When Ardain Isma speaks to Elsie Haas
Lesser known in the United States, but very popular in Europe and in the Caribbean, Elsie Haas is without question one of the most skillful and one the busiest Haitian filmmakers around, with more them twenty films under her belts. Like many of us who circumstantially grew up outside of Haiti, Elsie grew up in Africa and Europe, as she recounts her story in a one-on-one interview with Dr. Ardain Isma at her suburban home in Paris last month. She is one of the children who were raised in exile, but the motherland has never been far from their souls. An exceptional personage with a puckish wit and fierce intelligence, Elsie has defied the odds to become simultaneously a responsible mother, a filmmaker, and the editor-in-chief of the Paris-based biweekly Haiti-Tribune. It is with great pleasure that we present this remarkable personality to our readers.
A. I.: It is a pleasure to have you at CSMS Magazine. To start it off, how long have you been in this part of the publishing industry, and what encouraged you to choose this path?
E. H. : It’s been thirty years (oh yes, I’m not that young anymore) since I’ve been working in the field of Art and Communication. I have done paintings and Fine Arts. I did many plays with professionals from Martinique and Gouadeloupe. Since I have always interested in making films, I took courses on the subject at the university. For a while, I worked at Matin as a journalist, a daily socialist newspaper that lasted one or two years. Then I worked with some students in KIP, an association I founded. Now, I am the chief editor at Haiti-Tribune. I have been trying to keep a firm grip on all my activities. Even though I am not always successful in everything I have to undertake, it doesn’t bother me for I am proud to say that I am a person who never stops learning.
A. I. : Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
E. H. : I was born in Port-au-Prince, but I grew up in Africa and in Europe. I have to tell you that I admire a lot a country like the Niger, although its sahelean culture proves to be quite different from that of the Caribbean.
A. I.: We know that you are the chief editor for the Paris-based, Haiti-Tribune, so growing up, was reading and writing a part of your life? Did anyone in your household give the moral support needed to succeed?
E. H. : If you come to my house, you will see that the walls are filled with books, leaving little room for paintings, something I adore. To be more precise, at home in Haiti, everyone in the family, my brothers, my sisters, my parents were all passionate readers. It is a question of education and the environment. When you live in an ambiance where the books are always present, the question of reading and writing does not even need to be asked; it is understood as something that is natural and vital just like the need to eat and drink. I would like to see that becomes a norm in Haiti, not something reserved for a privileged few.
A. I.: Who were your earliest influences and why?
E. H. : What I’m going to tell you may seem bizarre, but in literature, I am intoxicated by Russian writers : Dostoïvesky, Tolstoï, Tchékov, Pouchkine etc… I always find (and I keep this observation secret for fear of being misunderstood) that there is an affiliation between the Haitian soul and the Slavic soul. And now a French writer named F. Dominique Fernandez has written a book titled « Jérémie, Jérémie ! » where part of the scene takes place in Jérémie, Haiti. The book raises the issue of a possible link between the Slavic culture and that of Haiti—interesting and…gratifying coincidence!
A. I.: Your last name “Haas” does not sound French or Haitian, where does it come from?
E. H.: Haas is of German origin used by both Christians and Jews. In my case, it is a Jewish family.
A. I.: Your professional life is full of accomplishments, have you ever published in the book industry?
E. H. : No. I had always thought that audiovisual was more « urgent » for developing countries than the books. Furthermore, in Haiti, there is a multitude of people who write. We have an inflation of writers and a deflation of readers. We have thousands of examples of intellectuals, having seminars and colloquia, plunging into an everlasting labyrinth while wasting their time repeating the same things.
A. I.: Looking at your website, you have managed to work with people across ethnic and cultural backgrounds, how did you do that?
E. H. : I’m married with a Jewish person. Furthermore, in my own ancestry, through my own Haitian family, there are people of all ethnic origins. For example, I will send you a picture from my mother’s grand-parents. My brothers and sisters have married people of all ethnic backgrounds. Besides, I have traveled a lot, and I have discovered that there are more similarities between nations than there are differences. But it is a philosophy that does not hold because in Haiti as well as in other places, everyone is intoxicated by a narcissistic and deadly face to face with his own image.
