We sat down with Owsley Brown, director and producer of SERENADE FOR HAITI, to talk about his experience filming Holy Trinity Music School in Port-au-Prince before and after the devastating earthquake and what he would like students to take from the film. Interview conducted by Kim Koltun.
SERENADE FOR HAITI focuses on a small but incredibly important music school, Sainte Trinite in Pau de Port-au-Prince. What drew you to this location and subject?
I was introduced to the school by way of a childhood friend of my father’s, Stephen Davenport. Stephen and his wife, Tracy Bruce, both episcopal clergy people, have been working very closely with Holy Trinity for decades prior to my first visit. They were my guides and hosts on that first trip and on my second day in PaP (Port-au-Prince), Tracy introduced me to HTMS (Holy Trinity Music School). I was immediately taken by what was evidently a very unusual situation. Fundamentally, it was a place with an extremely loving and positive, energetic climate. And, of course, all around me were sounds of music making. The whole situation seemed a perfect movie waiting to be made.
How would you describe your approach to SERENADE FOR HAITI? Did it change throughout the process?
Our movie making approach really began with the idea of presenting ourselves and trying to actually be good listeners and watchers. My main collaborator, Marcel Cabrea, very much agreed with this approach and we earnestly began our journey with that as our intention, which never really changed throughout our many trips to Haiti. What did evolve were friendships, which are still going today and are treasured by me.
What was your approach to communicating the meaning of the music through visuals?
Having made several movies dealing with music, the question of how to combine music and the moving image is one I have considered for almost 20 years. As a child, I can remember well my first conscious thought of this when my parents took me to see Fantasia. I have rewatched the movie many times since that first viewing and still feel the magic those sequences produce. Beyond that, so much of what we think of as the movies is in fact connected to what I now call “music sequences.” It is an area of opportunity in the positive sense and also an area where mediocre things can be covered up. My hope was always to try and marry compelling visual imagery with music that feels like a good match. It is one of those situations where the response of the body is the most telling indicator of what the impact will be.
What was it like to watch Marc Valens grow throughout the filming process? He seemed to symbolize the hope of the next Haitian generation in his effort to find joy through music and art. It was really touching. Do you still keep in touch with him?
Working with Marc Valens was an incredible gift to all of us. He is an extremely marvelous young man and it was an absolute delight to watch him grow up over the years we were working on the movie. It was our hope to celebrate Marc. He has such talent, and an obviously big heart, that it gives one true hope for Haiti to see a member of his generation relate to life the way Marc has chosen to. I do feel that the making of the movie in some way served as an encouraging force in Marc’s life and my hope today is that Marc need not wonder what he was thinking as a young man and will be able to reference the movie directly as an ongoing point of the encouragement we all wanted Marc to feel from us. We are happily connected with Marc. Currently, he is actively involved with the school, which is a source of great happiness for all concerned. He is also attending college in PaP and studying.
The film does a good job of incorporating Haiti’s complex and rich history, can you expand more on the historical context of Haiti and what it has to do with contemporary Haiti? How does this history impact the Haitian experience in America?
There is no more important new world history than that of Haiti. For such a relatively tiny piece of geography, its land has seen the most extraordinary stories of the post-Columbus world unfold. For those reasons, I feel it is vitally important that the world understand Haitian history and reference that history for a deeper understanding of the world we live in today. Contemporary Haiti is a pure expression of Haitian history, both of which are deeply complex. It seems clear that only by understanding this complex history can one truly know how best to relate to the Haiti today. The layers of this history are like a distilled version of all of the New World’s history and provide us with almost an accounting the impact that past decisions have had. At the source of much of Haiti’s difficult past is the subject of exploitation in the name of profit. It is important to think of the amount of money that has been made on the backs of Haitian labor. Before the revolution, income [to outside] from Haitian business concerns was massive. And I would like to consider the fact that within two years of the revolution, Napoleon was obliged to sell Louisiana (a rarely considered point with respect to the massive westward expansion that provided the United States.) To say it another way, is it plausible were it not for the Haitian revolutionaries, the Western United States might end at the Mississippi River. The Haitian diaspora in America is filled with people who are not only of Haitian ancestry, but are also exceptional US citizens. Two hallmarks of Haitian culture are to value education and to understand through active conversation and debate what it means to be free. “Haitian Americans”, especially in Miami in NY, represent some of the most important voices in their cities and it is no surprise that they are.
One quote that really stuck with me was from Bernadette Williams, the cellist and teacher, who expressed her wish for young Haitians to understand and appreciate Haiti’s rich value. Is the internal perception of Haiti tied to the international one? If so, what can we do to overcome the stereotypes of Haiti?
There is no getting around the fact that we live in a totally interconnected world, now more than ever. When I began making this movie, smartphones had yet to really arrive in Haiti and the digital network had not really been built out as it now has. My sense, however, is that the Haiti of 10 years ago was extremely concerned with the quality of life within its own borders. This was not an easy life. To be Haitian is almost synonymous with being strong of character and resilient in spirit. The impressions that the world has had of Haiti as a troubled land are in some ways accurate, but what the Haitian living in Haiti knows that the rest of the world does not understand well is how to navigate such complexities in such a way that the business of life continues on. I believe this is part of what Bernadette means when she talks about the richness of Haiti, which is to say I believe she is speaking about the richness of the Haitian character and spirit. Because this character and spirit is put to the test every day, most especially driven by circumstance, what it means to be Haitian is being newly expressed each day. In that sense, it seems that the world’s perception may be especially out of touch with the Haitian reality, principally (instead of principle) because much of the world pays little attention to the daily stories that make up Haitian life.
What did you expect when returning to Sainte Trinite after the earthquake? How did that compare to what you experienced?
I had expected a very difficult situation and I did experience just that. However, the relationship 12 months after the earthquake to life in PaP that I experienced witnessing my friends go about the business of their lives was once again humbling for the expression of resilience so plainly woven into everyone’s lives. That said, it seems that even now, it is extremely difficult to digest the impact and scale of the earthquake. And in that sense, it is also difficult to even imagine how one could really heal from such a traumatic experience. Presumably, for the survivors, healing occurs in spite of the emotional and physical scars that are left, but the scars are a constant reminder of the pain that has been endured. Obviously, the strength of character of people who have experienced such profound challenges is extraordinary and there is no question in my mind that all who made it through the earthquake are such people.
You did such a good job capturing the pure emotion and hardship among the aftermath, was that difficult?
I felt that our job was principally to bear witness to what we encountered one year after the earthquake. It was, of course, difficult to even know how best to address such a terrible thing, but in so many ways, we were led and guided by the extraordinary friendships we had forged with the Holy Trinity community in the years prior to the earthquake. Surely like many other communities in Haiti, the Holy Trinity community is rich with insights into how best to face profound adversity and to continue forward with an open and loving heart in life. There are few examples in my own life which have been more profoundly impactful than witnessing our friends at HTMS show by example what it means to be a resilient human being.
What is the most important lesson that you’d want others to take away from SERENADE FOR HAITI?
As has been said many times already, the principle message I hope to express through our movie is the power of the human spirit and its capacity to endure in the face of extraordinary hardship and somehow still thrive through the power of art. The poetic heart can express itself in many ways, famously through music. HTMS has used music and an artistic sensibility more broadly, as a standard under which a full and meaningful community life can be based. Routed in the fundamental tenets of love, acceptance, and compassion, the HTMS community proves that under the most difficult of circumstances, the most beautiful expressions of humanity can flower.