Jacquil Constant: ‘If someone had told me “Haiti Is a Nation of Artists” would have taken me to the Cannes film festival, I wouldn’t have believed’
Among the various benefits of art and film, capturing the quintessence of culture and human experience is arguably the most paramount. This becomes especially true in a world where even with technology, we know so little about each other. However, in an age where audience-snatching stories never cease to tell, the eagerness for cultural storytelling seems to be on the back foot. But it exists, nonetheless.
Nowhere does this passion burn hot like the Caribbean sun than in Jacquil Constant, the founder of the Haiti International Film Festival.
As a man dedicated to portraying the rich tapestry of Haitian art and culture in a different yet authentic light, Jacquil has emerged as the titan of Haitian cinema and the unofficial custodian of its cultural heritage. His endeavors in cinema are a tribute to the beauty and complexity of the Haitian spirit, striking a chord with folks across the black hemisphere and beyond.
As anticipation for the 8th edition of the Haiti International Film Festival crescendos, we were privileged to have a word with Constant. In an exclusive interview, he unveils the layers of his artistic vision, sharing with us details of his incredible journey that has propelled him to the forefront of cultural renaissance and most importantly, the impact of storytelling in an interconnected world.
Provided below is a transcript, with minor edits for better clarity.
TNR: You have dedicated your career to telling Haitian stories in a way never seen before both outside and within Haiti itself, the Haiti International Film Festival being the worthiest example. Share with us your journey at the beginning, your inspiration for taking up this mantle and the goals you set out to achieve.
Constant: What started my passion to tell the story about Haiti in a different way was really the earthquake that happened in 2010. So, when I saw that they showed Haitians with no agency, –just like they do too in Africa, always showing a lot of traumas or what I call “trauma porn”– I was tired of that. Tired of seeing black bodies.
There was a generation of filmmakers after the earthquake that was looking to reconnect with their roots. They saw all the horrific images from mainstream media and wanted to contribute. It took me a year and a half before I got there, and I did a lot of research so I could tell the story in a very unique way. I wanted to show us from our strengths because a lot of the time things from Haiti and the African diaspora are always shown from our weaknesses.
Having experiences when I was in college with other Nigerian professors I met made me want to show things that were never shown in films. So, I just took my academic and cultural experience –my lived experience– and translated that into film.
Could you highlight any key challenges you faced along the way and how you overcame them?
The biggest challenge is the funding.
Funding is difficult because it takes a lot of resources to organize and curate a film festival. I started the film festival at the California State University, Northridge and received funding from the Provost at the College. I also had partnerships with the Pan African Studies, Film, and Art Department.
When the film festival transitioned to the Barnsdall Theatre in the second year, I had to self-fund with friends and family. By the third year, I gained funding from Los Angeles City by being a member of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
Additionally, I took a Business of Art Class, Arts for LA Fellowship Cultural Policy to improve my skills as a non-profit executive. That, and a Creative Entrepreneur program to boost my skills as an entrepreneur helped me. I also learned to have three streams of income to be recession-free. It is a concept I learned from Robert Kiyosaki, the author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
How did you build connections?
I think that I’ve always been good at translating things. And just having diverse experiences and going to places helps. I went to FESPACO (Festival Panafricain du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadougou) in Burkina Faso in 2003. That was my mum’s graduation gift. Going to Africa and seeing African filmmakers on their second and third cultural films put a battery in my head that made me be more confident that my cultural project would be global. I stayed there for two weeks as I wanted to connect with the motherland. To have the cultural experience and see the cinema was lovely. And I was like: “I…We…need to start one essentially for the Haitian Diaspora.”
What are the key accomplishments you’re proud of since the festival’s inception?
I’m proud that we have internships. We probably had over 10 interns from different colleges for the HIFF.
We started a filmmaker’s mentorship program which went online during COVID. Then, we had filmmakers in Kenya, Haiti and throughout the US that participated. One of those mentees got into Grad school because of a film that he produced with us, and another filmmaker is working on her second film at the Pan-African Film Festival. It’s great to see these filmmakers that we were able to help, in an eight-week course, produce their first project.
