Monsieur le Président: Documentary on Haiti at film festival

Filmmaker Victoria Campbell with one of the Haitian subjects of her film. — Photo courtesy of Victoria Campb

Executed in what has become her signature, unburnished style, Victoria Campbell’s first documentary, “House of Bones,” showcased both the filmmaker and her relatives in a crucible of melancholy, nostalgia, and helplessness against the countdown to the sale of her family’s beloved West Chop home. Though nearly as personal and emotive a piece of filmmaking as “House of Bones,” her latest film, “Monsieur le Président,” delves into entirely different, yet no less human matters within an Island culture far removed from the one that set her career in motion. Those attending the Saturday morning showing at the M.V. Film Festival may find “Monsieur le Président” the most innovative, if not interactive, offering at the festival. After watching the film, not only will the audience have the opportunity to engage the filmmaker herself, but owing to Ms Campbell’s respect for Islanders’ creative sensibilities, the audience will be given a chance to help shape the motion picture’s final cut through a post-screening feedback session.

“I would love to hear what makes sense and what does not,” said Ms. Campbell, “what is confusing or off-putting. I am curious how the audience will process it overall. The Vineyard has been the best community for me and my voice as a filmmaker. It’s where I first showed “House of Bones.” I was so nervous that people would hate it, but it was really received well. Vineyarders saw it lovingly, which meant so much to me. That gave me enormous confidence to continue filmmaking, which I am so grateful for.”

Crafted from footage taken on nearly a dozen trips to Haiti amidst the aftermath of 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Port au Prince in 2010, “Monsieur le Président,” begins with Ms. Campbell’s immersion into the reeling neighborhoods of that city, and transitions to her participation in the effort to keep the citizenry alive in what had become largely a Stone Age environment. It was during that participation, volunteering at a swamped clinic, that she encountered someone so intriguing, she was compelled to film him. Soon enough, the man she had begun to film, a charismatic priest named Gaston, had become the spine of an artistic exploration into charity, desperation, superstition, and moral ambiguity. Interlacing that exploration was voodoo: the religion which Gaston practiced and Ms. Campbell felt an intense personal curiosity toward.

“Yes, the whole film is personal. That is how I make films,” said Ms. Campbell. “I am always wary of the term ‘documentarian.’ It seems cold, distant, or apart from the story. I make films that I want to be part of, with characters I want to know, and usually characters I come to love and get close with. So the whole thing is personal to me.”

“I was always fascinated by Maya Deren who went to Haiti and shot Voodoo footage in the 1950s, in black and white. I thought it was amazing and she was amazing. I admired her deeply. My film is about a friendship I developed with Gaston, who I watched do tremendous good for his neighborhood and then turn around and steal a good amount of the money and really treat his people poorly. Then he fled to Canada. [In the film] I start out naive, but by the end I get Haiti and the impossibility of the place and how survival is most important and who wouldn’t steal money? The line is grey, not black and white.”

In viewing “Monsieur le Président,” Ms. Campbell hopes Islanders feel as though they’ve inhabited a genuine Haiti. “I hope Vineyarders feel part of another place for a brief hour and ten minutes, that they come with me on the journey and see this amazing country through a new lens, one different than how the media often portrays or tells the story of Haiti. And that they really get to know Gaston and feel a range of emotion about him. That is what I hope, that they feel immersed in this world I have been part of.”

Monsieur le Président screens Saturday, March 15, at 10 at the Chilmark School. Tickets are a matinee price of $5 for members, or $10 general admission. For tickets and information, visit