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"Stones in the Sun": Interview with Haitian Director Patricia Benoît
"The Invisible Wounds of Exile": Stones in the Sun Haitian director Patricia Benoît: Interview
Liza Béar: I assume you have lived in Haiti at one point.
Patricia Benoît: I left as a child in the sixties.
LB: How old were you when you left?
LB: Did you go back a lot?
PB: I’ve been back, yeah. My family was exiled, but then about…13 years after leaving I went back for a first visit and [since then] I’ve been back a lot. I’ve done a lot of work in Haiti. I’ve done documentation work with grassroots groups. I’ve done theater in a school with kids in a sort of very disadvantaged neighborhood, and kids who were not in school.
The story that I’m telling had been brewing in my mind for a very long time. And it’s a story that I felt I could only tell through fiction, because I wanted to talk about something that was…very intimate. And I don’t think I could have done that in a documentary.
One of the things that I wanted to talk about was the invisible wounds of exile. And that’s something that I’ve lived with ever since I was little. There’s that initial trauma that sends people out of their countries of origin. And I wanted to look at how that trauma, the pain of that trauma sort of radiates, in small and large ways. And how it affects people in their intimate lives.
LB: Pain is something that everyone wants to forget. They don’t want to keep it in the social and civil society.
PB: And the actress who plays Vita, she’s extraordinary. She wants to be an actress, has taken acting classes, but she works as a flight attendant. So, if you see her in the street. .. .I mean it, it was a complete lack of vanity on her part. Because she’s a beautiful young woman, very glamorous and usually wears a lot of makeup. And she doesn’t have an ounce of makeup in the film, and people thought that she comes from the milieu from which the character comes, which she doesn’t. She has this amazing inner life and she has her own inner wound that she covers with this sort of carefree happiness. And she was able to tap into that. And what she gave was incredibly generous, and it was so authentic, and that’s one of the reasons that I think it works.
But yes, the title of my film is “Stones in the Sun” and it comes from a Haitian proverb. Wòch nan dlo pa konn doulè wòch nan soley. “Stones in the water don’t know the suffering of stones in the sun.” Because in Haiti, in the Caribbean, the sun can get very hot and it can be torturous to be in the sun if you don’t have shelter, if you can’t get shelter or water.
And that was one of the things that I really wanted to talk about in the film. How it’s so difficult to understand other people’s pain. And I think that’s something that’s universal for everyone. It’s very hard to really truly understand the pain that someone else is feeling. It’s hard for them to talk about it or to describe it. And it’s very hard for the listener to hear it, and to take in. And in my [own] experience, my father was detained and tortured and it’s something he never talked about. His . . .I mean, I don’t know how you talk about this.
In this country we live in a talk culture. Where everyone talks about things. In the West, in a lot of countries, there is this idea of the miracle talk cure. And that’s not something that I really believe in. I mean, yes, talking and sharing can heal to a certain degree. But I don’t think that there’s a magical formula. And in Haiti and in a lot of other countries, people don’t talk. There’s a reticence. There’s a …like the French say, a retenue , sort of a shyness, or not even a shyness, I can’t find the right word…
LB: It’s almost a prurience…
LB: Yes exactly, pudeur.
PB: Yes, there’s a prurience about talking about these things. The idea that everybody has their pain, and you’re supposed to sort of bear it. And also, when you share it what does that do to the other person? Is it really going to help? That’s one of the things that I grappled with, with that character. I also grappled with how much I show or don’t show. And so she’s raped and I didn’t want to show the rape as something sexual. I really wanted to show it as something violent and I tried to show very little. In the same way that there’s violence in the film but I try to show very little of it, because for me what’s important is the aftermath of the violence, how the violence affects people. ‘Cause I think also violence can depersonalize people
LB: So you set the story definitely before the earthquake?
LB: But did you have a particular period in mind, or at least a decade?
PB: In the film I didn’t want to get into political specificities, or talk about certain political leaders. That was not my interest-
LB: Aristide, or Duvalier, or Baby Doc, or-
PB: Yes…right. There’s an image of Duvalier. I didn’t want to get caught in uh, political polemics. So I situated the film after the departure of Jean-Claude Duvalier, after the fall of the Duvalier regime. And the film starts off with a title saying that the film takes place during one of the military dictatorships that continued his legacy of terror, because even today, the Duvaliers’ legacy of terror continues. There’s still people in the street led by former army personnel who are trying to reform a Haitian army. And also the Duvalier regime really destroyed the infrastructures in Haiti. So-
LB: This was even before the earthquake…
PB: Even before.
LB: …destroyed even more. And the cholera.
PB: My film doesn’t avoid politics. I mean, it’s set against a strong political background. And it talks about how the political process has affected people’s intimate lives. I just don’t get into specific political personalities.
One of the characters in the film is a young radio journalist who is in the opposition and who’s against the dictatorships in Haiti. And his father comes to join him and his father was a military, he was part of that dictatorship. The character’s called Gerald and he’s played by a wonderful actor, Thierry Saintine. He has a program, which is called “The Drums of the People”. And he references the political situation. He talks about the political situation within the film.
The character played by Edwidge Danticat .. . .She plays a university professor. She’s also very political, she’s helping students, she’s part of the student movement and she’s part of the movement for democracy in Haiti. She comes to New York to stay with her sister in Long Island. And her sister tries to be apolitical, has no interest in Haiti, has no interest in the political process. And she feels that the sister who’s in Haiti has just wasted her life.
PB: My cast is made up of all Haitian actors. Except for one woman who’s America. Diana Masi, who plays the wife of the journalist.
LB: How ‘bout the crew?
PB: The crew in New York was very diverse, but American. But we also worked with Ciné institute in Haiti and so in Haiti we had many Haitians working on the film. They were assistant grip, we had a Haitian AD, we had a Haitian locations scout, we had Haitian production managers, and uh, costume designers. We couldn’t have done the film without them.
LB: So, I’m glad to hear there’s still some kind of film school in Haiti.
PB: Yeah there’s a great film school in Haiti, Ciné Institut.
LB: Right, and are they actually producing features?
PB: Yeah, not features, but they’re producing shorts and documentaries. They tell the stories of their lives.