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Mario Delatour: An Interview on Filmmaking and The Documentary Process

Mario Delatour
The film business has been a big part of Mario Delatour’s life for a good while now. Born in South America to Haitian parents, Delatour’s career has taken him to Haiti, New York, Los Angeles, Miami and the Middle East. Delatour is touted by many observers as a natural-born storyteller, who uses film to tell his stories.

His career launched off in the late 1970s, when he decided to embark in the world of cinema. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Delatour breathed film as much as he breathed oxygen. In 2002, he decided to explore post-Apartheid South Africa with his project The limits of Patience. In recent years, his subject has been almost exclusively Haiti, a little island, as we all know, that is the inspiration for so many fascinating stories worth telling.

Delatour’s career is in full swing. There’s never a moment of dullness in his life, or a dearth of subjects. One of his most acclaimed documentaries has been Un Certain Bord de Mer, a work that chronicled Arab and Middleastern presence in Haiti. Delatour has also made Quarante Ans Après [Forty Years After], a documentary about the Jacmel-born poet, diplomat, and journalist Roussan Camille. Camille died in 1961, the same year he won the Prix Dumarsais Estimé for his poetry collection Multiple Présence. While he was known as one of the most prolific poets of his generation, Camille’s name in later years, was very little known outside of intellectual circles. Delatour aimed to change this with his documentary. Quarante Ans Après was screened at the world’s most prestigious film festivals Brussels, Belgium, Montreal, Jacmel and Amiens, France.

A graduate of the Columbia School of Motion Pictures and Television in Los Angeles, Delatour has made his alma mater proud at every turn. In 2004, he founded his own film production company, Amistad Films. Not surprisingly, the documentarian expediently put together a doc about the 2010 Haiti earthquake with 35 Long seconds: Haiti’s Deadly Earthquake (it’s French title is 35 Secondes Fatales). This year, he was part of the Cine del Caribe Traveling Filmmaker showcase in Havana, Cuba.

Delatour’s most recent project is Dead or victorious but not Prisoner, which traces the life of Alix Pasquet (and one-time Tuskegee Airman) and his participation—along with two Haitian exiles and U.S. nationals—in an invasion and overthrow of then-Haitian president Francois Duvalier in the late 1950s.

Q & A

So you were born in Venezuela of Haitian parents, were your parents exiles there?
My parents moved to Venezuela in 1950 where my father worked as a civil engineer. In the early fifties Venezuela was booming with petroleum dollars and so opportunities were plentiful for professionals from all over the world. This is about the time when Venezuela was experiencing a massive arrival of immigrants notably Italians fleeing the harsh conditions of post World War II Europe. I was born in Caracas in September of 1955. Four months later—in January of 1956—my parents brought me to Haiti. Haiti has been with me ever since!

What led you to launch your film company Amistad Films in the mid-2000’s?
In January of 2001, I came back to Haiti after a 10 year absence. This was a difficult period for me, as tragedy had struck my family with the passing of my oldest brother Leslie Delatour who died of cancer. I decided to stay in Haiti to be closer to my grieving parents and family. I didn’t regret the decision as the ten years that I had been away from Haiti had been a roller coaster ride which took me to, roughly 15 different countries on assignment. In those days, I worked in various capacities as a cameraman, a researcher, a production manager and later on as a producer. I had spent the last three years of those ten years producing in Japan for European networks, principally RTL—Radio Television Luxembourg. My professional life up until that time had been to feed television networks with various story ideas and to assist others in making their films. I had felt that the time had come for me to apply all of this work experience to making my own films. So in 2002, I founded the film company Amistad Films as a joint venture between myself and a dear friend of mine, Dominican film producer Jaime Pina. The idea was to service the production needs of foreign film companies looking to work in either Haiti or in the Dominican republic. Needless to say, we also looked forward to producing our own indigenous films.

The word Amistad means friendship in Spanish. Filmmaking I felt, was a way to bridge the differences between the two countries on the island. If we could make films to showcase our respective cultures we could help break the vicious cycle of stereotypes which have kept the two people apart and suspicious of one another.

