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Filmmaker in Focus: Robert Yao Ramesar

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I was on location when the earthquake struck Haiti. There were people who I literally loved there who I feared might be dead. I felt trapped on set and had trouble sleeping. When I finally slept, it was a really deep slumber and I had a dream about the bride and groom in the ruined church, which formed the basis of the story. Some months later I was in the church in Port-au-Prince filming the scene.

Robert Yao Ramesar is one of Trinidad and Tobago’s leading filmmakers. He has many short films to his credit, and his first feature, SistaGod, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, and subsequently screened at the ttff/06. His next feature, Her Second Coming (2009) had its world premiere at the ttff/09. He is currently at work on a South Africa-set feature.

Haiti Bride (2014), his most recent film, centres around Marie-Thérèse, who leaves Haiti for New York with her family when Jean-Bertrand Aristide is thrown out of power. Years later Marie-Thérèse meets and falls in love with Paul, a fellow Haitian. They go back to Haiti to get married, but unfortunately the date and time of the wedding coincide with the 2011 earthquake. The lovers are separated, and fear that the other is dead. A year later, however, they meet again.

Haiti Bride will have its world premiere at ttff/14. Ramesar spoke with our blogger, Aurora Herrera, about the film.

The film feels very intimate and personal. Is this your usual shooting style or just something that you wanted to achieve for this particular movie?

It’s a progression of my aesthetic. I wanted to have most scenes with two characters interacting at close quarters. A constant echo of the dynamics of a couple—a bride and groom. So camera positions, lenses and light were combined to create that closeness.

The actors are very convincing. What was it like working with them to achieve your direction?

They were all non-actors. First I asked them how they would naturally say their lines, then, I asked how their character would say the lines under the circumstances and in that moment in the narrative. And of course we then graduated to whole scenes. The biggest challenge is that they mainly spoke in Haitian Kweyol. I worked through a translator.

The film is very artistic and a lot is communicated within wordless frames, like Natasha sitting in the room with the curtain blowing over her or the wedding scenes with Marie-Thérèse and Paul in the church. What inspired you to create those moments?

I actually shot those two scenes myself. I had been watching the voile curtain “breathing” in the light breeze for a few days and I positioned Natasha (Ketia) in a fetal position with the curtain caressing her lightly like she’s in a womb. She’s especially vulnerable at that point in the film, so the setup seemed appropriate. The symbols in the metal burglar proofing in the window and the hem of the curtain and the light and shadow completed the mood. I dressed Paul and Marie-Thérèse in their wedding clothes and filmed them in the post-earthquake ruins of the church—a dream sequence that I literally dreamed. The high point for me was when she’s facing Paul and her veil is blowing and “reaching out” towards him across the rubble. I felt ethereal and supernatural and was the most satisfying shot I lensed in the whole film.

Is it correct to say that Natasha’s father is the painter? Even if he is not, the painter shows Paul a painting of a bride and groom that he said he dreamt about and that the groom is Paul. Why is it that Natasha does not seem bothered by this, when there is no indication that she knows about his foiled wedding?

The painting is of Paul and Marie-Thérèse in the ruined church. Paul recognises this and is spooked, but doesn’t let on to the painter—Natasha’s father. Natasha is frankly in denial and wants to get past the false starts and settle down with Paul.

In the beginning of the film, Paul says that he cannot feel anything anymore and that he is lost. Therefore it does not follow that he is in love with Natasha. Why have you set Paul up as a “bad guy” in the film?

Paul is not a “bad guy”. He’s been numbed by events in his life and faces an even greater disconnect in the aftermath of the earthquake. He seeks love like a sharp pin for a limb that’s fallen asleep.

The timeline is a bit challenging to follow. Does this speak to Paul’s confusion and apparent memory loss? Or rather is it a deliberate attempt to include the magic/voudou of Haiti?

The non-linearity reflects the literal displacement of people, places and time in the aftermath of the ‘quake. It’s an appropriately fractured and scattered narrative I think.

What is the significance of Marie-Thérèse still wanting to return to Haiti to raise her son?

She longs for home like many migrants. She was forced to leave in the first place.

The painter talks about voudou and also takes Paul to see a cockfight. Was this your way of touching on some of the Haitian culture?

No. These would be just inevitable activities during day-to-day life in Haiti.

What is the significance of the song “Blackbird”, heard throughout the film?

The title track, “Blackbird” was written by me and performed by Joanne Francois. Its broken wing symbolises Haiti in the wake of an often cataclysmic history.

What inspired you to tell this story?

I was on location when the earthquake struck Haiti. There were people who I literally loved there who I feared might be dead. I felt trapped on set and had trouble sleeping. When I finally slept, it was a really deep slumber and I had a dream about the bride and groom in the ruined church, which formed the basis of the story. Some months later I was in the church in Port-au-Prince filming the scene.

How long did the filming process take?

About five weeks total.

How did you feel on a personal level as a Caribbean citizen, visiting Haiti and seeing the type of destruction the earthquake wrought?

It was tough and momentarily overwhelming. I had to survive and function though and make a film under harsh conditions, so I remained focused. Life goes on.

Haiti Bride will be showing at the ttff/14 on the following dates. Robert Yao Ramesar will be present at all screenings to engage in a question-and-answer session with the audience.

Fri 19 Sept, 6.30pm, UWI, Q+A

Sat 20 Sept, 1.00pm, MovieTowne POS, Q+A

Thu 25 Sept, 6.00pm, MovieTowne POS, Q+A

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Date: Fri 12 Sep, 2014
Category: ttff news and features

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