The 5th and 6th edition of the film festival was virtual, and we expanded the programming to include business and creative professionals to conduct panels. We also extended the film festival to three days to increase the number of films and our global reach. Last year, the 7th Annual Film Festival was the first we were back after the pandemic. We had to self-fund, and I had grant from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Also, we had a virtual assistant through social media to expand the reach of the film festival.
How do you approach the process of selecting films for the Haiti International Film Festival? What criteria do you use to curate the lineup?
Our mission at the film festival is to show a positive image of Haiti through film and art. So, in determining the process of selecting films, we ask: Do the films have agency? Is it going to empower our Haitian and African diaspora?
I want films in there so that people who’ve had a hard day at work can see and be inspired to continue to create great work.
One other important criterion is cultural pride. We don’t want to have a bunch of films that just have “poverty porn” because I don’t think that inspires people to create. As an organization, we want to inspire other creators and have them center themselves.
“Haiti Is a Nation of Artists”, a documentary you made, has been revolutionary in depicting Haiti as a true center of art. Can you take us through the creative process behind it?
It first started off as a short film. I was in Grad school, and I kept going back to Haiti – I went about four times – to finish the feature. I wanted to show a different image of Haiti because when I was there, I was always blown away having seen the artistic excellence. Just when you step off the plane at the Airport, you see art everywhere, from painters to sculptors. So, I really wanted to show that and our entrepreneurship. I want to change the narrative and I feel like we definitely accomplished that.
Here in Africa, people know very little about Haiti. As a Haitian-American filmmaker, how do you balance accurately representing Haitian culture while also appealing to a broader international audience?
You have to be authentic. We want filmmakers from the African diaspora and Haiti to tell their authentic stories and not water them down because they’re worried about this audience or that audience. If you’re truer to yourself, you’re going to get a bigger audience, and most importantly, be sustainable. You could keep this project going for years instead of microwaving it.
But I think the way I do it is because most of my films are subtitled. I’m thinking from the inception that: “I have to make it ready for a global audience.” So, I ensure it has English subtitles to expand its reach. We strive to make films that are global in nature as long as they have ethical standards. If you shoot for that, your film will be able to translate and go further than your immediate community.
Also, I study both of the different African cinema models: the Francophone model –the ones that were more island in nature, smaller but were able to go to screen in France; and the Nigerian model that own it and had the sovereignty to market their films. For the latter, I look at them more like a distribution model. The Francophone model had most of their theaters in Europe, so even if they shot the film locally, they still had to send it there. But with the Nigerian model, they were innovative with videos. They shot and edited it all in Nigeria then went on to find partners in the U.K. and the U.S. That’s how they grew and why they are currently the third biggest film industry in the world.
I used what I saw to combine these models. I’m talking about the global prospects of the Francophone model and the ownership thingy of the Nigerian model. Basically, I want to be able to disseminate but still retain the culture.
So, the answer to your question is that I try to study successful cinema models and translate them to how they would apply to Haitian cinema.
Your work often involves bridging cultural gaps and building connections. How do you see the impact of your films and the festival in fostering a deeper understanding of Haiti’s history and people?
Currently, many filmmakers now submit their second films to us. Before it was just like in the film festival circuit, and we would happen to have their films in our film festival. But now they’re making films where they center Haitian stories like Bwa Kayiman, a short film about the Haitian Revolution. It’s really great to see these filmmakers submitting their films to us.
I also saw the significance when I had my films from the HIFF at the Cannes Film Festival virtually and then I was there in person the following year. In 2021, we curated four films that were part of the Pavillion Afriques. That made me realize that there’s a global audience that wants to see our work.
Very few folks can successfully combine the roles of filmmaker, festival organizer and cultural ambassador as you do. What’s your secret?
