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Serenade for Haiti, Directed and Written by Owsley Brown, at the Berkshire International Film Festival, June 3

Students at École de Musique Sainte Trinité, from Owsley Brown's Serenade for Haiti
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Students at École de Musique Sainte Trinité, from Owsley Brown's Serenade for Haiti
Students at École de Musique Sainte Trinité, from Owsley Brown’s Serenade for Haiti

Serenade for Haiti
Directed and written by Owsley Brown
To be shown at the Berkshire International Film Festival:
June 3, 9:15 at the Beacon Cinema, Pittsfield
–––––, 11:15 at the Triplex, Great Barrington

Among the rich offerings of the 2017 Berkshire International Film Festival, one of the most fascinating and important films will be Owsley Brown’s documentary, Serenade for Haiti. The film could be described as an extended visit to the École de Musique Sainte Trinité in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Mr. Brown, who had made other films about music and its role in human society and spirituality, first visited the school in 2006, and was, as he has said, “greatly affected by what [he] found there.”

He continues:

I was struck by the radiant energy, the joy and spirit of the children I met there and greatly impressed by the school itself. It was truly a place where the study of music was taken as seriously as anywhere and the sounds of practice and performance rang through the halls. It was an oasis in the middle of a very complicated and hectic city. I was also exposed for the first time to the rich trove Haitian classical music that was being rehearsed alongside with the familiar sounds of the great European canon. Mozart was being practiced by a string quartet in one room, and in another, you could hear the great Haitian composer Émile Desamour’s chorale works being sung by a youth choir. As a life-long lover of music and now of Haiti, this was a story.

Serenade for Haiti captures all the intensity and depth of Brown’s personal experience, as it developed over several visits, beginning with three annual visits with his cinematographer, Marcel Cabrera, between 2006 and 2009, when the shooting was considered wrapped. Wide-angle shots, which dominate its cinematic discourse, bring the viewer into the streets, squares, and homes of Port-au-Prince as well as Sainte Trinité itself. These also give us a feeling of intimate encounter with the teachers, administrators, and students of the school. They open up for Mr. Brown, readily sharing their wit, intelligence, love for music, solidarity, and strong feeling of family and nationhood. We hear their music-making in all possible forms: learning, practicing, rehearsal, and performance.

Instruments recovered after the 2010 earthquake, from Owsley Brown's Serenade for Haiti
Instruments recovered after the 2010 earthquake, from Owsley Brown’s Serenade for Haiti

However, a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010 and began a whole new chapter in their relationship to the school and Haiti. Six students were among the more than 200,000 fatalities. The school building was almost totally destroyed. Instruments had to be dug out of the rubble. The loss was not only practical. Memories were destroyed as well, reminding us how much memory and history are bound up with physical structures. Everyone associated with the school dedicated themselves to clearing the site and rebuilding the school. A whole new phase of the film, pretty much its second half, shot between 2010 and 2014, is devoted to the commitment and energy of these people.

I have found that the most effective way to learn about a larger subject—an country or an historic period—is to drill down into it through a specific topic, if one roots out an important and telling subject and finds informative sources, which are well-researched and observed. Mr. Brown and Serenade for Haiti meet both of these requirements most impressively, thanks to his deep intellecutal and spiritual rapport with his thoughtful subjects. Our exploration of Sainte Trinité gives us a powerful vantage point on Haitian life, culture, and mentalité.

The school and its culture are fundamentally Christian. Founded by an Episcopal nun, Sister Anne-Marie Bickerstaff, in 1956, it developed from the music program of an Episcopalian general school, founded in 1913. The connection with the Anglican/Episcopalian Church goes back to the early days of Haitian independence, when Henry Christophe, the king of Northern Haiti from 1807 to 1820, strove to separate Haiti as much as possible from its French colonial heritage by promoting the English language and establishing the Episcopal Church as the official religion. The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti was finally established in 1861, and today there are over 83,000 members and 100 congregations all over Haiti. Sainte Trinité’s wise Director, Père David César, at one point tells a story, set by the Haitian composer Werner Jaegerhuber in his song, Nibo, about a Haitian peasant, both a practicer of vodou (“vodouisant praticant“) and and a devout Christian, went to church one day and experienced a violent internal conflict between the African and the European territories of his soul, indeed an internal rebellion. This, for Père David, illustrates the essence of being Haitian. The result? Haitians are rebels. Cut to scenes of violent unrest in the streets, police intervention, and wounded and dead men lying in their blood. Towards the end of the film Bernadette Stella Williams, Executive Manager and Instructor in Cello, stresses what an important part of the school’s educational mission it is for the students—in addition to their knowledge of Mozart, Bizet, and local classical composers—to learn to understand Haiti, to recognize her potential, and to love her. And that is equally important to Owsley Brown.

Mr. Brown, now resident in San Francisco, was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. Serenade for Haiti is his third feature documentary film. His directorial debut, Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles, won the Independent Spirit Award in 2000, the Hamptons International Film Festival 1999 Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature Film, and was a selection of the Berlin International Film Festival in 2000. His second film, Music Makes A City, tells the remarkable story of the Louisville Orchestra and its renowned program of commissions from American composers in the 1950’s and was awarded The Gramophone Award for Best DVD Documentary in 2012. Iw was premiered in the U.S. in January, 2014 on PBS.

Serenade for Haiti Trailer from Music Makes a City on Vimeo.

I can’t sufficiently praise Marcel Cabrera’s cinematography, which is respendlent, elegant, and disciplined, with constant attention to steady support, sharp focus, and correctly balanced colors. The quality of the sound, recorded by Richard Fleming and designed by Richard Beggs, is exceptional, always giving us clear, distortion-free rendering of the music and a convincing sense of acoustic space, which was carefully coordinated with the visual component.

Serenade for Haiti, entirely free of the clichés which inevitably roll in like fog after a natural tragedy, is one of the most moving and inspiring films I have seen in any genre. Mr. Brown has no need to go into the ugly business related to UN and American aid, although he makes their presence clear in brief scenes showing UN vehicles and an American propaganda banner over a wretched jerry-built shanty. His story is about music and the people who create it; and music, whether it is European classical music or music in the Haitian popular or classical tradition, begins with a process of training which is never casual or brief. In the case of Sainte Trinité, the work goes well beyond mere training and becomes a true education in the ancient Greek and medieval university tradition, as Mme. Williams indicated. Serenade for Haiti gives a moving and detailed account of just how music functions as a process of education—something lacking in even the best American conservatories, as the founders of the Bard Conservatory understand in their attempt to correct it. Living, as we do, in a state which is hostile to education and the arts, this film, in its depiction of the effort and dedication spent on musical education in a poor coiuntry, serves as a welcome reminder of its vital importance to humanity.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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