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Nicolas Rossier

Nicolas Rossier spoke to me on the 16th of December from his home in New York. Speaking to me about his film Aristide and the Endless Revolution, a film which maps the journey of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and politics in Haiti since the late 80's, we the importance of neutrality in filmmaking and the involvement of the western nations in the struggle and eventual dissolution of Haiti's young democracy.

I wouldn't generally ask such a banal question but as your film is so reliant upon controversial political content I feel a need to hear you answer this: What is your film about?

My film is a journey of a man, Aristide, through the last 15-20 years of Haitian Political history. The film is the story of Aristide's struggle but it's also, through his struggle, a film about Haiti and what the country has gone through since he came to the political scene in the late 80's.

It was an interesting comment within the film that "the history Aristide is the history of Haiti". It sounds as if you're echoing that sentiment.

He has been a major political figure: after the Duvalier rules and after 200 years of political violence, Coup d'etat and time without democracy. When he came he changed Haiti's political life tremendously by brining democracy and social change. Whatever he represented in that change, in history he will be remembered as someone who changed Haiti's social and political life forever, no matter what you want to say about him as an individual. His critics might say, "these are the facts" but only for that he could be recognized as an important figure (not sure I understand that ?).

Can you talk about your experiences in Haiti? I understand you did shoot some footage in Haiti.

Yes. We shot a lot in Haiti and actually what you see in the film is about 25% of archival footage from great research we did with different companies and in Haiti. I shot a lot of what you see but I also had another cameraman working with me.

I interviewed Josh Seftel a few years back and he made a film called Lost and Found about orphans in Romania, and when I spoke to him he said it was far harder to watch the film than it was to make the film - because when he was shooting he could help the situation, this is in contrast to the position of the audience who are trapped by outside. I wonder if you feel the same was true for you filming in Haiti, as you witnessed some horrifying things.

It's hard; although when you shoot these sequences you kind of automatically protect yourself... emotionally. It's the only way you can shoot. When you shoot violence or people who are dying you just shoot and you don't even realize what is happening. In our case it wasn't until we went through the 9 months of editing that we realized we had been in difficult or dangerous situations, only later we said ‘look at all this suffering' and that's when you start realizing. You tend to be emotional even in the moment but I think you also have to hold it in in order to do the work. I guess you have to have this automatic distance otherwise you can't shoot. In a way it's quite passive. You're just being a witness and trying to portray the reality you're seeing. You hope you will be helping with the film eventually and create a debate but on the spot you're really not helping - you're basically using people. I mean, if I can say that, I think it's sometimes true. If I could help somebody on the spot and not shoot I would just help but when you film you just film. So you are a voyeur no matter what you say.

The first time we hear your voice in the film is when you ask Noam Chompsky if a minimum wage increase in Haiti threatened "a significant enough change to the US?" to which he replied "apparently". Why did you choose to include your questions when you did?

I've been criticized in the past because I was not in my film enough. I think that if you're in the film too much asking questions - and I'm only talking about asking questions, I'm not talking about actually being in the film, that's something I never wanted to do because the film isn't about me, it's about the subject - but as far as the questions are concerned, I think it's important, especially in a long piece like that, that people can tell that there's a voice, a human being involved. And that's why we chose to include questions in the film. I think there are only like 5 times in which you hear me in the film.

If we hadn't done it I think people would have said that it would have been nice to have a living involvement by the director but I think that if there's too much then it would be too much about the person making the film. I think we wanted to do it in a shy way.

What brought you to the situation in Haiti?

The only idea I had about Haiti was back in '87 after Duvalier's son left. I remember this powerful photo from the magazine Photo and the image really stayed with me until I came to New York. In New York I met Haitians in the arts and also I met Taxi Drivers and Haitians in Brooklyn. I was really impressed because they were all so involved in politics: listening to radio, as you know there are plenty of Haitian radio shows in NY, particularly in Brooklyn. And that's when I became interested in making a film about a radio show with the topic of Haiti in the background. Then in 2003, in December, I had a friend who went to Haiti to make a film about a Voodoo priest and when he came back he said, "there's tension in the air" and politically things are going to change. And that's when I decided to do something on the political situation and pitch it to some TV stations. Then, funny enough, I got a chance to meet Aristide after he arrived in Pretoria, South Africa and that's when I decided to make a film about Haiti through the journey of Aristide. I came as an outsider and I really learned a lot and became almost like an Insider. I still am involved. I read about 1-2 hours a day about Haiti. I think I came in as an outsider but I also came in with very neutral eyes on the subject.

Something that is central to the film is the effect of the American involvement in Haiti's political past. Noel Murray from the AV Club wrote, "Aristide And The Endless Revolution is still structured like an open-and-shut case, made with circumstantial evidence." This isn't how I would characterize your film or the situation it depicts but I wanted to ask you about it because the relationship between the American involvements and Haiti's political tumult it is apparently not explicit to some?