A. I. : Is Haiti-Tribune the only Haitian publication in Paris?
E. H. : There is a quarterly magazine named Pour Haiti, but it is more into culture.
A. I.: How do Haitian communities outside of Haiti react to your publications and how do you work to make your works available to most if not all of them?
E. H.: My friend, as you know, communication is not the greatest link of our compatriots. At home, in Haiti, there is an irresistible attraction for monologue, which means that little room is left for dialogue and for great thinking born out of exchanging ideas. It is an attitude that leads directly to intolerance and, excuse-me to use this vulgar terminology, to all forms of stupidity. This propensity for monologue can be explained by an obvious weakness in intellectual thinking in today’s Haitians when they are compared with the “marvelous” period of a Jacques Stéphen Alexis. So going back to your question, the reaction among the Haitians is rather few. Beyond our sincere collaborators like Météllus, Jean Claude Charles, Dallembert, Yves Chemla, Roland Paret and you yourself Ardain who give us advice and encouragement, few letters have arrived from our subscribers. It is regrettable.
A. I. : Your films are mostly based on social justice, how did you come to make that choice?
E. H. : I was born in a country where injustice rules. That means if in Haiti there is a law that is truly respected is the law of the jungle. It is the most powerful rules without question, and at all level—in social as well as family relationship.
A. I.: Are all your works nonfiction?
E. H. : I started with short fictional movies. I quickly realized that the stories and the characters were not going to the direction of the liking of western producers. It was in making productions like « Ya Bon Banania » that it became possible for me to make some money. So I had to turn to low-budget documentaries at a time (1986) where all my friends opted for fiction. Now they have all come around.
A. I.: If you look back at your early works, which one was more difficult to write?
E. H.: I wrote a superb fictional scenario about the story of Boni, the maroons (escaped slaves) of Surinam. It was a true epic, playing their struggles for freedom in the eighteenth century. They fought against not only an expeditionary regiment sent from Holland to suppress their rebellion, but also to establish a civilization in the middle of the forest. It is a little known but passionate story; but of course I could not find a producer.
A. I.: Has there ever been a time when you simply wanted to quit? If there was such a time, how did you fight off such instincts?
E. H.: The difficulties and the will to quit are always permanent. First of all, what encourages me is my family—my children and my husband who admires and respect what I do. Second of all, there are my friends and my faith. I like to meditate; as you know, meditation brings positive energy that allows someone to relatively overcome obstacles.
A. I.: Most people or even critics don’t know of what goes on behind the making of a film, could you tell our readers the toughest part of being a filmmaker.
E. H.: It is a tremendous work. One has to be a bit romantic in describing pain, as I was reminded several times, to work in this field. Looking for money plays a pivotal role among the most terrible things one has to face. It brings stress, humiliation, frustration and anger because you often face people who express, at best, a token compliance and, at worse, total disregard to everything that portrays non-western cultures.
A. I.: How do the French media react to your publications?
E. H.: I will send you an article about short productions. The media pays pretty good attention to my projects. But many of my projects could not materialize due to lack of funding. My credibility has also paid a heavy price.
A. I.: People in the media like to portray sacrifice as the only road to rise to the top. Do you buy into that? If so, what do you consider as acceptable sacrifices?
E. H.: Sacrifices? I don’t think so. Everything evolves around the economy. Either you find investors who would like to invest in your project, or you work on your little corner. Me, I work on my little corner because I did not have the strength to combine my family obligations, my works and the time needed for marketing. In any event, few people are truly supportive. Generally, they are more likely to trivialize your ideas or try to use them for their own selfish interest.
A. I.: What questions you are asked the most when you give interviews?
E. H. : When I was young, the question was always « how do I blend my family life and my work of artist. Now, I give no more interviews, except to you Ardain, of course.
