Since 2010 actor Ben Stiller has been working on the ground in Haiti to build schools to give children access to education through his foundation. Last night, Stiller’s interest in education and his love of making films collided.
The actor joined the Ciné Institute, Haiti’s only film school, on stage at the Jacob Burns Film Center to discuss why film education is so important, not just for the sake of jobs, but in order to give people a way to tell their stories.
I was lucky enough to be in the audience to watch two of the films that came from first year students in the program and listen to the Q&A with Ben Stiller, Jonathan Demme, and Ciné Institute founder David Belle.
The Ciné Institute started as a one-time film festival that was so successful, it became an annual event. Through the festival, they found that interest in film, especially Haitian film, was so strong that what began as a few workshops by visiting filmmakers, turned into a two year college program, now run almost entirely by locals devoted to the craft. Considering only 1% of Haitian youth go on to college, this program has not only broadened the educational opportunities made available to young people, but also has helped to create an industry that provides employment opportunities where none in the field previously existed.
Despite the fact that no official movie theaters exist in Haiti, Stiller said last night, “There are people who have stories to tell and want to make films and so I met David and got a chance to go down to the film school there in Jacmel…It’s just an incredible environment where these students are able to express themselves in a way that, I guess, you know, they never had access to and there is just so much they want to say that is so specific to their world and their experience. That’s what I find fascinating about the movies.”
Even though there are no movie theaters, founder David Belle said that people still love and watch movies. They sell tickets to seats in their living room or watch on TVs in public spaces. But, while there are plenty of foreign films to watch, what the country lacks is films that focus on the Haitian experience, something that the Institute has found, people are desperate to see. Using Nigeria’s Nollywood as a model, the Ciné Institute is working to bring local films to Haiti by giving their students the technical skills and understanding of the craft so that they can make their own movies.
One woman in the audience asked why the students aren’t more interested in directing their films for a more international audience since the media often portrays Haiti in such a negative way. Belle’s tongue in cheek response: How many Chinese films do you see? His point being that people love seeing films that mirror their own lives. Just look at American theaters and count the number of foreign films that make it into the mainstream. These emerging filmmakers are, as Stiller pointed out, making films about the themes that are important in their daily lives.
Not only will local stories be told, but the Ciné Institute’s mission states it “empowers Haitian youth who seek the creative, technical and business skills necessary to grow local media industries that can provide jobs and spur economic growth needed to improve their lives and the lives of others.” Based on the two films they showed last night, it’s safe to say that the future of Haiti’s newly emerging film industry is in capable hands. You can check out some of their videos on Vimeo.