The AV Club - do you mean review in The Onion? You picked the only bad one.

I thought it was interesting because everyone else is lauding the neutrality of the film...

I read that review. I think that as an independent filmmaker my role is not to give only answers. It's very hard in the case of Haiti to make a film in 83 minutes and close a case. I don't think even lawyers can do that in 2 years. I think the idea for me was to tell the true facts and give a few answers but basically it's true, that my film asks questions. I think people want to see films that do more than just offer an answer or a key, I think, they want to see films that raise important questions. So, in that sense, I think I was able, in the view of some, to raise very important questions about foreign policy, about justice, about human rights about history as well as the responsibility of western nations towards the past and what we've done and how we should seek reconciliation. These types of things are very important to us and they're the type of issues I was trying to invoke in the film. "A close and shut case"... I don't know, but I think it's not my role. If CBS has 2 years and a huge budget and wanted to send the 60 minutes team even they probably couldn't find the answers to the questions I raised. Maybe in 2 years they could close a case but that could only happen in 5 years. Right now, a lot of documents are being classified so we will know more only in a few years. Even in other stories we don't have the documentation to answer everything with all the facts, rulings etc... I don't know if I answered your question.

I wanted to know about how you would characterize the relationship between the "Western Powers", as you put it, and Haiti; their responsibilities, the actions they may have taken or not taken that may have lead to the escalating conflict.

Haiti is only half of  an island and for some reason Haiti is really an interesting case to understand how neo-colonialism has worked in the last 60 years. And I think it's an interesting case for anybody who wants to understand how economic policies have been conducted by international agencies and how they've failed in many cases. It's also interesting in the case of Haiti because they've had so much intervention since the liberation in 1804. And you have this mangling, specifically with France and The United States, an interventionism that has cost Haiti its economic development and stability. I heard a lot through my film, especially from the opposition to Aristide, that ‘Haitians need to be responsible first' and need to be the ones first responsible  if something doesn't work. But I think you have to have a more systemic approach and see how the international system has influenced Haiti and how these dynamics work and how difficult it is, specifically for a small nation, not to be influenced one way or another by these political powers like France and the US and Canada and I think these interactions play a large role in the affairs of Haiti. And I think you can't see Haiti or Haiti's affairs without looking at the interactions of the international community and how it effects the local elite, the political games it plays and how money or aid influences things on the ground. So yes, Haitians are responsible but for me only for 40%. 60% of the issue is the international community. If the international policies are not working well and are not well implemented with long term goals, then no matter what Haitians do over there it's not going to work. And I think specifically in the case of Haiti, when you look at the history, specifically the interactions between France and Haiti you can see how important that was. You can see that Haiti had to pay for more than 100 years, reparations to France because they wanted to be free and independent and that amount  (90 million gold francs)  constituted every year about 80% of their national budget. And people ask now why there are no trees on the hills. So you have to understand these dynamics in order to understand the condition and understand how this type of behavior has impaired Haiti in its economic development so these things have to be put in context. And that's what I tried to do with the film. Before and during  the Coup, there were many films made by  Haitians or foreign filmmakers showing how Aristide was the only one responsible for the deterioration in Haiti. There was no context given to the crisis, his lack of aid and also the lack of cooperation from the opposition. All that was not said in these films so it was all about how the man hadn't delivered and how it was important for him to just go. And I think that's how the liberal inteligencia here and in France failed Haiti because they didn't understand that there were many principles being ignored and that something very bad was happening to Haiti in 2004. They didn't point to that, they just said, "He's gone, let's move on" but there is no moving on. Moving on from such an event will never allow the seed of democracy to be planted. They didn't understand that and now a lot of them regret what happened. He just had a year to finish his term and he even accepted in February 2004 to have a prime minister from the opposition. But they wanted him out.

Your film has been applauded as a neutral documentary. "Neutral" is a word I'm not fond of and a concept I don't generally agree with, however, what I do see other critics identifying with is this respect for the views of the opponent. As many followers of Aristide are heard in the film as opponents to him, and I wanted to ask you about what responsibility you might have felt to involve voices from both sides of the argument.

I did want to reach out; I actually reached out a lot. Sometimes it wasn't always successful but that's normal because when we started the film the situation was very tense...still is.

