Going through some old files the other day I came across this, my attempt at cracking the gilded halls of the New Yorker. Naturally I failed to make the grade, but I did get a nice e-mail back very quickly (can’t say they don’t read submissions) saying they liked it and feel free to try again. That was three years ago and I should really get around to it.
ON a recent evening, with a huge snowstorm threatening to arrive at any moment, a couple of hundred members of New York’s film production community—producers, gaffers, grips, cameramen—assembled at the Tribeca Screening Room on Varick Street to mingle for a few hours and raise money for their cinematic comrades in Haiti.
The country has, or had until it was abruptly flattened last month, just one film school, the Ciné Institute, founded a couple of years ago in the city of Jacmel by the New York documentary filmmaker David Belle, and six of its students were the special guests this night. For them, the night marked the latest leg of an unlikely whirlwind tour as ambassadors for their country. After footage taken by themselves and other students in the aftermath of the earthquake began appearing on CNN, ABC and other global media outlets, the director Paul Haggis had taken eight of them under his wing and flown them to Los Angeles to help him work on the 25th anniversary re-recording of the We Are the World music video he was directing on behalf of Haitian relief. There they mingled with Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, will.i.am and other luminaries while recording behind-the- scenes footage to be made into a documentary. Now they were in the distinctly bleaker and more star-deprived environs of mid-winter New York, to help edit down some of the footage for Haggis before the video’s premiere at the opening of the Winter Olympics.
“I’m like a newborn,” said Louis (“as in Armstrong”) Ebby Angel, a twenty- eight-year old student with a broad gap-toothed smile who was studying writing and directing and clutched a video camera. “The earthquake happened on the twelfth. On the thirteenth we started working, and on the fourteenth was my birthday. I am a survivor, a newborn…”
He gave another big smile and surveyed the room crowded with well meaning and mostly white faces with a sense of disbelief. Slightly apart from the crowd and wearing a bright blue Ciné Institute tee-shirt and a yellow wooden necklace was Jocelyne Firmia, a twenty-four year old producer-in-training. Like many of the students she had been outdoors shooting an assignment when the earthquake struck, something which probably saved her life. “I was walking past my old elementary school when it happened,” she recalled, speaking in heavily French-accented English. “And I thought I was having a hallucination, you know, because I thought it was all in my mind. I’m seeing houses collapse and I said, ‘Oh, God! I need to see a doctor!’ and a friend of mine was with me and she said ‘It’s an earthquake. We need to watch out!’ And then we saw the school was crushed completely and the school guardian was screaming and that’s when I realized a part of my being was gone forever.”
As Jocelyne spoke, two of her fellow students circled around her holding small digital video cameras, sometimes zooming in just inches from her face. She seemed unfazed. After the initial shock, she managed to find a taxi back home, Jocelyne said, then sat around outside with her friends and family, too scared to enter any of the buildings still standing. “We were having a lot of aftershocks and I thought, ‘This is it, we’re going to die. This is the end of the world.’ A lot of people were praying and confessing and asking forgiveness to God and their loved ones. I mean, this was a very intense moment for everyone.” Her face continued to look solemn for a moment, then, released from having to regurgitate her story for the umpteenth time, she laughed suddenly and darted over to join a group of friends, who embraced her in a communal hug. It was clearly tough being a full-time ambassador.
Above the bar and against a wall, two video monitors silently played a continuous loop of footage taken by Ciné Institute students after the earthquake, accompanied by the muffled thump of Neal Young and the Stones on the Screening Room’s sound system. Women ran along broken streets holding their heads in disbelief; French colonial-style balustrades hung sickeningly in mid-air like a Magritte painting; great jags of concrete stood silhouetted against Haiti’s pale blue sky, almost beautiful in their abstractness, until the camera panned briefly to the dust-covered bodies lying motionless beneath them. It was hard to forget that Ground Zero lay less than half a mile to the south.
Alec Sash, one of the organizers of the night, introduced the students to the crowd and explained that funds from the evening were going to help pay for some film crew members who were going down to Jacmel to operate the generators and lights the New York film community had already donated. This evening was just a start, he said. Eventually, they hoped to raise far more money to help the people of Jacmel, and eventually to rebuild Ciné Institute.
Each student offered a few brief words of thanks, and was greeted by warm applause. (“The earthquake made us all soldiers, and our only tools are our camera and our voice,” said Louis.) The Institute’s director, Andrew Bigosinski, a tall, bald man with the weary look of someone who had seen too much recently, said a few brief words, and then it was time for the dancers. A couple of Haitian drummers came on and started a slow rhythmic thump that gradually grew to a crescendo. Then six or seven young women sidled on, wearing brightly colored sequined dresses in shades of pink, yellow and blue. The group began to move as one, swaying to the drums and the vocal accompaniment of a singer with the high, unearthly voice of a muezzin. The somber-clad New York audience hesitated a moment in the face of such cultural exuberance, but the closest were picked off by the outstretched arms of the dancers and drawn irresistibly into the swirl of bodies. As the music rose, the monitors continued flashing their awful images in eerie counterpoint. Flies buzzed around a corpse, and subtitles appeared over images of weeping men and women. “We asked God to put us to sleep before the building crushed on us…” read one. “Without love I am nothing,” read another. The dancers danced on and the drummers beat furiously, fighting back the darkness.
A few hours later as the last guests straggled out into a darkened Varick Street, the first fat drops of sloppy snow starting to fall, Andrew Bigosinski made his farewells. It was his birthday, and he held a shopping bag containing a large heart-shaped box of chocolates and four chocolate roses, a gift from the students. “It’s just the beginning,” he said of Haiti in general. “They have nothing. They are nothing in the world. And we want to help bring them into it.”