Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bonjour Liberté

Immigration is a common affair for countries with thriving economies. While many visitors are welcomed with open arms many are not especially when they break the rules of taking up illegal residence. Of course there are many people who can afford to do it legally but mostly it is the illegal aliens that make up the bulk of the numbers.

It may sound like a great idea to move to a place where your family can have a better life, there is always a select few who will take advantage of a desperate situation. Families unable to get visas or purchase plane tickets find themselves at the mercy of these people and take on treacherous journeys via small overloaded boats or over crowded freight carriers. Haiti is one of the more popular countries in the Caribbean to have a heavy migration number. Being one of the only nations that gained their country’s independence from a slave rebellion, Haitians on a whole understand that fighting for what they want pays off in the end. One can even surmise that “Bonjour Liberté” could very well be the most common thought in their minds when they make it to a safe haven, to a new country, to a chance for betterment. After all, they are leaving behind the soil their fore fathers tilled, toiled and called home for just that, a chance at Freedom.

“Mwen Solé” written by Yaphathtoar, is a script about the Migration Struggle, Love and Betrayal of a Haitian Family. This feature film is slated for production in the early 2009 and follows a family of immigrants from Haiti to America. Unfortunately, they don't make it to the U.S. and come ashore in the Bahamas instead.

Verbal Honey’s Epiphany caught up with Yaphathtoar to discuss her latest project.

A little background...
A rising star behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera, Yaphathtoar is a writer/director/producer and a well-oiled machine. Her time management skills could be bottled as she juggles a busy freelance schedule of bouncing from film locations, to scoring and directing independent films.  She also manages a drama company, founded back in 2003, 400 hundred miles away in the Bahamas as her way of giving back to the community. The Yaphathtoar Academy of Dramatic Arts (YADA), allows Bahamian students to learn from some of Hollywood’s best coaches, writers and cinematographers and then have their work showcased locally. It was on one of her numerous trips back and forth working with the students in the academy, some of them of Haitian descent, that she decided this story needed to be told; to put the plight of the Haitian immigrants who call the Bahamas their home on center stage, whether it would effect change or just bring awareness to their situation.

We chatted for a while...

VH - Why did you feel the need to write this script?
Y - Mwen Solé spoke to me subtly for a few years then one day it seemed like the characters began screaming out to my subconscious. It’s hard to deny those voices when they’re playing in your head and speaking to your heart. So I began writing but at one point, very early on, I got stuck. I recall sitting at my desk and saying out loud, “look, this is your story so if you want me to tell it you’re going to have to help me out here!” Two weeks later the script was complete. It was bizarre how it just flowed.

VH - Do you view yourself as an advocate for displaced Haitians or as a voice for their struggle?
Y - I don’t proclaim at all to be an advocate or a voice but as a storyteller I think the craft itself provokes us to think about the subject matter presented - whether it is presented as a documentary or narrative story. If the audience is encouraged to turn their attention to the Haitian plight then I suppose I served as a channel through which the real voice of the people have spoken.

VH - When did the idea of Mwen Solé come to you was it a something in the news or a personal experience you had? 

Y - I’m not sure when or what specifically inspired Mwen Solé. I suppose I began thinking about it more when I opened YADA. A number of my students were Haitian or of Haitian descent. They shared stories with me of day to day challenges that they had as Bahamians born to Haitian parents or as Haitians. Of course, I had wonderful Bahamian-Haitian friends (or Bahaitian, as I called them) growing up that I was extremely close to. But somehow I realized these young people were still living exactly how my friends had lived years ago and I wondered what was being done to change these age old issues. So perhaps that is the catalyst that got me thinking about the story. It’s hard to say if it was news or personal experience. I think it was both.

VH - Why didn't you set this movie in America, why the Bahamas?
Y - My goal for Shallow Sea Films is to tell stories from the Bahamas and the Caribbean. America is very well represented and perhaps for economic reasons it would make more sense for me to pursue that market by telling Mwen Solé from that perspective. I do feel, though, that there is a different kind of wealth to be tapped into by telling the story as it relates to Haiti’s connection to the Bahamas.

Y - It needs to be understood that America is not the only nation facing an illegal immigration crisis. In fact because of our geographical situation we tend to serve as the buffer for countless Haitians trying to make their way to America. Those stories are just as poignant and compelling. Perhaps even more so since, for some, to be “stuck in the Bahamas” is like being stuck in purgatory.