With Haiti, no matter what you do you have so much partisanship from both sides.  And you'll always find people on either side that will say that there was "too much balance" -which I actually heard, or that it was "not balanced enough". From non-partisans or well aware people who know about Haiti but are not really partisans, they found the film very balanced. In the case of Haiti, it's  a little bit like the Middle East: no matter what you say you'll always find people on both of the extremes and that's happening today as well in  the so called "main stream media". So it's a very delicate exercise and at the end of the day you [the filmmaker] are going to have to go with your feeling. Especially when it's an independent film. Sensitive people are going to have an impression of where you tend to stand. In my case I wanted to reach out but on the other hand you see my sensitivity: I'm not really for the Coup, I don't think it's a way of conducting international affairs. These things will be clear at the end of the film, and you'll be able to see where I stand but I don't think that's the most important thing.

I think, at the end, the sensitive viewer will be able to see "this is where the filmmaker stands" but then it becomes the audience's turn. They can decide to read more about it and decide what they feel is right and that will make people decide to get more involved in Haiti or travel to Haiti and take action and so on. And they're going to have their own conclusion on where the truth lies. So this is what I think. It's very hard. Even the most balanced or objective report on the BBC, in the end, I can still find the journalists' stance and I think that's where we should not make ideas about that. You always have a little bit of yourself in a film.

-were you inspired by the BBC?

No actually I'm not. I don't watch the BBC anymore, I used to. I think the reason I've heard this question before is because we use a neutral voice [actor]. That was a choice we made. We thought about using a Haitian voice and finally because the subject was so timely and so important we didn't want someone who had a voice that seemed to side with any of the issues. We wanted someone who sounded more neutral and could bring some credibility to the facts we brought into the film.

When you say "voice" are you speaking of the voice over?

Yes. The Narrator. If you're asking more about the style, the film is a journey and in a journey you have a rhythm and pace and there is an editing style that is kind of fast and it has to have drama. What you see is a result of these decisions.  

When we started this film it was almost during the Coup and it was hard to pitch the film and even get Haitians involved. No one knew where I stood. Even in Haiti I had to navigate and be as neutral as I could. Which I was, I think I was ready to listen. Though I did have an idea of what went wrong. You have to play smart and be careful with such a polarized issue and difficult subject. To navigate through the web or rumors and un-credible sources is not an easy thing for an outsider but we managed to do it and we're happy with the results.

You interviewed so many central figures in this international situation. I wanted to ask you if you about obstacles in production and in finance. Did you encounter any obstacles in finding interviews or in seeking funds? I know you had support from both American and Swiss institutions.

We had a co-production with Swiss TV in Geneva and we had some grants and private funds from the company. The difficulty was as always: if you're honest with your subject and you start neutral and write letters and keep insisting you'll find people who will participate. But, as always in this business, you have to be relentless and keep selling your ideas and keep insisting to see certain people. There were some people didn't get access to and asked 3,4,5 times but a lot of people have no time and you just have to keep insisting and keep selling your idea and help them understand that it's important and timely and a good idea for Americans, for Haitians and they will eventually show up and agree to be interviewed. But it's a lot of work and insistence but in the end it will work if you believe in the story.

And you know, a lot of stories I work on seem controversial when I start to make them, and then a few years later they become quite mainstream. I've had stories that people have told me "no, don't work on that", or "why do you want to work on Muslims after 9-11, people don't care about that, do something on the victims" which was understandable, but 2 years later I had ABC and other networks asking fort the film. So what begins as controversial ends as mainstream and that's...just the way it is.  It's unfortunate but that's where I think independent producers and filmmakers have a role to play. They're often playing the roles of the pioneers and they're the ones that go and look around and deal with riskier subjects. Hopefully they're rewarded in the end.  That's why I think filmmakers exist and that's why they can make great political subjects.

Did any non-profit organizations help you with the work of this film? I ask because when I saw the film there were representatives from which is in the Bay Area for those who are interested in looking that up.  Spreading information and literature at the screening. Their presence gave me the impression that the network of involvement is a tangible one.

I got support from organizations like the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. I got involved with one person, Brian Concannon and he was very helpful for the film. Haiti Action is actually very active in the bay area and they've been spreading the word about the film. They came to the United Nations film festival and they've been very helpful. There's a network of activists who have been very active and involved with the screenings...and also in Canada. There's a tremendous network of activists from Vancouver to Montreal. They're very active and they're very unhappy about the role of their government with Haiti. It's an island that has a lot of support. A lot of people have followed the first steps of democracy in Haiti and feel very concerned - more than any other island, it's a very interesting phenomenon. It's a small network but it's happening in different cities. There are more people concerned and think that the film has an added value to help tell the whole story. I've been in touch with them and hopefully people are more aware today and can become more involved and help get involved in human rights organizations, get Amnesty and Human Rights Watch more involved then they are. There have also been things happening because of these organizations. People have been freed, people who had not received judgment since the Coup have been put in jail or released but there is still a lot of work to do. And I think these organizations are working very hard for it and that's very positive.

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