Cecile B. Evans, Untitled Haiti Project
It’s undeniable that the earthquake in Haiti on January 12th devastated the gorgeous country and its people. Yet, previous to and withstanding the disaster, Haiti envelops a stimulating culture and way of life. Haiti Cherie is a benefit exhibition curated by Cecile B. Evans, comprised of works by artists who have been inspired by Haiti. The list of artists includes Jorgen Leth, Kathy Acker, Maya Deren, Flo McGarrel, Steven Cuzner, and Leah Gordon. The event will take place on March 12th at 7pm at Tape Modern in Berlin; all proceeds will benefit SOS Enfant, a small school in Jacmel, Haiti.
Evans, a 26 year-old Belgian-American artist and curator, is the woman I’ve been interning for during my four-month stay in Berlin, and has become a superb friend and outstanding tour-guide to the city. My relationship with her has included exploring spaces like Tape Modern behind the scenes, being slipped extensive lists of the week’s art openings, emailing back and forth with various art-related personalities in Berlin, eating apples in her handsome apartment, endeavoring to get in touch with various estates of artists, and most recently cat-sitting her delightful cat, Charlie. Inspired by Evans, I decided to conduct my very first interview with her as my subject. In our conversation I ask about her experience in Haiti, the benefit event coming up this Friday night, and her piece in it, ‘Untitled Haiti Project’.
JULIA SPEED: I know you were in Haiti a couple of weeks prior to the earthquake; can you describe your experience there?
CECILE B EVANS Haiti, prior to the earthquake (I was there at the end of December), was everything and nothing you would expect it to be. I remember, right before and after I left I was in Miami, where there is a large Haitian community. Every single one of them I met told me they dreamed of being able to go back, which I didn’t understand until after. Being there is like knowing a secret that few people are willing to listen to. Yes, there is chaos in Port au Prince, yes there is poverty and sure, the water is undrinkable. However, I think the portrait that the media has painted is an unfairly easy one. The country is not just PAP. In reconstructing Haiti we are also restoring.
Kathy Acker, Kathy Goes to Haiti
JS I’m interested that you chose to include Kathy Acker’s Kathy Goes to Haiti in “Haiti Cherie”. Did Acker’s colorful description of fictional Kathy’s arrival in Haiti strike any familiar chords with your impression of and time spent in the country?
CE There are things that haven’t changed at all- the pigs in the street, the girls in pressed dresses, the frankness of the people. Acker’s book is really sexy, graphic to say the least, but somehow the slow tropics dissolve any sort of controversy- it’s a hardcore book that’s an easy read. I love that she subverts the exoticism by getting rid of class structure.
When we (my best friend Anna Hopkins) arrived in Jacmel, a small village, this easiness opened up to us. It’s a beach village, everyone is hanging outside all the time- despite being so small, there always seemed to be a crowd. We wanted so badly to be invisible, respectful. We quickly realized we would stick out no matter what and got over this, thank god. It was like clockwork, look at someone and smile- their face would burst open, almost transactionally. Anna and I were taken to a voodoo ceremony. We had been so cautious about what to wear, what to bring and when we got there, we laughed so hard- it looked exactly like a youth group gathering. There was a moment where one of the girls was screaming the lyrics of the hymn into my ear, pushing me to participate-be present. There was an enormous integrity in all of this, pride. This is much stronger to me than any of the things I heard about pre-disaster Haiti in the news.
JS Tell me about your piece, Untitled Haiti Project, which you began filming during that visit.
CS It is born from my relationship to Jorgen Leth, his work, and this intense connection that is certainly mostly felt on my end. The piece uses the first film he shot in Haiti, Interference (also known as Haiti Express) as a structure. The initial task was to go there and try and reshoot the scenes from the film, in the exact locations, with myself as the main character. I brought Anna with me, she is a phenomenal actress, and she wore a wig, my clothes and played me. This remake was of course impossible, not being Leth, it being nearly 25 years later, not having a crew or proper equipment but the process served as a container for what was to emerge as the central concept of the work.
Jorgen Leth, Interference
JS Describe your relationship with Leth – when and how did you meet the filmmaker who inspired your project?
CS The project began because I was an enormous admirer of Jorgen’s work, the whole body of it- as a writer and filmmaker. A friend from Denmark put me in contact with him. I wrote to him a few times, proposing a very vague description of a project I wanted to do about becoming closer to, getting to know intimately, the source of inspiration. At some point, I crossed a line, in doing research about Haiti- Jorgen’s long time working residence-I somehow became attracted to the exoticism of going there. This idea of reaching him in his element. I naively, to the master of simplicity and elegance, blabbered all of this in a very long email- and he responded, very simply and elegantly in a manner that had me worried he thought it was all a bit stalkerish. Horribly embarrassed- I wisely retreated. I still went to Haiti, I knew I had to, but I didn’t tell Jorgen until some days before arriving. I wrote to him that we were all squared away but that if at all possible, it would be great to have a coffee before I left. The real surprise was that upon arriving at the hotel in Jacmel, he had left a card with his number on it. I was so impressed. We met the following day and he gave us access to every location possible in Jacmel.
