How Haitian Folklore Inspired Filmmaker Shirley Bruno’s Film Tezen

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How Haitian Folklore Inspired Filmmaker Shirley Bruno's Film Tezen
Tezen was among the films that screened at this year’s edition of the Haiti Cultural Exchange Haiti Film Fest in New York. Shirley Bruno, the film director-screenwriter who masterminded the film had a lot to say…starting with her early relationship with the medium.

Kreyolicious: Growing up, what were your favorite films to watch and rewatch?
Shirley Bruno: I actually didn’t grow up watching films at all, so by no means did I grow up a cinephile. I was raised in a very strict religious family where going to the cinema was basically forbidden until I was a teenager. We weren’t allowed to watch much television either but I do remember watching old films like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music and Victor/Victoria. I loved Victor/Victoria…I think I was only half-consciously aware of how subversive that film was – a woman pretending to be a man who is pretending to be a woman on stage. But it really made an impression on me.

We were allowed to watch some PBS so I did grow up watching films like Anne of Green Gables, The Little Princess, Roots. But really, I was an introvert and a book worm. I preferred to stay at home and read then be outside. I grew up on books like Julie Bloom, Nancy Drew, The Phantom Tollbooth, the Narnia books – I must’ve read these books a million times over as a kid. I also kept journals where I wrote poetry and short stories, usually creating fantastical imaginary worlds. For me, I really discovered cinema later in life – so by the time I was in college, my knowledge of films was nearly zilch. I remember being a freshman in college and telling my then-boyfriend that I had ever only watched one Spike Lee film. He gasped, he couldn’t believe it. So that weekend he took me directly to the nearby rental house (remember those?) and we took out She Gotta Have It, School Daze, Mo’Better Blues, Do the Right Thing, literally watching them all over the course of one weekend like a crash-course education.

Kreyolicious: At which point did your desire to become a filmmaker develop?
Shirley Bruno: I didn’t really fall in love with cinema under I took an experimental film course as an elective that same freshman year of college. Every week in that class floored me. It was the first time I had ever watched Godard films like Contempt and Breathless. I watched Un Chien Andalou, Dreyer’s Joanne of Arc, Maya Deren. I can say, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt was single-handedly the reason I decided to become a filmmaker. The way he told the story with these primary colors blew my mind – Bridgette Bardot wearing that red towel so that she practically disappears when she lies on the red couch…the yellows, the blues. The manipulation of the sound design. I had never seen anything like it before. Then through deconstructing films like this, I started to understand how films in general were made – the construction of a shot, the placement of the camera, what the difference a change in lens makes on telling a story. I remember being struck with how much of cinema is actually smoke and mirrors. One shot follows another completely disparate shot but if you use the right eye-line, you can create the sense of continuity between them. You can create emotion and something real out of what is essentially an illusion. Initially the irony of this really sparked something in me and I was hooked.

I suspect growing up without much films left me more in my own head and made me more imaginative. I think the lack of it in my childhood is what might have made it so much more fascinating and moving to me once I was really introduced to the power of it.
Shirley Bruno Tezen film
Above: A still from the film Tezen by Shirley Bruno.

Kreyolicious: Is Tezen your first official project in cinema?
Tezen isn’t my first film. I’ve been making short films for some years now. I’m currently in post-production for my next short film which is an animation about a woman who fought as a soldier in the Haitian Revolution.

Kreyolicious: How did it take shape?
Shirley Bruno: I grew up with my father telling us stories like “Tezen”. And somehow myths, folktales, fantastic stories from far-flung parts of the world have always interest me. I think they reveal so much about our most deep-seated fears and ideals. Tezen always stuck with me and I knew for years that I wanted to retell it as a film. There are just so many rich themes and layers to it for me – a taboo relationship between a girl and this ambiguous spirit, the girl’s search for pure water always is like a search for some kind of metaphysical purity, the cardinal sins and betrayals between the family…There are literally infinite ways to retell and interpret the story but for me, what was always very strong in it is this fragile and tenuous border between reality and myth, between the physical and spiritual world. In retelling this old folktale that practically every Haitian knows at least some version of, I wanted I tap into something in our collective memory/psyche, an undercurrent of people, ancestors, relatives like an antenna. This is why I decided to use an actual family with three generations under the same roof to interpret the roles in the film. It was an beautiful and unusual casting process and well worth it. So in the film, the mother plays the mother, the daughter plays the daughter and so forth. Each family member had their own personal interpretation of the role they were playing and because they were so close as a family, there was also so much collective presence in every scene, something symbiotic between them.

Kreyolicious: How did you receive the news that your film had been selected for the festival?
Shirley Bruno: Régine reached out to me to see a screener and then offered to show a sneak peek of it as part of the festival. It will be the first time it will be before a largely Haitian audiences o I’m beyond happy about it and look forward to hearing the feedback. I showed a previous film entitled The Things I See at Haiti Film Festival a few years back. Regine does a great job with the programming at HCX.

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