Men Sa Lanme Di (Ainsi Parla la Mer) (So Spoke the Sea), a short by the wonderful Arnold Antonin, is a meditation on and by Mother Ocean.
The title echoes that of the celebrated noiriste, Jean Price Mars’ ethnographic study, Ainsi Parla l’Oncle (So Spoke the Uncle), which called for a celebration of Ayiti’s Black and Indigenous wisdom embedded in her folkloric tradition. In 1928, at the height of the 19-year American military occupation, Price-Mars did the unthinkable. He proposed that, contrary to the many lies that had been told about the worthlessness of Ayitien people’s cultural practices, the truth was that those traditions held the key to the island nation’s true wealth.
Men Sa Lanme Di draws on that tradition of uncovering Ayiti’s many gifts, not from the perspective of its people, but from Mother Earth, which has sustained them in their ongoing struggle for true liberation.
It was the ocean that brought Christopher Columbus to Ayiti in the 15th century.
It was that same ocean that brought enslaved Africans to the island to be consumed for the benefit of Europe.
It was the land on which their descendants toiled, again for centuries, before, under the shelter of the night sky and deep in the forest, they called upon the natural powers of their collective spiritual traditions to defeat the French, making the nascent Black nation the first in the western hemisphere, even while surrounded on all sides by slaveholding countries!!
In the twentieth century that ocean brought German businessmen to the island and then the Americans who overturned Ayiti’s constitution and for the entire time of the occupation, flew the American flag at the palace.
The land witnessed and supported the armed struggle by valiant men and women, Cacos, to resist that occupation.
Arnold Antonin has directed many films that celebrate Haitian history and culture. I have written about one of my favorites, Les Amours d’un Zombi (2010), a satirical work that reclaims the figure of the zombi, so long wielded against the Ayitien people. Gary Victor, a well-known master of the macabre, who wrote the script for Les Amours, also wrote the script for Men Sa Lanme Di.
(On a side note, when I reached out to Mr. Antonin as I was writing a book which featured Les Amours in one of its chapters, he was extremely gracious, helpful, and supportive of my work.
I met Mr. Victor one night in Port-au-Prince at a fun little place called La Detente. He was also very gracious and patient with me as I gushed about how much I loved his work.)
Men Sa Lanme Di was part of the African Diaspora International Film Festival that ran back in December. I didn’t get to see it on its first run, but caught it when there was an encore screening of some of the festival favorites in January.
I’m glad I did.
The writer and director pack a lot into a mere 49 minutes.
I love that the story of Ayiti is told by Mother Ocean and supplemented by talking heads.
I love that they begin by informing the viewer that all of the scenes that they are about to witness were filmed in Ayiti and if what they see challenges their perception then they need to change their perception!
I love that all the people featured speak Kreyol.
I love that the film draws from a wide swath of the population, calling on visual artists, sevites, politicians, conservationists, entrepreneurs, historians, fishermen, fish sellers, biologists, deep sea divers, among others, to contribute to the collective story of the interconnectedness of humanity and the natural world.
I love that the film begins with Ayiti’s beauty.
I love that it really strives to present a balanced picture of the nation’s strengths as well as her challenges.
Watching the film made me want to jump on a plane, to feel the sun on my skin. To visit with my beloveds, suck sticky sweet mango from the peel, sip a cold Prestige, eat aransaw and spaghetti, because even though they are both imported Haitians know how to combine the two to make something spectacular, or eat okra soup with pounded yam, a dish brought over to the island with enslaved West Africans, and that can still be found in Port-au-Prince, if one knows where to look.
Part of the work of Men Sa Lanme Di is to wake the viewer up to the crisis that Mother Ocean is in. To that end, Antonin and Victor spend a good deal of the film highlighting the pollution that is choking Ayiti’s waters.
It is a horrifying picture.
The collaborators make clear that unless something is done now to reverse the damage there will be nothing left of Her.
And reflecting a Vodou sensibility that ALL of nature is connected, they intimate that without Her there is no us.
It was hard to watch that part of the film. I was reminded of La Saline and Cite Katon, makeshift areas that sprang up when Francois Papa Doc Duvalier imported thousands of people from the countryside to vote for him and then abandoned them in the city in the 1950s. I was also reminded of when I first lived in Ayiti and would buy my lunch from a marchande. To do so I and anyone else who wanted to buy from her had to bring our own container from home. Now, when you buy take away you get it in a styrofoam container and, to add insult to injury, have it wrapped in a flimsy black plastic bag!!
I was also reminded of the farming community in the Arbonite region where I’ve spent time and the waste crisis that they are dealing with as a result of the popularity of energy drinks like Toro, sold in plastic bottles and styrofoam containers and plastic bags that pollute the streams and rivers.
The banana leaves that used to serve as plates are shunned for disposable ones and fingers are shunned for sporks. The spaghetti packages that once held their now staple breakfast ingredients blow in the wind to be eaten and never digested by the goats and cows.
There was one thing I did not agree with Antonin and Victor on: that is in laying the blame for Ayiti’s pollution problems solely at her feet. I remember a few years ago, the then president of Ayiti tried to cease the importation of styrofoam containers from the Dominican Republic, a very profitable business. In retaliation, the DR began expelling Haitian workers…again! How does one stand up to that kind of bullying!?
We also have to remember that the deforestation that is responsible for so much of Ayiti’s top soil washing into the sea did not begin in the past few years. It didn’t begin in the past few centuries. It began with the French who cut down Ayiti’s forest in order to build a plantation economy and introduce livestock.
It began with the metropole’s bottomless hunger for mahogany and other woods which were shipped to France to be made into furniture.
It came with the Christians who teach that the trees that are sacred to sevite such as the Mapou, but which also signal the presence of water, are evil and should be burned and cut down!
With slavery and colonization came the stripping away of the wisdom that had sustained generations of farmers who, by the way, were stolen from their homelands because of their agricultural prowess. Now we want to blame Haitian farmers for trying to eke out a living from soil that has been drained of all of its nutrients?!
While yet again, those who profit from their wanton exploitation of the land and her people get away unscathed!
In the end, Antonin and Victor, channeling Mother Earth, encourage Ayitiens to leve, kanpe.
If only the rest of the world would take its foot off of her neck.
Arnold Antonin is known both inside and outside the country for his social, political and cultural commitment. With more than 60 films to his credit, he directed the first Haitian feature film.
He was honored for his body of work at the Djibril Diop Mambety Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2002. He was awarded three consecutive times the Paul Robeson Prize for the best film from the African Diaspora at the FESPACO in Ouagadougou in 2007, 2009 and 2011, as well as numerous prizes and mentions in various festivals for his documentaries and fiction films. He was president of the Haitian Association of Filmmakers (AHC) from 2005 to 2009.
In 1986, he founded the Pétion-Bolivar Centre, one of whose primary objectives is to encourage the democratization of the audiovisual sector in Haiti. It is also through this organization that Arnold Antonin directs his documentaries and fictions.