Like the early bird that catches the worm and is the envy of all the fowl in the forest, Fabienne Colas was the “It Girl” of the Haitian cinema movement of the early 2000s. Colas starred in director Richard Sénécal’s film Barikad in 2002, followed by a role in Jean-Gardy Bien-Aimé’s Protège Moi. The impact that she made as the leading actress in two back-to-back Haitian films at the height of the movement was sensational. All over sudden, every director wanted Colas as their lead actress, and screenwriters who were going hard at their screenplays were writing roles for her, or could think of no one else who could play the characters they had crafted to their satisfaction.
In Barikad, Colas played a self-assertive young maid who travels miles from her remote town to work in the home of the Palmiers, a middle-class family in Port-au-Prince. She filmed Protège Moi first, but Barikad was the first of the two films to be released. Playing a homely housemaid in the Sénécal film, followed by the role in the Bien-Aimé film as Sandra—a sophisticated girlfriend of a popular radio personality in the town of Les Cayes—more than proved to observers that she was versatile, and could make any role her own.
In years following her entrance into Haitian cinema, Colas starred in a string of series on Canadian television and founded the Montreal Black Film Festival. At this point, she is launching a new phase in her career as a television mogul.
While she’s gearing up for the next edition of the Montreal Black Film Festival, which is scheduled to take place in September, she responded to a request for an interview with Kreyolicious.com.
You founded the Montreal Black Film Festival.
Actually, it all started as the Montreal Haitian Film Festival. As we were receiving tons of films on other black realities from all over the world, we decided to open it to the world and renamed it the Montreal International Black Film Festival. The 2011 edition welcomed over 125 films, 80 premieres, from 35 countries. Today, I am so proud of the team behind the festival and totally grateful to our partners, the filmmakers, the audience and themedia that support this wonderful event year after year. We’ve been so happy and proud to welcome celebrities like Legendary Souleymane Cissé—One of Martin’s Scorcese favorite African directors—Bobby Brown, Jimmy Jean-Louis—our Haitian hero; award-winning author Dany Laferrière, actor Réginald Lubin and soooooo many others.
We want to keep on offering this excellent platform to great films on the realities of black people from all over the world. We want to continue to give a voice to people who otherwise wouldn’t have been heard and a window to films that otherwise wouldn’t have been seen.
How did you get your start in the Haitian movie industry?
I met this director called Raphael Stines one day. At the time, he was directed the TV series “Pè Toma” at the Haitian National Television. He gave me my very first chance. I played in “Pè Toma” [a TV series filmed in Haiti] for one year and later on he created arole for me in Bouki Nan Paradi where I played next to legendary actor Piram. And thanks to Raphael, I met Richard Sénécal, director of Barikad; Jean-Gardy Bien-Aimé, director of Protège-Moi.I owe my carreer to Raphael Stines—rest in Peace Raphael. Raphael really wanted me to go forward. He never at any time, expressed jealousy or else over my success…He would always congratulate me and express how proud he was of me. I miss him all the time.
Minuit was your debut in the film world as director and producer.
First of all, let me thank again Sophia Désir who wrote the script and submitted it to me to direct. I am so honored she put her trust in me. You know, I’ve been a fan of Sophia for the longest time and actually I was a bit sad she did not offer me a part in the radio series VIP at the time in Haiti—while every Haitian actor had a chance to take part in it [smiles]. And when she moved here in Montreal, she wanted me to be part of the project as an actress…and as we were struggling to find a director to do it at the right time…she ended up telling me,”Fabienne, I believe you can and should direct it.” I was in shock! I had to play the lead, produce it and now direct? That was a major thing for me. But without Sophia, there wouldn’t have been any Minuit. Now, because of her generosity I can proudly say my film Minuit.
Working with Sophia was really easy and a pleasure. Sophia doesn’t take herself too seriously, so we were constantly joking about everything about the movie on set. Of course we disagreed sometimes on some things, but in the end, someone had to call the shots and it was me, the director, who carries all the responsibilities of the film. But to this day, Sophia remains one of the most open-minded person artistically I know.
How you prepared as a first-time director?
To prepare as a first-time director, I used all I learned from several directors I’ve worked with as an actress overthe years in Canada, the US and Haiti. On the set, I was opened to advice and suggestions as well and I surrounded myself with a great crew, especially a very good DOP—Director of Photography. He had to translate my vision into film.
What advice would you give to someone undertaking such a task?
After having directed just one feature film, I don’t believe I’m qualified to give advice to aspiring filmmakers. But some things I learned though: surround yourself with people that really know what they are doing. Make sure they understand your vision for the film Don’t just explain the story to them, but also thei ntention of the film and of each scene…and especially what we don’t want the film to become. Have a clear vision of what you want to do. Know where you are going with the film because in order to lead a story, a cast and a crew, you need to show you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Make sure you listen to everyone and treat them with respect, they are all there to help fulfill your vision,they need to feel validated and respected; but also, they need to feel you know what you’re doing; Lastly and most important, make sure everyone knows who is the boss on the set, the one that has thelast word on the set and in the editing room: it’s the director.
Would you do it again?
