Intranquilities – A portrait of how contemporary Haitian artists

Intranquilities is a portrait of how contemporary Haitian artists are redefining the global art scene, challenging common perceptions of Haiti, its history and current predicament.

After overthrowing the French colonial rule in 1804, Haiti became the first Black-led republic. The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) remains the only successful revolution by an enslaved population in the world – this spirit of defiance continues to live on in Haitian art. In this Q&A, director, Edward Owles and producer, Kasia Mika, talk about their vision for the film.

What was the key aim of the film? How did it come about?

Intranquilities, offers a different set of narratives to the stereotypical representations of Haiti that dominate the mainstream media. It explores the boldness and energy of the contemporary Haitian art world, and creativity in response to complex crises – such as the 2010 earthquake. We wanted to make a film that sat somewhere between ‘traditional’ documentary and something more lyrical and go beyond portrayals of Haiti as ‘poor but rich in culture’ or just showcasing art as an antidote to vulnerability. As a result, it was made in close collaboration with a group of Haitian creatives, particularly the poet James Noël who has written extensively about perceptions of Haiti, and partner institutions such as Le Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince.

The film is inspired by the work of the late Dr Anthony Carrigan, a Lecturer in Postcolonial Literature and Cultures at University of Leeds and was initially funded through his AHRC Leadership Fellowship.

How did you get involved?

(EO): One of the reasons I make films is because I believe in the power of creativity and the contribution it makes to our shared humanity. I had wanted to collaborate with Anthony on his research for many years since I also shared his interest in creative responses to natural and human disasters across the globe which challenged singular narratives, clichés and stereotypes.

Anthony passed away fairly soon after we received the funding, but the AHRC gave us the blessing to carry on the work with the intention throughout to honour the intellectual and creative vision for the project that Anthony articulated during its development phase.

It was at this point that Kasia Mika and I began to work together, since she worked on postcolonial approaches to disasters and collaborated closely with Anthony during their shared time at Leeds. Kasia is a Haiti specialist who completed her PhD at Leeds and is now at Queen Mary, University of London.

Why is the film called Intranquilities?

EO: And It’s also the name of a journal published by James Noel and Pascale Monnin, featured in the film, which overlapped with the ambitions of our project in that it sought to showcase art and culture as a way of interpreting the world afresh.

Kasia Mika (KM): The title is also a play on French words for restlessness and island-a mix that captures the creative energy of the Haitian cultural scene and is a reflection of committed artistic practice. James Noël refers to this in the film and the literary revue he edits as ‘enragement’ (a wordplay on rage and commitment): the highest form of engagement.

How did you find the artists featured in the film? Tell us about their work.

KM: The artists were selected through my own networks, based on my previous work in Haiti and connections to literary and cultural figures, and also new relationships based on my own work on literature of the 2010 Haiti earthquake by travelling to France, Belgium, and Haiti to meet the different Haitian artists. In addition, a number of new connections opened up once we were in Haiti.

The film’s writers, painters, photographers and more – from award winning sculpture Patrick Vilaire, video artist Maksaens Denis, writers Yanick Lahens and James Noël, visual artist Pascale Monnin, and painter Mario Benjamin (whose work featured in the 2011 Venice Bienniale) – are all united by a desire to use their creative practice to reframe how we perceive Haiti and the world around us. Or, as James Noël tells us: ‘poetics is the best pair of glasses to look at the world!’

One example of the work featured in the film is Pascale Monnin’s memorial to the victims of the 2010 earthquake. Featuring sculptures of the faces of the children from the neighborhood who survived the 2010 earthquake, it is made mostly from cement and iron – the same materials which caused the deaths of many of the victims. 12 faces, which hang from a tree, are covered in mirrors and reflect off each other.

What do you think was surprising about what you found in Haiti?

KM: Having worked in Haiti before, I was not necessarily ‘surprised’ by what we found. What was very special, however, was the artists’ generosity and openness, their willingness to share their work with us, and their trust in what we were doing.

How long did it take to make the film. Could you give more information on the filming and interviewing process?

Edward Owles (EO) The film was in development for some time over 2016, but partly owing to Anthony’s passing, the filming itself only took place in July 2017 over 3 weeks. This meant we had a really clear creative vision before we travelled out and some well-established contacts, including a brilliant local producer Etant Dupain. We filmed in the cities of Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, as well as at a vodou festival in Saut-d’Eau.

The interviews were conducted, depending on the artists’ preference, in French, English or Haitian Kreyòl. This would not have been possible, however, without the network of friends and artists we knew and with whom we had a long-standing relationship. Each interview was about both their creative practice and politics as well as touching on specific artworks that they had each produced.

Post-production took a while because the team were spread around Europe on our return and we were working on a limited budget, but we were very fortunate to find a bilingual editor (Shona Hamilton) who had visited Haiti who, together with Ed, edited the film.

What do you think the overarching message of the film is?

KM: Rather than providing one clear message to take away, the film hopes to inspire the audience to look at Haiti from a different perspective, one rooted in the unmatched diversity and defiance of its arts scene. We also hope to convey the power of art and creativity to give us a different way of viewing and experiencing the world around us, with more ‘poetic eyes’, open to the unexpected.

The short film won the Doctoral and Early Career Film at the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Research in Film Awards 2019. Now in their fifth year, these are the only awards entirely dedicated to bringing to life arts and humanities research through film.