Haiti’s Artists Institute celebrates successes

Renown Haitian chanteuse Emeline Michel with Haiti Optimiste co-host Marc Baptiste. Film industry professionals, photographers and artists, designers, writers, architects, and musicians braved bone-chilling weather to support the Artists Institute in Jacmel, celebrating its 10-year-anniversary.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

Brooklyn resident, Haitian-born Marc Baptiste is an image-maker — his photographs appear in a slew of fashion and beauty magazines. He’s well aware of the power of representation and how popular media mainly dwells on negative images about Haiti.

In 2008, he teamed up with lower Manhattan resident David Belle for the first of what has become an annual benefit event, Haiti Optimiste, a celebration of the positive aspects of Haiti.

Last week, the Haiti Optimiste event was held at the French Institute Alliance Française to celebrate how far the Artists Institute — the filmmaking Ciné Institute program and its sister Audio Institute — has come in these last 10 years since its early beginnings in Jacmel. There are a combined 150 students attending the tuition-free, two-year programs of the Institute.

Early in the evening, Ciné Institute founder David Belle made the point how only one percent of high school graduates in Haiti can go on to higher education. He emphasized how education is a powerful weapon against poverty and a tool for social change. “These graduates have fought so hard for where they’ve got to today,” he said.

Very moving film portraits of Ciné Institute graduates were screened followed by a panel with three graduates who traveled from Haiti to participate.

Of the Institute, Keziah Jean says, “It’s the best thing in my life.” She is now the head communication officer for Sean Penn’s JP/HRO organization.

Jean, a daughter of a farmer, was in the first graduating class and traveled to Los Angeles, post-quake, to take part in the “We are the World” remake helping bring emergency and reconstruction funds to Haiti.

Also on the panel was Class of 2011 graduate Macdala Prevot who was hired as a video editor for United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and with her family started the Jacmel-based Sunset Film Productions company.

Marc Henry Valmond was introduced as a graduate who makes a living as a filmmaker and gives back by working with kids in the rough neighborhood of Martissant, having youth “pick up cameras and lay down their weapons.” He also organizes film festivals.

All panelists spoke of experiencing social obstacles–negativity from family or skepticism from friends–when they decided on this course of study, a departure from more tradition advanced training. “I was transferring from law school to attend the Institute,” said Macdala Prevot to an audience that understood the weight of that decision.

Artists Institute, College for Art and Technology, started with the Jakmel Film Festival in 2004 — David Belle was co-founder. An integral component of the three-edition festival was the overwhelmingly popular filmmaking workshops. Belle came to understand that Haitians need to tell their own stories and that training in film production can be a career path.

The filmmaking school was in its nascent stage when the 2010 earthquake struck and destroyed its facilities. None-the-less, students were on the ground, shooting, sharing footage, and covering the aftermath.

Able to draw on international good will and financial support and in a true example of “rebuilding better,” Ciné Institute created a four-acre campus with new buildings, just five miles from their original location.

The curriculum includes all aspects of filmmaking from theory and history, screen writing and directing to post-production–editing and sound theory. Budgeting, accounting and project development are also studied.

The sister school Audio Institute began in 2013 with its recording studio completed last summer. Incoming students are able to write, record, mix, edit, and master their own music.

Award-winning director Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) threw in his support and his non-profit Artists for Peace and Justice is partnered with the Artists Institute.

After the panel, serious fundraising pitches raised monies for Institute equipment and other expenses including combined donations totaling $23,000 for one instructor’s salary.

“We invest in passion and creativity, we inspire and change lives” is one of the Artists Institute’s mottos. Its work has “given birth to local industries, created jobs for thousands, and entertained millions worldwide.”

Haiti Optimiste ended the evening of music, screenings, and testimony with a rara band that led the audience up the stairs into a reception to continue the warm vibes on a frigid night.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

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