When an earthquake devastated his parents’ homeland of Haiti in early 2010, Perri Pierre was on a bus headed home from Queens College, where he was studying theater. Although he was born in Brooklyn, Pierre grew up and attended school in Cayes, Haiti until he was 16. So the earthquake felt very personal – particularly when Pierre learned that a close friend from school had died in the catastrophe.
“We were planning to start up an opera in Haiti – a French opera. We began to search for directors and singers, but then the earthquake hit,” Pierre says. “I found out that my friend was injured, and later died.”
But the earthquake steered Pierre to a new arts pursuit. Almost immediately, he began work on a film, J-12, about experiencing the earthquake in the diaspora. The main character, Vladimir, hears the news on television and immediately tries to find out if his mother survived the earthquake.
“What if she didn’t make it?” asks a frantic Vladimir, who at first is convinced she’s died. The film portrays the emotions shared by many Haitian-Americans, who tried desperately to learn the fate of their loved ones in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, which killed an estimated 300,000 people.
A year after the quake, Pierre and a college friend had completed the script for J-12.
To make the film, “I had to rent equipment, so I paid for my first equipment purchase with my sister’s credit card,” Pierre says.
Once it was completed, Pierre submitted the movie to several film festivals. It was nominated for an award as “best short film” at the fourth annual Motion Pictures Association of Haiti awards in Massachusetts this fall.
Haitian filmmaking, even in the diaspora, does not have a long history. Ricardo Widmaier, a German Swiss immigrant and pioneer of cinema, made newsreels in Haiti in the 1950s. But in the 1960s, with the reign of Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc,” filmmaking that expressed any progressive ideas was stifled. Cinemas in Haiti mostly showed Chinese martial arts movies, American westerns and films from France and Italy.
Over the decades, a handful of films were produced that criticized the tyranny of Papa Doc and his son, who succeeded him as Haiti’s leader. Arnold Antonin, Jean-Gardy Bien-Aime, and Raoul Peck were leaders in modern Haitian film. Some of Peck’s work has had success with international audiences, such as his film, “L’homme sur les quais,” which was selected for the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.
But crossing over to an international audience is difficult. “What restricts the audience to the films the most are the language issues,” said Trenton Daniel, who was Haiti correspondent for The Associated Press for several years. “When a film is shot in Creole, it is harder to find people who will translate successfully.”
But there are films that cross over to the Haitian diaspora – often low budget productions that focus on pop culture. “These films are emerging and will continue to be a major part of the Haitian film industry,” said Daniel.
As a diaspora filmmaker, Perri Pierre is more interested in portraying social issues. Another film he made, “Addiction,” chronicles the life of a man battling drugs and alcohol.
Pierre says he has another project in the works but won’t speak about it yet, other than to say that it will feature a well-known black actress from TV.
“I’m also trying to get Karrueche Tran,” he says, naming the model best known for being musician Chris Brown’s girlfriend. “But that’s still in the works.”