In the process, we successfully serviced a number of visiting production companies on both sides of the island. One production that I am particularly proud to have assisted is Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ series on Blacks in Latin America. The series filmed both in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and looked at the keen difference between how the two nations dealt with their African heritage. The piece was broadcasted on PBS in 2011 and was the subject of much discussion.

As for making our own films, in 2002, I produced my first 52-minute film on the very talented Haitian poet Roussan Camille, a man who had done much to promote and secure a place for Haiti among its neighbors. The biography film premiered at Vues d’Afrique in Montreal in 2003 to much raving success.

Your film company Amistad Films has HASCO La Grand Dame listed as your oldest documentary, dating back to the year 1988. Was that your first documentary?
The acronym HASCO stands for Haitian American Sugar Cane Company. For many years, HASCO was Haiti’s premier sugar cane plant. The plant was started around 1912 and was finished during the American occupation in 1917. HASCO once upon a time powered up the city of Port au Prince with electricity from its powerful generators in the days when the capital was a sleepy Caribbean city of 250,000 people. HASCO however was better known for its network of trains, which went all the way out to the southern city of Léogane. On their way back from the cane fields, the trains would cut through downtown Port-au-Prince and shake every building in the Bord de Mer commercial district. In those days, it was a common sight to see kids run along the side of the trains to catch some free sticks of cane. Unfortunately, a good many lost limbs with this practice—hence the expression, “Banm jamb pran kan”—give a leg and I’ll give you some cane—that came to be associated with HASCO trains.

The Mevs family purchased the plant in the early eighties and kept it running until the early nineties when contraband sugar started flooding the market. It was a sad day when it closed its doors, as HASCO was only second to the state in providing Haitian workers with jobs. Planters, seasonal workers and staff all went out of work because of a massive influx of cheap sugar on the Haitian market. This signed the death warrant of HASCO. It made no sense to keep such a costly operation running! In 1988, Mrs. Huguette Mevs called on to me to produce a film on sugar. I seized on the opportunity to tell the story of HASCO. It was only my second documentary film. In 1983, I had made a 30-minute film on road building in Haiti.

You made a documentary Un Certain Bord de Mer about the Arabic heritage of some Haitians. How did the idea for this project come about?
I am a nomadic soul by nature, my parents instilled the travel bug in me early on with long trips to far away lands like the Congo—a country where my family dropped anchor for a year in 1966. All of this to tell you, that I have always been fascinated by the reasons that cause people to move around the world. The Arab community is a thriving one in Haiti. I had often pondered on how they came to choose Haiti as their final destination, and so while researching this subject for the film, I discovered that a good many initially set out for Brazil and came to Haiti purely by accident! The research for this film in 2005 took me to the Middle East on two occasions. I went to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan for the project as the bulk of the community in Haiti came from Lebanon and Syria.

It must be noted as well that a good many Arab families also came from Palestine. The vast majority of the Arabs came to Haiti towards the end of the nineteen-century. Most of them were Christians fleeing the persecution of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over their homeland. The history of the Arabs in Haiti is the same story repeated all over this hemisphere. Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro—he lived from 1825 to 1891—towards the end of his rule went to the region to encourage immigration to his country and so loads crossed the Atlantic in search of a more secure life. It is around that time that many came to Haiti during the reign of president Florvil Hypollite in 1891. I must tell you that initially they were not welcomed with open arms and measures were taken to expel them on two occasions. This took place under the rule of president Leconte. The Americans gave the community a brief respite during their 19 year occupation simply because they imported goods from America as opposed to the Haitian elite which imported goods mostly from Europe. T

The community hit another snag in 1930 with the laws of President Vincent, which seriously hindered their commercial activities. The laws proved to be unpopular and were rescinded. Further down the line in the sixties, President Duvalier favored the community over the mulatto class and gave them preferential treatment. Today the community is well integrated and is an economic force to reckon with. In a nutshell that is the story of our Haitian-Arab brothers in Haiti! The documentary Un Certain Bord de Mer examines all this period and describes in details the up and downs of the community in Haiti. Bord de Mer by the way is Port-au-Prince’s commercial district by the sea front.

