I don’t naturally think of myself as a ‘Haitian filmmaker,’ ” says Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck. Which is a bit odd, since he’s about to get his first American retrospective at this year’s Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, his work anchoring a selection of Haitian films. “The first time I heard the phrase was after Haitian Corner [his 1987 debut] and all I could think was ‘No, no, I wrote the script in Germany, I was thinking more along the line of Fassbinder.’ So I don’t really know what ‘Haitian film’ or ‘filmmaker’ means beyond my biography.”
At the risk of contradicting an artist interpreting his art, Peck’s films are very, very Haitian. Despite being a small sliver of a country, Haiti is a perennial source of images of violence, suffering, and wacked Hollywood exotica. In contrast, Peck’s films construct their narratives around figures of loss and a usually frustrated prospect of return. They echo the lives of most Haitians of his age and class, a people who circle the world in search of the good and safe life denied them in their homeland.
Peck’s films are full of teasing plays with past, place, and the meaning that shuttles between them. Haitian Corner outlines the predicament of a political refugee who flees to Brooklyn to find his torturers are as likely as anyone to come north in search of life, liberty, and the Yankee dollar. (In some cases more likely: Rezistans, Katharine Kean’s hard-hitting political documentary, points out that many a member of Haiti’s right-wing killing teams received a CIA-sponsored ticket to “safe keeping” in America.) In Man by the Shore, a girl tries to wait out the Duvalier era in her grandmother’s attic while her parents are in exile overseas. Shore stokes expectations for geographical movement— will she escape to her parents? will the liberating exile army land?— but Peck’s true arc is internal, as the child is forced to deal with adult concerns. His latest, Corps Plongés, reverses that arc, as an Americanized Haitian pathologist drifts into a reverie populated by childhood memories of political violence. Even the films that don’t deal explicitly with Haiti— for example, his documentary about Patrice Lumumba— are handled with a trademark mix of distance and intimacy.
Humanist in the old tradition, Peck’s films offer a curious counterpoint to the other “Haitian films” in the Mead, from putatively “inside” folkloric curios like Maya Deren’s Horsemen and Melville Herskovits’s 1934 anthropological source film Life in a Haitian Valley, to the outrage-producing AIDS doc Put Your Feet in the Water, which details the CDC labeling of the entire nation as an HIV risk. All of these films manage to know something important about Haiti without ever truly being of it. The irony of course is that Raoul Peck doesn’t claim to be 100 percent of Haiti either.
There are plenty of other films worth watching from the Mead’s generous schedule. Alisa LeBow and Cynthia Madansky’s Treyf is a mock-comic look at the intersection of lesbian and observant Judaism (the filmmakers fell for each other at a seder), while Polish director Marcel Lozinski offers another kind of unorthodoxy in So It Doesn’t Hurt, the sad story of a bookish woman who has lived her entire life alone on a farm. In The Dreaming Series, the preservation of Australia’s ab-original traditions is given a new mediasavvy spin, as folktales of bird men and the great creation are rendered through computer-generated animation. And lastly, for animal lovers everywhere: Although not available for screening, Mark Lewis’s Animalicious promises to go where When Animals Attack dares not, considering the cultural implications of “malicious animal encounters.”