UMBC students finish film about Haiti's resilience after earthquake

Brothers from Haiti call documentary a tribute to their grandfather, who taught them to find joy in painful times

December 28, 2010|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

The earthquake robbed Huguens Jean and Clifford Muse of the ability to fulfill a final promise to their grandfather.

Fly to Haiti, he told the brothers as cancer ate away his health, and carry my coffin, garbed in white. The color meant something. The old man wanted them to find joy, even in the sadness that accompanies death.

But the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed 230,000 and leveled Port-au-Prince made it impossible for Jean and Muse, both students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to return for their grandfather's funeral a month after the disaster.

It did not, however, crush their desire to celebrate the man who had imbued in them a love of stories. They resolved to build a kite like the ones he had flown with them when they were boys in Port-au-Prince. That plan quickly expanded to include a trip to Haiti, during which they would film their journey and gather stories of Haitians coping with the aftermath of the earthquake.

The final product, an 82-minute documentary called "Lift Up," had its debut at the Haitian Embassy in Washington this month. Jean and Muse hope that, in its depiction of Haitians rejoicing in the rubble of their former lives, the film evokes the spirit of their grandfather's request.

"He told us that he wanted us to celebrate his life, to find the joy," says Jean, 29 and a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at UMBC. "I had no idea what that meant until we encountered these people in Haiti. These images of life continuing on, they were very moving."

Philip Knowlton, who met Jean when they co-captained the track team at UMBC and co-directed the film, says he'll never forget the smiles on the brothers' faces as they flew the memorial kite for their grandfather at a festival in Washington.

"They didn't fulfill their promise the way they said they would," he says. "But the way the whole journey happened, they made up for it. It was really an amazing experience to be a part of."

The plan came together in true seat-of-the-pants fashion. Less than a month elapsed between Jean's first thoughts of the kite tribute and the brothers' return to their native city. They arrived in March with little idea of where or whom to film and with serious trepidation about whether people would talk at all.

In fact, some Haitians were tired of interlopers who arrived with cameras but none of the food, water or money needed so desperately by the survivors. Many others, however, staggered Jean and Muse with their tales of resilience.

There was the little boy who smiled brilliantly as he flew a kite adorned with messages of love for his mother, who had been killed in the earthquake. There was the woman who said she lived with new purpose after watching a building collapse on a man who had rushed in to save a trapped baby. There was the street festival where hundreds of children danced and sang songs of tribute about those who had perished.

The brothers hope the film will introduce American viewers to another side of Haiti, one that goes beyond the poverty, violence and suffering so often depicted in mass media. Growing up in Port-au-Prince, they saw the dark side of humanity but also reveled in warm households packed with extended family, days spent playing outside with packs of friends and a rich tradition of passing stories from one generation to the next.

A close relationship

The brothers had different fathers and grew up in different households in Port-au-Prince.

Jean's father moved to the United States and worked as a general sales manager at radio station 98 Rock. In search of better education and more job opportunities, Jean joined him in 1996, enrolling at Howard High. He was amazed at the things Americans took for granted — consistently running water, electricity that worked almost all the time. But at the same time, he missed the sense of community he felt in Haiti.

Jean excelled in sports and academics, earning a track scholarship to UMBC, where he majored in electrical engineering.

Muse, four years younger, endured a rockier exit from Haiti. He finished high school in Haiti, where he earned top grades and starred in basketball. But when he began college in the neighboring Dominican Republic, he quickly learned how poorly the world thought of his homeland.

"They treated us like we were crazy and dirty, like some sort of cave people," he says. "If they saw you in clean clothes, they would argue with you that you could not possibly be Haitian."

One day, five men kidnapped Muse, stole his money and clothes and threatened to shoot him, he says, just for being Haitian. They let him go, but after he told the story to his brother, Jean insisted that he leave immediately.

"Letting that continue was not an option," Jean says. "Either he was going to go home or we were going to create an opportunity for him here."

The brothers had sometimes gone years without seeing one another but had always remained close, exchanging letters in which they confided their dreams for the future.

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