On May 17, 2017, I had the honor of engaging in conversation with the Haitian film director, Arnold Antonin, after the screening of his film Six Exceptional Haitian Women (6 Femmes d’exception). This screening was one in a series of evenings with the filmmaker as part of the first inaugural film screening series of Brooklyn College’s new CUNY Haitian Studies Institute under the directorship of Jean-Eddy Saint Paul.

Arnold Antonin

After the screening of this subtle and powerful film, I made a few statements about the film and then asked Antonin some questions about his filmmaking. A short précis of these remarks, as well as a brief description of the film follows.

As is expressed in its title, Six Exceptional Haitian Women presents day-in-the-life portraits of its well-regarded subjects, each a practicing artist, and we come to learn, a woman in her eighties or nineties.

Micheline Laudun Denis

It was my utter surprise at the characters’ ages that occasioned my first remarks. Without the accompanying subtitles explaining their ages the fact of their shared longevity would not be legible. In fact, when I saw the film the first time on the small screen of my computer, I did not notice these titles, thus I only realized the age of the subjects when I read the description of the film on Antonin’s website:

The youngest is 80. the least young is 105. They are Odette Roy Fombrun, Paulette Poujol Oriol, Emerante De Pradines, Micheline Laudun Denis, Vivianne Gauthier, Madeleine Desrosiers Tizo. They are active and creative women who have significantly contributed to the social and cultural life of their country. Each has the Elixir of Youth and reveals its secrets to us. They are all exceptional women

I had not clocked their actual ages for two important reasons that reveal a great deal about the film: 1) the women present themselves, and then are also presented by the filmmaker, as lively, engaged, active and bursting with life 2) the subject of their age takes second stage to the more central questions of the film: how to be an artist, how to live a good life, how to be a Haitian woman.

Odette Roy Fombrun

This gentle, hands-off approach is another noteworthy strength of Antonin’s filmmaking where his light hand allows the women’s strong presence, joie de vivre, and daily rhythms to dominate the framing and pacing of their presentation. While Antonin is not absent—we see him in some shots interacting with his subject and hear him at times—this is not his story, nor need it be given the combined power of voice, presence and artistry exhibited by his esteemed subjects. Instead, Antonin’s infrequent presence and interactions are discreet and friendly. There is an ease in these interactions, as well as the courage to take his time with them, that allow his subjects to comfortable, engaged, lively, and honest. Their conversations move with little self-consciousness from their artistic influences, youth and families, to their sex lives and current artistic projects. In conversation, Antonin explained that his subjects were all already well-known to him, either through their shared engagement within the lively artistic communities of Haiti or through his mother, another woman of their generation, and friend to several of them.

Paulette Poujol Oriol

The film’s subtle but pronounced feminism was also notable, another result of Antonin’s understated style. In his film, women are capable, powerful, successful, and resilient artists working within diverse traditions and genres—dance, music, performance, midwifery, writing. Some are currently married, others widowed, some never married. They have children and are childless. They seem to span several stations across a spectrum of education and class. What they all share, however, is a notable commitment to making significant spaces, across their long lives and currently, for their own art practice, health, and chosen ways of living. Perhaps given their age, or their comfort with Antonin, they each speak about this self-centering without hesitation or defensiveness. Rarely do we see women—in cinema or daily life—who exhibit this level of self-confidence. This is a noticeable and refreshing pleasure.

Vivianne Gauthier

So, instead of speaking about feminism overtly it is enacted in every frame of Six Exceptional Haitian Women. In our conversation about the film with a predominantly Haitian audience, spectators named the women’s effortless empowered self-inhabitation as particularly noteworthy given the predominance of a particular breed of Haitian machismo which would have formed and framed the lives of these women born in the early part of the previous century, and even today.

Emerante De Pradines

What we learn from Antonin’s powerful film, and its equally powerful subjects, is itself exceptional. By allowing us time to sit with, meet, and learn from these Haitian women, a summative lesson is expressed by the film, again without didacticism or heavy intervention: a long and good life is built upon passionate realized commitments to art, love, nation, and self.

 

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