Sure, I want to do it again. I love directing. I wish I was not acting and directing at the same time as we were a very small team—and a first experience as a director for me. But I enjoyed the process so much and the actors were fabulous: Sophia Désir, Ralph Prophète, Yanick Dutelly, Natacha Noël, Rony Bastien, Sara Rénélik…Great, generous actors.
What are your movie career plans for the next couple of years?
I do not have any movie carreer plans for the next couple of years. I decided to commit to my Foundation: the Fabienne Colas Foundation which handles the Montreal International Black Film Festival; The Festival Haiti en Folie; The Festival Fade to Black; the Quebec Film Festival in Haiti and many more. I really find lots of pleasure in showcasing other people’s films and shows. Also, I just obtained two TV licences from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecomunications Commission to create Diversité TV and Bon Goût TV. Lots of work ahead. And also working on several other projects in the entertainment industry, but not as an actress.
Why do you think your name frequently comes up in conversations about Haitian movies, when Haitian movie fans and critics are discussing the best in the business?
Well, I’m honored. I’m happy when people are telling me how they loved something I did or how they appreciate what I do in order to promote other artists and their work…that pushes me forward. Although I don’t have ananswer to that, I believe it’s a bit because I had the privilege to play the lead roles in films that had strong messages that tried to raise awareness. I’m always honored to know how much people let me in their living rooms—by watching films I starred in.
Many people who admire the actress Fabienne Colas, constantly wonder about the real woman, and what she’s like away from the cameras and prying eyes.
In real life, I’m a very blessed housewife, daughter and sister who happens to be running a foundation and several festivals and who is soon to be the owner of 2 TV networks. I’m a passionate fun girl who loves dancing, going out. I love speaking my mind about things and issues that some other people find hard to defend: Affirmative Action, diversity on the big and small screens in North America, Voodoo, homosexuality, immigration, HIV prevention. I believe we have to lend our voices to causes we believe in and causes that are worth fighting for. I also love wearing jeans; I don’t own a lot of skirts. I really think I own less than 5 skirts. I read a lot. I believe in the law of attraction and I pray a lot too.
Is there anyone in particular that you’ve modeled your career after?
Growing up, I looked up to several role models but my career is so unconventional when you consider all I do. I deeply admire and respect Oprah Winfrey. For me, she is the ultimate aspiration and inspiration outside my family. Oprah had a very sad childhood. Her grandmother was a maid. She’d been raped and pregnant at age 14—the baby died at birth. She did not grow up in a house full of love by both parents and beside she was black in Mississipi, at a time when there was big segregation in the USA. She grew up very poor and all she believed in was having aneducation and working hard. During the journey, she kept the faith. Today, the rest is history. I have nothing but tremendous respect for her. She is the most powerful woman in the world!
Would you consider it, if Nollywood of Ghanawood called your name?
If the project is cool, fun and meaningful: absolutely. I love discovering new markets and new great projects.
Based on some of the things that you know now, if you could give advice to the Fabienne from years ago, what would you tell her?
Don’t be so naïve girlfriend, the world is even friendlier than you would ever imagine! Keep working hard and don’t you worry about what other people say, because “other people`s opinion of you is none of your business”.
When you’re offered a movie script, what factors do you usually use to decide whether to accept the role or not?
My gut feeling! I gotta fall in love with the story and the character I have to play and completely trust the director I’m gonna be having to work with for days, weeks and sometimes months. Then comes all the rest.
There’s this perception from some that the Haitian movie industry is on the decline.
I heard it and think the Haitian Film Industry is having a rough time indeed. Too many bad, poor quality films; too many bootlegs; not enough private investments. People that can do great films are totally discouraged by all this. So they stop working and soon enough you get a bunch of terrible products also called Haitian films. That’s too bad. I believe one day, it will get back on its feet, but it starts [with] the people that should ask for original versions of the film and stop supporting bootlegs. I’m now currently working on a project that could, perhaps, give a hand…we’ll talk about it at the appropriate time.
You’ve gotten formal training in acting in Canada as well as Los Angeles, correct? Do you think that formal training is an absolute must for actors?
Indeed, I took several acting workshops both in Montreal and Los Angeles. I believe it gives you more tools to conquer the field and a better chance at mastering the art. The movie industry is very competitive; you have one chance to give your first and very best impression. You better be prepared. I believe workshops and acting classes cannot teach you how to act, but they can help you know how to effectively use this natural talent and give you some techniques. I even suggest that people go to theater schools—which I did not attend—if they can. It doesn’t guarantee a career—and it’s not a must—but it will surely give you advantage, confidence and the necessary techniques you need to make it.
We know you’ve worked on several Haitian films/series in Canada. Are you going to ever star in a Haitian movie filmed in Haiti anytime soon?
I wish I had the answer to this question! I am open to any great project that could come my way. I keep great memories of those ties when I used to play in Haitian films in Haiti. It was fun and I felt I was there for a purpose.
Barikad, Protège Moi, Profonds Regrets were the first three movies that you starred in.