Roussan Camille, a poet of the 1940s era in Haiti was the subject of one of your documentaries. How did you get introduced to him?
In the early sixties, Roussan Camille’s family lived next door to us in Bourdon. I never knew the poet as a child though I was a good friend of his son Jean Camille. Roussan Camille died in 1961 at the age of 49, a premature death by all accounts. I was introduced to the world of the poet through the numerous photographs he left behind. A very tall stylish man whose talent was used by numerous Haitian presidents notably Dumarsais Estimé, Paul Eugène Magloire and François Duvalier. It was Roussan Camille who was instrumental in having Cuban sculptors do the fantastic statues of our national heroes on the Champs de Mars during Magloire’s reign. It was also Roussan Camille who represented Haiti in San Francisco for the birth of the United Nations in 1947. Camille’s book of poems Assault a la nuit is a classic piece of literary work, a cornerstone of Haitian literature.

I was encouraged to make this film by my good friend Régine Estimé daughter of president Dumarsais Estimé. She felt that Haiti was lacking in its collective memory and that today’s youth needed to discover the work of these giants who had done so much to enhance our prestige in the forties, fifties and sixties. It was also Régine Estimé who encouraged me to work with the great Syto Cave. Syto wrote a beautiful poetic text to which I cut a mixture of archival footage, photos and interviews; the result was a very poetic film. The film after it premiered at Vues d’Afrique in Montreal in 2003 created a buzz around the man. As a result, the poet’s daughter received a posthumously literary prize from Deschamps in Haiti. The film was financed by two grants from FOKAL and the French embassy.

You currently live in Miami? Do you go back and forth to Haiti?
I currently live in Haiti as of June of 2012. I’ve recently come back once again to Haiti after a brief stay in Luxembourg for a year and a half. I will be here for a little while, time enough to finish my next film that has been in the making for the last 5 years. Whether or not I leave or stay this time, one thing is certain, I never stay away too long from Haiti. I consider it my home. Having said so, I must say that these are difficult times indeed for Haiti after this dreadful earthquake in 2010 that destroyed so much. An encouraging sign though is the resilience of the Haitian people who’ve managed to move on despite so much hardship.

What procedure did you follow, in terms of coming up with research, and interview subjects?
The research work for every film is different; it depends on the subject matter that you are treating. In the year 2000 in Japan for example, I did research for a piece on foreign girls working as bar hostesses in Tokyo. The work was interesting as I spent much time in bars and talked to Russian, Ukranian and German girls who worked on a part time basis in the field. My initial idea, that this sort of work was somewhat borderline prostitution turned out to be something quite different. These girls simply entertained their customers by pouring their drinks, listening to their jokes and they made these overworked salary men feel like kings and in the process they made money. The point is you need to jump in without any preconceived notions. You need to be curious and open minded and go with the flow of the work!

In 2006, the U.S, embassy in Haiti had asked me to do a piece on violence and the need for dialogue. Well, I spent much time in the field, particularly in Cité Soleil where kidnappings were rampant in those days. I spoke to gang leaders, foot soldiers and child soldiers. I went to juvenile detention centers; I also spoke to kidnapping victims to get a sense of what propelled this senseless violence. As a rule, there is always more underneath! Often this work is potentially dangerous and hairs-rising, but these are the risks of the trade.

In 1996 we researched a story on a case of infanticide in Rwanda, a nation that had gone through the trauma of genocide where nearly a million people perished over the course of 120 days. We wondered how a woman that had witness so much killing in her village could find the strength to throw her own baby down a latrine. This story required that we spend time with this woman in the prison where she was incarcerated that we listened to her side of the story and not judged her. In a nutshell, once your research is done you’ll know who to interview and how to approach them!

