Director Richard Senecal is the mind behind a great number of Haiti’s films. You and your grandmother have probably sat down and watched many of his films. Does I Love You Anne sound familiar? How about Barikad? Or Cousines?
Here he is discussing his latest work El Violinista (The Violinist), his craft as a filmmaker, and sharing his thoughts on the Haiti’s movie industry.
Kreyolicious: How did the idea for El Violinista come about?
This documentary is the result or combination of two other projects. First I was working on a documentary about Haitian students in the Dominican Republic. I had completed some shooting and many interviews, but I was not satisfied with the result. It was another typical Haitian documentary with a lot of talk and very few images. Film is not radio, and I wanted more than talking heads. The second project was about an old Dominican violinist teacher. There, I had more images, but I could not catch my main character story because he was too shy to share it confidently with me. But he happened to have an Haitian violin student who was also attending university in Santiago. At some point, I started to focus on him instead and I would end up follow his evolution during about four years. The final film is about fulfilling an apparently lost dream through hard work and perseverance. It is also about a young Haitian confronting the complex challenges of living in the Dominican Republic and trying to integrate Dominican society. This is a very personal project. The film about Haitian students was originally funded by a small grant from FOKAL and some contributors on Indiegogo, but total production time was scheduled to be only one year. I ended up working five years on this film and financing most of it through my own companies Imagine Haiti and Imagine Dominicana. I think it’s really worth it.
Kreyolicious: Do you have a passion for classical music?
I like all kinds of music. I mean real music, not noise. I had an early contact with classical music since it’s the music my mother used to listen at home when I was a kid. I was also lucky enough to have some music classes in high school. So at the end, I’m as familiar with classical music as with other music genres such as jazz, blues, rock, pop and many flavors of world music. I think it’s a real asset. Nowadays, too many of our so-called musicians lack a minimum true musical background and education. Thus the poverty of our contemporary music.
Kreyolicious: Do you feel less in control when you’re doing a documentary as opposed to a feature film?
It is traditionally perceived that fiction films and documentaries are two different animals. Difference is even more marked in our young cinema tradition where documentaries are usually associated with long and multiple interviews. There have been recently some efforts by some of my Haitian colleagues to blur the borders between both genres, but it has been mostly done by doing [reenactments] with actors or, at least in one case, animation. The challenge I gave myself was to even further blur the lines while staying true to the actual events and situations. So yes, there’s a lot of unpredictability during the shooting phase. The actual control is achieved at the editing stage. Final product form is closer to a feature film while staying 100% a true documentary without any fictionalization.
Kreyolicious: What’s the most inspiring documentary—or documentaries have you seen? What was inspirational about them?
I have seen a lot of documentaries and I’ve been inspired by so many that any attempt to list them would be futile. And I’m talking real documentaries, not TV [reporting segments]. Because there is a difference and people easily mistake one for another. Real documentaries have a point-of-view. They do not pretend to objectivity—which is the essence of journalism.
Photo Credit: Mondy Bertheth
Kreyolicious: What are your thoughts on the Haitian movie industry?
I think it is at a turning point–like everything else in our society. The only options are to die or to grow. It would be foolish to keep doing the same kind of films we used to do a few years ago. I’m afraid some of us filmmakers fail to fully understand that. The time when anyone with very little filmmaking background or culture could wake up, catch any consumer camera and cook a “movie” is over. We must go a full step further and it will be through education, professionalism and team work that we will achieve that.
Kreyolicious: If a film school student were to ask you about how to best prepare to film a documentary, what would you say to him or her?
First, watch and study documentaries, real ones, many of them. Second, choose your point-of-view. Third and maybe the most challenging, immerse yourself. Your presence as a filmmaker will necessarily distort the reality you’re trying to catch. You can either try to minimize it or turn it to your advantage. And, do not forget, filmmaking is about visuals and sound. Images and ambiances can be stronger than dialogues or interviews. Last but not least, filming is the control of time though patience and clever choices.
Kreyolicious: What’s next for you?
More films I hope. Nothing clearly specific at this time, but that may change at any moment. Regarding The Violinist, we’re going to try to reach a more international audience. We understand this is not necessarily a film for the general Haitian public. The original version is in Spanish and there are two subtitled versions in French and English. The choice is deliberate at a time when distributing or screening a film in Haiti is almost an impossible task. And yes, we need to open new doors, explore different avenues. There’s a world outside eager to hear and enjoy our so many untold stories.