VH - Are your characters based on people you know?
Y - Each of my characters is a collage of different people I know personally. It would be fair to say anyone familiar with the Bahamas and/or Haiti who sees Mwen Solé will relate to the characters on some level.

VH - Who is the film's audience?
Y - Despite its mature nature Mwen Solé is a story about family. As a coming of age, action adventure ensemble piece, it will appeal to young men and women twelve years and up. I think it will have a unique following of those who want to see more real stories from and about the Caribbean.

VH - Where would you like to see the characters going?
Y - I guess if I could have them go anywhere it would be to continue on that journey of the higher self they each discover in this work. I feel the characters as they currently stand grow considerably. While there is always room for improvement it was important in Mwen Solé to bring each individual character to their best self.

VH - Do you have in mind whom will play which character?
Y - We have a principal cast of fresh faces and strong talent who are very passionate about this story and they champion the message of it. Though it was tempting to package Mwen Solé with star power it was more important to not lose that message with that kind of flair.

VH - Do you think the Haitian community wants to see this, do they want the public to be aware of the plight and struggle of their people or do you think they want to leave their past in the past? This is not to say that everyone who migrated did so dishonestly but should we be sweeping this under the rug and rejoicing in the success?
Y - I think the Haitian community would want to see Mwen Solé because it is a story of courage, hope, healing and overcoming obstacles. I would hope that they do want to create awareness but even more so to have hearts pricked to a point where changes will be made.

Y - I don’t feel that any of these issues are “in the past”. They are very current! That’s the problem. These issues have persisted for way to long. Almost daily, in the Bahamas alone, there is a report of an illegal ship hitting the shores. What’s worst is that countless lives are lost carelessly in the process. I would be elated to wake up one morning to the reality that all of this is really “the past”.

Y - The choice to give Solé an opportunity at a new life was purely artistic. It is not, in reality, the rule but the exception. Haitians in such a case are repatriated everyday. So, no, the intent is not to “sweep it under the carpet and rejoice the success”. The attempt here is to look at each situation on a case by case basis but also to force each of us to analyze why – despite best efforts to stop them and their choice to stare death in the face and risk crossing anyway – why they continue to do so. When we look at the issues that are making them flee maybe we’ll take the time to consider what we can do to help their healing process and act responsibly on behalf of our neighbor. When we begin to do that we’ll also be helping ourselves. We have the passion to do it for other nations in crisis. We can definitely do it for Haiti. If we let go of feeling overwhelmed, make our friends, colleagues, government agencies etc. aware and accountable to do what we have the power to do then we can all rejoice openly without feeling like this is the only option to a better life.

VH - Is the immigration issue a problem in the Bahamas?
Y - Yes, it is a huge problem in the Bahamas. Our resources are very limited as a small nation with such a persistent problem.

VH - Not speaking for all Bahamians of course but do you think that Haitians are welcomed or discouraged from going to your country? 

Y - Both. With a proper plan in place for naturalization I think Bahamians welcome Haitians because, like them, they are a resourceful, proud and talented people. However, they are absolutely discouraged by the means they are taking now.

VH - Do you speak French or Creole?
Y - Neither. For Mwen Solé I worked with a Haitian translator.

VH - Why would anyone want to back this script?
Y - Mwen Solé is an exciting story that offers the Hollywood epic elements with a heartfelt, socially responsible message.

VH - Are you working on a sequel to this or will the story end here?
Y - This is it. The story ends here. Originally I wanted to develop this project as a television series. I suppose that is still plausible with the right team because Solé has quite a journey ahead of him. We’ll have to wait and see what life unfolds for Mwen Solé.

VH - Do you think the Haitian community will buy this story from your voice that of a non Haitian background?
Y - The story is told primarily from Solé’s point of view. I hope that the audience will get that. I tried to keep that pure. Because it involves how this impacts my country and culture as well I think they will connect with the story. We are all familiar with the same organic challenges – desire for a better life; to provide for self and family; a respected place within the global community; to have our needs met. I hope that shines through beyond the fact that I am not Haitian.

VH - We certainly look forward to screening this very important film and wish you all the best.
Y - Thank you and the verbal honey readers for their support.

The end is only the beginning...
Verbal Honey will be screening Mwen Solé next year, so stay tuned. For more information, please feel free to e-mail Yaphathtoar at yaphath@yaphathtoar.com


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