You’re a documentary filmmaker, and your subjects are almost exclusively Haiti-related. Now, with the many fires, and now the earthquake that happened in 2010, do you think it’ll be somewhat difficult more than ever to find archival sources and documents to supplement your documentaries?
This is a very pertinent question as archives are quite difficult to access in Haiti. Where are the archives in Haiti? Well for the most part they are in the hands of private individuals, families, and some few existing foundations and there lies the problem, as these individuals or families or foundations are not always keen on sharing these documents. And why is that? Because of a lack of trust, the keepers of these documents are not always sure of your intentions hence there tends to be great suspicion in producing documents to others. Another thing is the complete lack of real established institutions like museums that could guarantee the safety of these documents and assure some sort of protection for future generations.

Having said so, in the midst of a devastated downtown Port-au-Prince, one can still go the library of the Frères de l’Instruction Chrétienne of Saint Louis de Gonzague and find relevant documents. It is quite amazing! Right across from that institution is the Bibliothèque Nationale where I was able to find periodicals for the Roussan Camille film. As a documentary filmmaker one is often in a seduction mode with various individuals to access their private archives. You need to establish trust or prove that your reputation is worthy of trust. For instance I was not successful in obtaining much family pictures from Arab families in Haiti for the film Un Certain Bord de Mer, believe it or not, a good many of the pictures used in that film, I was able to obtain them from an archive center in Beyrouth Lebanon known as Mémoire Collective.

The trend is beginning to change though with progressive institutions like FOKAL where you can go and access documents. Everyone is welcomed and thank God for that! Now the earthquake has done a lot harm because much was lost. I myself have lost 30% of my visual archives as there were stored in the family house which was leveled during the earthquake.

You studied film at Columbia School of Motion Pictures and Television in Los Angeles, and later you minored in Third World Cinema at UCLA. What are some of the biggest lessons you learned in film school?
Going to film school in the middle of Hollywood was the thrill of my life. I was just a young boy of twenty when I drove out west and what a rare privilege to have gone to film school in the world’s biggest film environment. In film school you watch films, you study them, you analyze them, you meet the people who make those films, your teachers work in the industry etc…It is an enlightening moment to be part of that. Los Angeles is also home to AFI, the American Film Institute, a higher institution of learning. If you are lucky you can get invited to attend seminars where you see and hear the pros of the film industry. At UCLA I was in the Latin American Studies department and I was privy to attend classes at the film school where I was exposed to third world films. I had never seen films before from Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, Chile, Argentina and countries in Africa like Sénégal. I had an Ethiopian professor named Theshome Gabriel who was instrumental in educating me and helping me discover emerging filmmakers from the third world. Closer to our reality in Haiti I must say, I was very impressed by the Cuban films I saw at UCLA. It was an awakening moment for me as those countries with meager resources were able to produce quality films. Whereas they teach you in the industry of Hollywood that you cannot make a film for less than a million dollars, Cubans were making films with a hundred and fifty thousand dollars and sometimes less.

Do you think it’s a must for every aspiring filmmaker to attend film school?
I highly recommend it though it is not always a ticket to success!

Documentary filmmaking is such a big part of your life. Will you eventually adventure to feature filmmaking?
My first film The New Tenant was a short shot on 16 mm with a cast of professional actors, so I came from a background of feature films. My friend Syto Cave recently encouraged me to write for fiction and I think I will do just that but I must tell you that filmmaking is a very challenging process. It sucks the wind of you!

Which work are you most proud of?
I am in the process of wrapping up the editing on a project I started five years ago. It deals with the Alix Pasquet invasion of Haiti in July of 1958 to topple president Francois Duvalier. The film is a historical one. Though it is not yet complete, I must say that the usage of animation for the reenactment scenes coupled with historical footage and photos and talking heads is new departure for me. It’s looking pretty good so far and hopefully soon the public will be able to see it.

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2 Comments to “Mario Delatour: An Interview on Filmmaking and The Documentary Process”

  1. René says:

    Knew Mario and his family as neighbors in bourdon for a year (1962-63) while staying with extended family, before permanently leaving for the states. I was eight and believed him to be a year younger. I am not surprised of his creative endeavors and success, as he (and his brothers) left a memorable impression that has stayed vividly with me for fifty years. Amiable and personable with a perpetual sunny disposition that appears to have served him well!

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