Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: A Radical Empathy, More Than Just A Motherland


Jonathan Ali writes an extended text on the various strategies employed in Esery Mondesir’s Haitian trilogy. A Radical Empathy is available in Block 2 (Sat 12th Sept midday – Tue 15th Sept midnight BST).

Proximity to subjects is no guarantee of understanding them, though it can serve as a useful entry point. Like the people in his Haitian trilogy, Esery Mondesir is a member of Haiti’s historically large diaspora, which has only grown since the 2010 earthquake that pushed the country into further economic precarity. Yet Mondesir and his subjects share more than just a motherland. His salutary ability to film his compatriots without Othering them is evidence of a common identity, one that confers authenticity on the filmmaker’s assertion that these films were made “in collaboration with” his subjects.There can be no Other when the Other is You.

A former teacher and union organiser, Mondesir left his native Haiti in 2001 for the US and now lives in Canada. He has noted that sharing his own migration story serves as a point of connection with the people in his films. It’s an element in a strategy of de-Othering that can be usefully compared with that of Trin T. Minh-ha, who engaged a similar problem in her seminal documentary Reassemblage (1982), an outsider’s portrait of Senegal. “I do not wish to speak about, only to speak nearby,” Minh-ha declared in that film. If “to speak about” and “to speak nearby” reflect a binary of representational modes, Mondesir complicates that binary with a strategy in which he can be said “to speak along with” his protagonists. It’s a process that visibly and beautifully develops over the arc of the films. 

Una Sola Sangre, made in fulfilment of Mondesir’s MFA degree requirement, hews closest to classical ethnography. Set in Havana, Cuba, it’s a portrait of the Galde family, Haitian-Cubans whose patriarch was one of many Haitian migrants who came to Cuba looking for work early in the last century. The film opens with Mondesir’s still, distant camera framing an unpainted concrete-and-wood house in the pre-dawn darkness, quietly taking in the start to the family’s day, which includes the elderly Silverio, a labourer, brushing his teeth in the open with a bucket of water.  

Mondesir then introduces Silverio’s siblings Silvia and Estela, itinerant sellers of household goods. Moments of work, rest and religious celebration are presented, along with guiding voiceover and direct-to-camera testimony from the family. In the midst of these more formally conventional scenes there’s a moment that occurs in the family’s kitchen, a nice example of an incipient (and quite literal) “speaking along with” strategy. Eloy, Estela’s partner, seated and framed in close-up, is seen joyfully singing a Haitian folk song. Off camera, Mondesir joins in. Estela, also off camera, interjects in Kreyol: “How come you know these songs? Some Haitians don’t know these songs.” “The Haitians who don’t know these songs are not real Haitians,” is Mondesir’s provocative reply, the sequence reflecting both the filmmaker’s affinity with his protagonists as well as the complex nature of Haitian identity.   

It’s in Pariah, My Brother, I Follow You, Show Me the Route to the Springs and What Happens to a Dream Deferred?, both set within the Haitian community in Tijuana, Mexico, that Mondesir more fully enacts his “speaking along with” strategy. The Haitian population in Tijuana numbers several thousand, mostly men, who have made the costly and dangerous trek from Haiti through South and Central America to Mexico and the border with the United States, in hopes of applying for asylum there. Mondesir’s central concern isn’t in the dramatic details of their migrants’ journeys and the procedures they must undergo to enter the US. Rather, he’s interested in apprehending how these men function in this liminal space, through a method built around engaging with the workaday details and textures of their lives, the unordinary ordinary.  

Where Mondesir does evoke the migration process—conceptually, at least—is in the films’ formats. Pariah, My Brother… and What Happens to a Dream Deferred? were shot on the same Canon 5D digital camera as Una Sola Sangre, but unlike that film were transferred to 35mm celluloid, then re-digitised for exhibition. The granular result not only makes palpable the idea of the unordinary ordinary; the marks left on the image by the transfer processes also work to signify the unseen effects of migratory movement on the human body. The effect is memorable. It transforms Pariah, My Brother…, essentially a vignette in which we experience Saül and his father-in-law, Mathieu, in the dawn hours setting up their stall in the street market where they sell trainers. Mondesir shoots in an attention-centring shallow focus, the Kreyol dialogue constructed out of fragments of conversation between the filmmaker and his protagonists, women the main topic in this convivially homosocial space.

A fraternal conviviality similarly suffuses the more complex What Happens to a Dream Deferred?, in which a group of young men in a doss house chat while preparing joumou, a soup that Haitians traditionally eat to begin the new year. In contrast with the beginning of Una Sola Sangre, the opening shot here is immersive, an extreme close-up inside an empty casserole. Similar images occur: almost abstract shots of a coconut being cracked, bright orange chunks of steaming pumpkin, a whirring blender. They bring to mind RaMell Ross’ question in his documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018) relating to the problematic representation of Black protagonists. “How do we not frame someone?” he asks. Frame adjacent objects instead, seems to be Mondesir’s answer.

This method works to heighten the effect of the additional modes Mondesir confidently employs. There’s performance, in a stylised black-and-white sequence where the men lip-synch to a Haitian trap song. Then there’s the variegated on-screen text: the verses of the Langston Hughes poem Harlem from which the film draws its title, transcribed conversations in which the men compare their harrowing journeys to Tijuana, and—alongside news audio about Donald Trump’s explicit, disparaging remarks about Haiti—text from a later, mobile messaging-service exchange between two of the men about the current fate of their brethren. One result of What Happens to a Dream Deferred?, then, is unerringly political. The cumulative achievement of the three films, however, is personal, Mondesir composing sensitive works with people, gently modest odes that linger on after they’re finished. 

Jonathan Ali is the director of programming of Miami’s Third Horizon Film Festival, and the co-founder of the London-based Twelve30 Collective, dedicated to screening Caribbean cinema in the UK.

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