A. I.: As an editor, what is your most difficult part of the day?
E. H.: It’s the agony of choice. And it is in all aspect of life. In Haiti Tribune, for example, the agony is to find out what is going to be put on the front page. Simultaneously, the choice must be made in consideration for the news of the day, in respect for our editorial line and in consideration for the sale. How to mix the reality and the sale is the most difficult part.
A. I.: What kind of advice you would give to someone who would want to embark upon the same profession?
E. H.: The secret to success holds two fundamental aspects: the material that is money, and the manpower that is the team. If we can come to this understanding, it is possible to break down many walls. Unfortunately, it is a rare combination.
A. I.: Between fiction and nonfiction, which one is the hardest to accomplish?
E. H.: “Both, my captain” are very difficult. Whether it is fiction or a documentary, the goal is to make a film, to tell a story and to tell it perfectly.
A. I.: Besides Creole, French and English that you speak, is there any other language/languages that you speak?
E. H. : I was supposed to speak Spanish, but I never practiced it. However, I read Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a little bit of German.
A. I.: When was the last time were you in Haiti? How often do you go there?
E. H.: I rarely travel to Haiti. Each time, it is a business trip. The last time, it was to film Le Romancero.
A. I.: Do you have children? If so, are they part of your inspiration? How do you feel when you are away from them?
E. H.: When the kids were small, I took them to wherever I went. Later as they got older, I was forced to slowdown. Now, they are adults who live far from me. My son is in London, studying journalism. My daughter, Betsabée Haas, is a well-known opera singer who is currently living in Brussels.
A. I. : Are you the only child of your family?
E. H. : No. I’m the youngest of five children.
A. I. : What is your dream city you would want to visit, but one that you would never like to live in a permanent basis?
E. H. : Every time I visit a city that I like, I always dream of spending the rest of my life there—even in Singapour !
A. I.: Was nostalgia the main drive behind the inspiration to produce your acclaimed film, Le Romancero?
E. H.: Not at all. Generally, I do not cultivate nostalgia. I’m interested in things of the past, in my roots, but I never take them too personally. I wanted to make a film in order to pass to my children and to many in the Diaspora the image of a country that they don’t know while including the literature. I was particularly motivated by the curiosity (I myself discovered Gonaives, Dessalines etc…), the exchange, the transmission and the kindness of the human being.
A. I.: What is your next project? When do you hope to wrap it up?
E. H.: My next project is a documentary that will seek to uncover why Haitians provoke so much hatred from other populations of the Antilles. This can be observed in Martinique, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas etc… In this documentary, I will investigate the locals of these Caribbean countries as well as Haitian immigrants within their midst. In reality, the goal is to create a dialogue between the parties in order to try to understand the sources of the conflicts. In the middle of all this, there is a character that is playing the role of a “candid.” He is the one who is going to conduct the investigation. He is a person full of goodwill, and he is trying to understand the arguments of both sides. I would like to inject a little bit of comedy. Don’t get me wrong. This is a serious matter. But it sounds a bit comic to watch black Guadeloupeans criticizing Haitians for being blacks, calling them savages. The irony is that all forms of prejudices (racism) they suffered at the hands of white French settlers, they threw them on the Haitians. In a magical twist, they’ve become whites, behaving like racists against people who are blacks like them. It is tragically absurd. One can easily make a comedy, a play. I have asked you, Dr. Ardain Isma, who knows the Bahamas and who has experience in doing research, to play the role of the investigator, and I am glad you have accepted. A Venezuelan television station has just offered me to purchase the right of the Spanish version of Bonjour la Rézoné. If everything goes well, I would reinvest the money in this new documentary. By putting our efforts together, I hope that via CSMS we could find the financial support for the film that I intend to begin next September or October.
A. I.: Thank you so much for taking some time out of your precious schedule to speak to CSMS Magazine
E. H. : It was a pleasure and an honor to be able to hold this conversation with CSMS Magazine. Thank you for this moment spent together.