Amid Climate Change and Rapid Gentrification, a Caribbean Film Festival Centers Notions of Home

During Third Horizon Film Festival, Rara Lakay led festival-goers through Little Haiti. (all images courtesy of Third Horizon Film Festival, unless otherwise stated)

MIAMI — On a recent Saturday night in Little Haiti, a group of musicians, dancers, and onlookers paraded their way down Northeast Second Avenue, the main drag of the neighborhood, which for decades has been home to a vibrant community of Haitian and other Caribbean-descended folks. The crowd swayed and danced to the rhythmic sounds of bright red and white vaksen (cylindrical trumpets, typically made of bamboo) and percussion, enjoying a performance-cum-parade by local band Rara Lakay, which performs in traditional Haitian rara style every third Friday of the month at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex. Joyous and exuberant, this performance was a little different than usual, organized as part of the Third Horizon Film Festival, a small but mighty annual showcase of “urgent new cinema from the Caribbean, its diaspora and beyond,” now in its fourth edition.

As the festival’s associate director Monica Sorelle noted to Hyperallergic, “Rara, and Rara Lakay in particular, are an essential part of Little Haiti, and it felt important to finally fold them into the festival and further assert their presence, especially as we’re witnessing the concurrence of their displacement with the residents and businesses from the neighborhood.”

From Second Generation (2019), dir. Miryam Charles

For Sorelle, who grew up in Miami and is a filmmaker in her own right, collaborating with Rara Lakay emerged from a place of consciousness about what it meant for the festival to move from its former home of O Cinema in Miami’s Wynwood district to Little Haiti, a rapidly gentrifying community in Northeast Miami, to which she and many other members of the festival’s team have a close relationship. That Little Haiti sits on some of the highest ground in a city besieged by rising sea levels is no coincidence when it comes to the rate at which developers have been snapping up property there. In 2017 alone, rents jumped by more than 50%.

It makes sense, then, that with these concerns in mind, this iteration of the festival embraced a specific, regionally informed theme: “No Place Like Home.” Featuring 40 short and feature-length Caribbean-focused films, this year’s program kicked off with a poignant trio of works by Haitian-Canadian filmmaker Esery Mondesir, whose melodic portrait What Happens to a Dream Deferred (2019) offered a moving meditation on the plight of Haitian migrants. Their hopes of finding a better life in the US are stalled in Tijuana, due to the policies of a president who has openly referred to their native country, along with other nonwhite nations, as “shithole countries.”

From De Lo Mio (2019), dir. Diana Peralta

While occasionally uneven, the program included numerous other highlights, such as a screening of Diana Peralta’s De Lo Mio (a touching family drama about two Dominican sisters who return to the island to clean out their late grandmother’s home), a mesmerizing mini-retrospective of shorts by Haitian-Canadian director Miryam Charles, and an incisive exhibition of the work of acclaimed visual artist Sandra Brewster, curated by Christopher Cozier. Bigger-budget productions included Garrett Bradley’s award-winning America, Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy, which reimagines Peter Pan in the islands of Antigua and Montserrat, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child.

While the festival has always included a smaller selection of films by non-Caribbean filmmakers, the programmers are careful about which voices they highlight. Jonathan Ali, a London-based Trinidadian programmer who serves as programming director, affirms the need to be rigorous when analyzing the gaze each film casts on the region, whether the filmmaker is from there, its diaspora, or elsewhere: “the question of trauma porn, poverty porn, violence porn … that voyeuristic lens … it’s not restricted to only outsider filmmakers. We routinely turn down films by Caribbean filmmakers because we feel like these films are recycling tropes picked up from Hollywood in telling Caribbean stories. So it’s not a binary that Caribbean filmmakers are authentic by their identity … It’s an ongoing conversation.”

From What Happens to a Dream Deferred (2019), dir. Esery Mondesir

Yet the decision to open the first Little Haiti edition of the festival with films from and about the Haitian community is particularly notable. (The festival also did this for its first edition in 2016.) While this programming choice evolved more organically than ideologically, it quickly became an important way of merging their programming and political ethos. “Opening with Esery’s films is us putting our money where our mouth is, in terms of who we want to support as filmmakers through this festival, and who we think this festival is for,” remarked Romola Lucas, managing director of the festival and co-founder of the New-York-based Caribbean Film Academy, which since the festival’s genesis has partnered with Third Horizon Media, the creative collective initially composed of award-winning filmmakers Keisha Rae Witherspoon, Jason Fitzroy Jeffers, and Robert Sawyer. (That Lucas, a Guyana-born programmer, also works as a lawyer and professor speaks to the myriad ways she and fellow staff toil in the hopes of one day making the festival sustainable.)

From left: Keisha Rae Witherspoon, Robert Colom, Romola Lucas, and Alysia S. Christiani prepare to lead festival-goers through Little Haiti for the Rara parade (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Founded in 2014, after Third Horizon was named a winner of the Knight Arts Challenge, the festival was born out of collaboration and lots of conversations about what the founders weren’t seeing elsewhere. As Jeffers, a Barbados-born journalist who co-founded the festival and serves as its director, explains, “… you get to festivals and you don’t see other Caribbean filmmakers and you wonder: Is it that there are [good films] not passing the filter of other programmers who aren’t interested in this region? Or on the other hand, if there isn’t enough strong work, why is that? Is it that there [aren’t] enough spaces to bring these people together?” Together with Lucas, Witherspoon, and Ali, Jeffers worked to turn an idea formed out of frustration into a dynamic community devoted to highlighting cinema from and about the region he calls home.

In an era in which Brexit looms and the Trump administration has cracked down on immigration, declaring  a controversial end to life-saving asylum programs, this year’s thematic emphasis on ideas of home is fitting. “It felt like if you were going to do a film festival in the middle of Little Haiti, you couldn’t not address what was happening here,” commented Jeffers, invoking the rising rate of deportation and displacement among longtime community members. An equally pressing topic of conversation — evinced in films like Michael Lees’s Uncivilized  included climate change, which has brought increasingly deadly hurricanes to Miami and the wider Caribbean.

Jonathan Ali moderates a Q&A with Eleni Chung, Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, Krystal Tingle, and Yves Deshommes

The festival team is acutely aware of that need to bring disparate audiences together, especially in a city like Miami, which associate director Robert Colom describes as “segregated by color and by nationality.” A Cuban filmmaker and designer who grew up in the city, Colom describes his interest in getting involved as a way of connecting with a “regional identity” that embraces the full spectrum of Caribbean experiences, as reflected by the diverse backgrounds of the festival’s own team and its featured filmmakers.

Equally conscious of the ramifications of the festival’s move to Little Haiti — a community which galleries and other arts organizations have been encroaching on for quite some time — the festival team thought carefully about how to mitigate the displacement that tends to follow artists. Among the strategies they employed were hiring numerous neighborhood vendors, working with community partners to distribute free screening vouchers to longtime residents, and publicizing the program via local AM radio station WSRF, the first and only Haitian-owned station in the US.

Jason Fitzroy Jeffers, Romola Lucas, and Jonathan Ali at Third Horizon Film Festival

While it seems the festival is still gaining steam in its new home, community stakeholders have shown clear excitement about having them there. “I love when different cultures can come together and pull off anything, and they’re doing an excellent job as young individuals,” commented Deirdre Bowman, events agent for the Little Haiti Cultural Center. “We enjoy them being here, so we have no problem at all having them to come back.”

The fourth edition of the Third Horizon Film Festival took place February 6–9 at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex (212 NE 59th Terrace, Miami, FL).

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