haiti’s tremor manifested without volcanic eruption, the devastation was equivalent – a shattering 7.0 earthquake that resulted in upwards of 100,000 deaths. Felin recalls the event with a finger’s slow movement over a painted crack in the wall, lingering long enough for the metaphor to seep out.

A still of a finger tracing a crack on the wall.

The kindred voices are separated most notably by time. Césaire, who wrote in the early 20th century, leaves us with the resurgence of the damaged people:

“Upright now, my country and I, hair in the wind, my hand small in its enormous fist and our strength not inside us but above in a voice that bores through the night and its listeners like the sting of an apocalyptic wasp”

The country is healing, but sand abrades the wounds. This is where Felin’s film begins: Haiti in 2015, five years after the earthquake. A writer sits at his desk within a crumbled building. The muse, played by Anisia Uzeyman, helps him process his thoughts:

“Why don’t people cry anymore?”

“Have they really stopped crying?”

“They’ve cried so much, they have no more tears to shed.”

“But tears flow inward.”

The muse approaches a nervous donkey, a hesitant return to normalcy. You feel a quiver in the calmness.

A still of the muse, played by Anisia Uzeyman, and a donkey

The scars of colonialism remain too. Orphée, played by Felin’s son Joakim Cohen, returns to his home bruised on his knuckles and lips by “the white roach”, which we can assume represents Western culture and colonialism. News of former President of France François Hollande still rides the radio airwaves of Haiti’s tropical soundscape. France, Haiti’s colonial oppressor until 1804, still owns cultural hegemony in the form of language and class. As Césaire recounts, “for centuries Europe has stuffed us with lies and crammed us with plague”.

In the early 1900’s, the colonized world cut Haiti off in fear of contagious rebellion. Like a young man pulling in a boat from sea on his own, the country was sequestered from the exploding development of an increasingly global economy.

“I am cut off from the fresh oases of fraternity

Such meek nothingness is like a splinter under my nail.”

But Felin suggests that the young man’s peers have joined him now, and the boat is brought in. She asserts recovery and coming together, progress made and people back on their legs.

A still of a man on a beach holding a rope that connects to a far-off boat.  Several men on a beach pulling a rope connected to a boat

Still, progress seems to come as a mixed bag. Floating in the shallows later on, Orphée suddenly finds himself in the whirlpool of the muse, who has wandered out to sea and grown the silver tail of a mermaid. Césaire wrote of a similar malignant ocean vortex:

“It is there that I would fish

For the night’s evil tongue in its seized swirl”

Orphée faints and wakes up imbued with electric charge that shocks anyone he touches. He becomes the island’s main attraction, providing free quick-charges to an endless line of eager cell phone users. Eventually his energy is used to cure an old woman’s feet.

Later, on his way to watch a kung-fu film, Orphée is beckoned off track by the muse who has returned to human form. She pours some rum and prompts the boy to speak his mind. His father, who passed away in the earthquake, was half-Haitian and half-French. He is stuck in the middle of a conflicting history, an experience true to Joakim Cohen’s real life. His mother, Felin, is of Haitian descent and his father, cinematographer Hervé Cohen, is of French descent.

The muse apologizes and incites him to dance: “the dead love it when we dance.” They dance together in silence. “Let’s change!” she pleads, laying next to him on floor when he can’t stand anymore. Elsewhere, the older woman with healed feet dances with her husband in their modest home. The Haitians, finally aided by foreigners that had previously invaded, subjugated, and isolated them, board a small boat and sail off into a sense of reconciliation.

Orphée and the muse dance at night

Felin is expressing a vision of unity – a future that does not forget atrocities nor ignore the persisting hegemony of post-colonialism, but one that also embodies the coalescence of culture and accepts the support of yesterday’s adversaries. In a cemetery, the muse examines gravestones, searching for Orphée’s father. “Where’s the family’s name?” she asks her guide before a bare slab. “It’s all one family,” he responds, “your family.”

T. Anthony Schear doesn’t accept the status quo. His progressivist rebellion from the status quo substantiates his opinions. These are ideas you’ve never heard before, which make you think: Where did these thoughts come from? Are they potentially concerning?  Wiki | Portfolio