Haitian short film makes Sundance Film Festival debut

Over two hundred years ago, Haiti started a revolution that would help their country break away from France and created a style of combat only known to the Pearl of the Antilles . The film Papa Machete explores the form of warfare called machete fencing, a style of fighting that began during Haiti’s quest for freedom. A machete is a large cleaver like knife used for agriculture and is used as a weapon . It is the machete’s use as a weapon that this film explores the secret form of combat with the late Master machete fencer Professor Avril, a Haitian farmer from the city of Jacmel . The short film gives a glimpse into machete fencing, the Haitian country side and the beauty of a strong heritage. We had a short chat with the directors of Papa Machete Jason Fitzroy Jeffers and Keisha Rae Witherspoon about the film and what to expect from them after Sundance.

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Tell us about Papa Machete? How did you learn about Professor Avril?

Jason Fitzroy Jeffers (Writer-Producer of Papa Machete; Founder of Third Horizon): I was making the rounds on the internet one day and I came across a video of two men in Haiti fencing with machetes. Not fighting wildly, mind you, but full-on fencing. In that moment, it felt like the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.

I grew up in Barbados, and for whatever reason I’ve always seen the machete as more than just a garden tool that you find in every household in the region. I somehow conflated it with Excalibur and saw it as a redemptive symbol, a lowly tool that could become a liberating weapon. To find out that it had actually played that role in nothing less than the Haitian Revolution was mind blowing.

When and how did Professor Avril learn his craft?

Jason: As you see in the film, he shared that he learned it from his father and uncles. It seems it’s a fighting method that’s been passed on in relative secrecy through the generations since the revolution. However, the Professor also shared that he believes there were larger forces at play in him learning how to wield the machete.

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We learned of Professor Avril’s recent passing. How will his legacy continue?

Keisha Rae Witherspoon(Writer-Producer of Papa Machete; Founder of Third Horizon) Papa Machete is essentially his testament, so that’s one way, but the Professor’s work will really be preserved by the efforts of the Haitian Machete Fencing Project led by Mike Rogers, one of Avril’s oldest and best students. It’s through their work that Jason found out about this in the first place. Right now they’re figuring out in what fashion they’ll continue, but we’re certain they will. It’s one thing to watch a film and be inspired by this man. It’s another to learn how to wield a machete in the manner Professor Avril taught.

Jason: So much of this depends on the professor’s sons. They’re excellent fencers, but as you see in the film, their minds are often elsewhere. It remains to be seen if they want to become professors themselves. We were able to raise funds through a Kickstarter campaign to built a new house for his family, since the one he was previously in was in really bad shape after the earthquake five years ago. Hopefully, his sons will continue to train new students there.

Based on the cinematography, this is a rich and beautiful film. Tell us about your philosophy on film making?

Kiesha: It’s difficult to say what our philosophy is, this is our first film. We were determined to capture the mystical and rich visual and spiritual textures that course through the veins of the Caribbean. With that in mind, we brought in some trusted allies to execute those visions: Richard Patterson, as cinematographer, who is truly a wizard with the camera, and Jonathan David Kane, who I not only consider a stellar director, but also a stellar human. He has a degree of sensitivity and insight that is hard to come by.

You produced this film through your company Third Horizon. What projects are you preparing to work on after Papa Machete?

Jason: We’re only just beginning to screen the film at festivals, but Papa Machete was actually completed in mid-2014, and we’ve been crazy busy since then. Last year, Third Horizon served as a co-production company on the new short film “Swimming In Your Skin Again” by Terence Nance, the acclaimed director of the film “An Oversimplification of her Beauty”. That was exciting and we’re really proud of that work. We’ve also been writing and developing projects that will be going into production later this year, one of which is the continuation of our work in Haiti.

On top of that, we recently received funding from the Knight Foundation to stage a cutting edge Caribbean film, music and art festival in Miami, so this year we’ll be staging various film screenings and art shows leading up to the main event in 2016.

Your film has been a part of the programming for two prestigious film festivals (TIFF and Sundance). What’s next for the film?

Jason: We’ll be making some announcements shortly after Sundance about which other festivals the film will be going to in the months to come. We’re really honored and excited that people around the world want to see this short film, so we plan to take it wherever it’s welcome.

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If you could sum up your experience with this film in one word, what would it be?

Keisha: Honestly, I can’t. There’s just too much to say about Haiti and everything we’ve experienced in this adventure.

Jason: ‘Alchemical’?That sounds a bit pretentious, but it’s the best way I can think of to describe everything that has happened. This has been such a transformative experience for everyone on both sides of the camera, and we’re all grateful for that.

Papa Machete makes its Sundance premiere on January 23. If you can’t make it, watch the trailer below

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