Actually, no. The very first movie I played in was Bouki nan Paradi, directed by Raphael Stines, in which I had the privilege to star with Pyram [late actor Roland Dorfeuille], a true legend. I loved Raphael so much but he was really not fun to work with on set. He would yell, scream, curse. We spent over 30 minutes arguing over the fact that I should be naked in the river—while he said the contrary when we first discussed the project. But at the end, that was the very best experience I have ever had on a set. We became best friends and I owe him every other project I’ve been able to work on afterthat. May he rest in peace.
Barikad was a great challenge, I felt I had to impress Richard Sénécal the director who took a chance on me. I wanted that part so much. And to do so, I had to know what I was doing. It was no joke, every day I would go to the street market to observe young girls coming from the countryside; I would go to some friends just to observe how their maids would act. I would talk to maids all the time about everything. I quickly picked up their way of speaking, their shy way of almost never looking at you in the eyes out of respect and humility. On set, everything was well organized; we had a very prepared cast and crew. Everyone knew his or her lines and everyone was on time. Pretty impressive! Besides, my father was part of the cast—Mr Palmier—which was so much fun.
The chemistry between the actors was breathtaking and Richard Sénécal has his own way to make you feel comfortable on [a] set. He is a very rigorous director. He comes on set very prepared and knows when to stop pushing.
I remember one day, we were ahead of schedule and I spontaneously offered to shoot another scene that was scheduled for the next day. Richard was opened to the idea. As we went along, nothing could work as anticipated. I was literally struggling with the scene. Richard stopped and said, “I believe we’re not ready for this scene today, let’s keep it for tomorrow.” Great working experience! Protège-moi was directed by Jean-Gardy Bien-Aimé. I wanted to be part of a project with him for the longest time and here he came offering me the part at the premiere of Bouki nan Paradi by Raphael Stines. Wow.
The most interesting part was that the movie was going to be shot in Les Cayes, Haiti which I had never been to before. Just love the countryside. The set was way less serious than in Barikad. We were laughing all the time and most of the time it resulted in us being behind schedule and [being] so not organized. Jean-Gardy is a very relaxed and spontaneous director that does not necessarily comes onset with a clear plan in mind; he would look at the environment and decide to use things around him. He doesn’t rely on the script. He wants us to let it out the way it comes. The experience in Protège moi was enriching as I got to meet people from Les Cayes. One night, we were searching for something crazy to do. One of the actors proposed jokingly that we should all go swim at midnight. Next thing I know, we drove to Cavaillon and took a memorable “midnight sea bath” with part of the cast. We did some crazy and fun stuff.
Profonds Regrets was directed by Mora Junior Etienne and was shot in Miami. I had some doubts about the project at first as I was not the biggest fan of Le Choix de ma Vie, Mora’s previous film…But Mora could sell you any idea. So he convinced me into getting [a] part [in] it. Mora sent me 30 script pages—which was more of a detailed and long synopsis than a script…The real script was in his head. One day, we spent two hours on the phone as he was trying to explain [to] me the whole script. The problem when you don’t have a complete script is that no one knows exactly what’s coming and everyone on the set is trying to complete the script after each scene, which can be chaotic at times. At the end of the day, we completed the shooting and Profonds Regrets was born. Mora was opened to some changes.
I had a blast in Miami with the cast and crew. We were partying at night. And my sister was with me for the duration of the shooting, which was lots of fun. I really did not have to do anything to prepare for the role; it was a tough choice to make as I always want to be prepared and safe before entering a set. But Mora said he wanted this character to be the closest to me as possible. Which was fun too, because not all directors will allow you this kind of freedom on set.
What’s your biggest regret in life thus far?
I don’t regret experiences I have had in life so far—good or bad. They are the very reason I am who I am today. As Oprah always says it, there is something to be learned in everything you go through in
life—good or bad. You just got to pay attention and get the lesson so you can be wiser and do better the next time. Someone rips you off?Well, it hurts, but you learn not to be so naïve the next time. The closest example I could refer to is my parents. They got divorced over 20 years ago, and at times, I still remember how bad they would argue. That was very painful to witness as a kid. However, they are so grateful to have gotten married, because from that union, 3 wonderful kids were born—my brother, my sister and I. But also, their divorce taught me what not to do in a relationship if you want it to last.
What actors, actresses, and directors would you like to work with in the future?
So many of them! The list would be way too long. But now, I also think of which one I’d like to invite to the Montreal International Black Film Festival.
Out of all the movies you’ve starred in, which one do you single-out as your favorite?
Too tough to answer as each one is a part of me. But the one I believe had a stronger inspirational message was definitely Barikad. I really believe it changed the way people in Haiti see maids.
Since you’ve been on movie sets in three different countries, what’s the difference between filming a movie in Haiti, in Canada, and in the USA?
I believe the country doesn’t matter too much; The only difference, besides the weather, is the means and teambehind each project. It’s fun to get to travel and work in different environments. When working in a city or countrythere is a natural curiosity. I get to be in constant discovery. When filming in a city or country I know very well, there is an ease and comfort that can go beyond imagination.
Photos: Jean-Jacques Augustin, Radio Canada Internatiaonal, HPN Haiti