My secret is simple: I love all of it. Every aspect of cinema, especially filmmaking and orientation. From the creation, the writing of the stories, the shooting, the production and postproduction and, of course, the film festivals. What I love about film festivals is that most of them were non-competitive spaces for filmmakers to meet business professionals that can help them on their next project.
I was able to combine Art, Film and Pan-African studies and since I studied all three, I learned to curate. As you will know, I’m something of a curator. I also read a lot. I read from different writers so I’m constantly obtaining new information that helps me curate. So that’s my secret sauce: passion, curation and innovation.
How do you envision the future of Haitian cinema, both within Haiti and on the international stage? Are there any emerging trends or developments you’re particularly excited about?
I’m really proud that our films are traveling and are in the top film festivals like Cannes.
Well, what I dream, and I believe will happen is for us to have more economic control of our art. For us to have a strong ecosystem. That’s what I’ve always wanted and that has been my blueprint: combining education, business and government. Connecting with the government is one of the essences of film festivals because you are essentially showing the best of a country. Film festivals show the humanity of a culture.
They create so much great art there, you know. But I want the artists and filmmakers to benefit from it. That’s why I educate them on the business side and not put their whole work out on YouTube for free.
I remember when I started the film festival, there was nowhere for me to submit my film when I got out of film school. So, I just put it on YouTube. Having that experience in college made me want to have a place where my community could have their films in the theatre. That’s where social entrepreneurship comes in. I always want to make an impact on other people and make their dreams become a reality, not just for my personal success.
With these, I see Haitian cinema being the most dominant in the Caribbean region and reaching out to the African diaspora so they could see the power of cinema and replicate that. That was the dream of Toussaint Louverture. He wanted to free Africans when they had their independence in 1804 because once you taste freedom, you want other communities to experience that. Although Toussaint is long gone, with the current digital revolution, the task falls on us. I mean this very interview is proof of that. I’m in Los Angeles, you’re in Nigeria and we’re leveraging it.
For aspiring black filmmakers who are interested in telling their cultural stories through art and film, what do you have to say to them?
The first thing I’ll advice is to hone your craft. Get really good at what you do, whether as a filmmaker, writer or producer. Try to learn from the best, possibly by reading a lot.
Another really important thing is understanding film history and your culture. Because sometimes, you may try to translate things that work in the mainstream to your community, but it doesn’t apply as there are certain nuances you need to consider.
Furthermore, finding your creative tribe is something I learned more from art. Once you find your creative tribe, they will grow with you because they’re your fans. And all artists need fans. Don’t think of millions. Get fifty, a hundred. Just get them. Because a hundred people that support you will grow with you.
Oh, and did I mention to believe in yourself? If someone had told me “Haiti Is a Nation of Artists” would have taken me to the Cannes Film Festival, I wouldn’t have believed. I’ve been wanting to go to the Cannes film festival since I graduated from film school in 2002. But twenty years later, in 2022, I went. That was a long time, but I kept that light and said to myself: “one day I’m going to be there. I don’t know how, but I’ll be there.” And here I am.
I knew I needed to create something that was authentic. That truth got my film to the Cannes Film Festival. When I started doing Haitian film projects, that’s when I became an international filmmaker. Before I was just another guy trying to do black-themed films, but once I started doing the Haitian-project, the world opened up to me. And I just kept going in that direction. That still boils down to the authenticity I spoke about earlier.
Also don’t forget to take your talent and education back to the community; that is crucial also. Because sometimes when people get an education, they don’t come back to the community. They just stay mainstream. If you’re saying you’re so smart and you have massive resources, what are you giving back? 10%? 20%? Anything.
Some people say that my obligation is just to make money. That’s partly true because I was raised being a social entrepreneur. But then I feel like you can make money while also having a door open for someone else. Because someone opened doors for me. When I went to FESPACO, I had other professors who looked out for me and gave me a journalist pass so that I could watch all the movies. There’s one thing I know: If you commit 10 years to investing in a community, it always comes back.
And there’s the God factor. You have to believe in God. You’re jumping into uncharted waters so having a belief helps you navigate.