JS What was it like to work with him? Did you achieve the experience of “reaching him in his element”?
CS We didn’t work together- this implies a give and take. He just gave and literally guided guided me through the shooting schedule, opened these places that were haunted with his footsteps. His generosity, personally and intellectually, was astounding. I feel like I am always going back to those days and trying to find more that I can dig out.
JS Was his presence during the filming process and your personal relationship with him reflected in your film?
CS No. The film reflects a fantasy, a desire to both be and be with someone. I had known at that time and had told Jorgen that I would be using the scenes from his film to ultimately construct a fiction. This was a way also of inverting his own convention, the collapsible fiction, found in Interference and certainly Traeberg, another Haiti film, in which Jorgen begins with a narrative that collapses under the weight of a dense political and cultural reality. I was beginning with a real struggle, recreating scenes, finding a way to be in this and control it, and using it to structure a complete fable- a love affair between Leth and I. I still haven’t told him this part, I think he has more pressing issues to deal with.
JS Have you kept in touch with Leth or heard from him since the earthquake?
CS Jorgen is alright, he is coping. His beautiful home, his life there, collapsed in the earthquake.
JS I know you plan to go back to Haiti to film more for Untitled Haiti Project. Will Haiti’s recent devastation have an effect on the direction of your unfinished film?
CS The disaster has made me feel a little funny about my fake love story by now. It has been difficult to continue without adding this tragedy into the equation. I think Anna and I both agree that we feel a loss- I became very attached to this place, addicted to the magic of it- in a very short time. We have decided to go back this summer- to volunteer but also finish the project with this new information. My film never was meant to be a documentary about Haiti- and it still won’t- it was always about Leth and his work. But I suppose that once again, he was right, at some point the fantasy is broken down. I have faith in this first film but a desire to walk back inside it now that the place that held it together is changed.
I’ve also begun a series of works independent of the film, that deal more directly. My father went to Port au Prince after the earthquake to volunteer and has been an enormous support, collecting materials for me. I’m so proud to be his daughter.
JS Tell me about the other pieces presented in “Haiti Cherie” – how did you choose the works and artists included in the exhibition?
CS I chose the works because they stood out as works of art independent of the crisis. Each one is somehow transcends time and is linked to another work in the show- the dates span from 1947 to now. It was important to me that this village, this small school, was not lost in the massive efforts. The children have the greatest potential to heal, they need a place to go so that they don’t get taken away by the chaos- there are imminent dangers for them. My intention is not to make the viewer feel worse about this place, to direct you how to feel but to enlarge the context. I think opening things up this way brings a more direct link to faith. Maybe I am still living in the fantasy of the joy I experienced, this is still what I want to share and hope for.
Yet it seems impossible to think about Haiti without taking into account the country’s recent disaster.
Leah Gordon Atis Rezistans: The Sculptors of Grand Rue
Simeus Fritzner, Le Jour du Siesme
JS Does the exhibit reflect any sadness concerning the earthquake?
CS There are two pieces that are shaped entirely by the tragedy. The first is Simeus Friztner’s short piece about the day of the earthquake. The work is alarmingly direct and makes no aim to pull at heartstrings- it frames the need to tell, he wants to show us what happened. He is a student at Haiti’s only film school, the Cine Institute, which has continued its work since. The second is Flo McGarrell’s, which reflects the harsh reality of these events. I had crossed paths with him while in Jacmel, on the beach, he and some friends were filming his adaptation of the Acker book “Kathy Goes to Haiti”. He lost his life in the earthquake. Leah Gordon, whose work is also shown, had shown a trailer for this at the Ghetto Biennale in Port au Prince, in the last days that I was there. Gordon put me in touch with McGarrell’s friends, whom participated in the project and amazingly said that they would do their best to provide something to screen. What will actually be screened is impacted by the impossibility of this-something that we as artists have a hard time fathoming, a moment in which reality overwhelms, stops the work. Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen was also incomplete at the time of her death and finished posthumously by her husband and his second wife. I wanted to do my best to touch base with this country, what it has offered artists, life- in light of this sudden and devastating event. The important thing, of course, is to raise money for the school.
March 12th at 7pm
Tape Modern at Tape Club
14 Heidestrasse// Ubahn Hauptbanhof
If you are not in Berlin, you can still donate to Haiti Cherie for SOS Enfant. You may do so via PayPal, under the email address email@example.com and the account name is: Haiti Cherie. Thank you!