This is the full, unedited transcript of an interview City Arts conducted with Jonathan Demme for this week's segment, "Haitian Art." Some of this interview can be seen in the program.
THE UNCUT JONATHAN DEMME INTERVIEW
Jonathan Demme is best known for his work as a feature film director, with credits, including: Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), Fighting Mad (1977), Citizens Band (1977), Last Embrace (1979), Melvin and Howard (1980), Who Am I This Time? (1982), Swing Shift (1984), Stop Making Sense (1984), Something Wild (1986), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), Married to the Mob (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Cousin Bobby (1992), Philadelphia (1993), The Complex Sessions (1995), Mandela (1996), and Subway Stories (1997). He is currently directing Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.
Mr. Demme's appreciation for Haitian artwork began when he walked into Haitian Corner, an art gallery on the West Side of Manhattan. That first encounter sparked a passion that has continued into his life and work as a filmmaker. In 1987, he made his first pilgrimage to Haiti, returning shortly to shoot a documentary entitled Haiti: Dreams of Democracy. After that, Mr. Demme went on to produce several documentaries about Haiti's difficult political situation.
Mr. Demme is the owner of one of the largest collections of Haitian art in the United States. In 1987, his collection was part of an exhibition entitled "Island On Fire: Passionate Visions of Haiti From the Collection of Jonathan Demme," which consisted of over 100 paintings by Haitian artists. City Arts interviewed him this fall for our segment, "Haitian Art".
CITY ARTS: When did you first go to Haiti?
JONATHAN DEMME: I first went to Haiti around Christmas time, 1986. I went down to look for Haitian Art. I had been interested in "folk art," whatever you call it, for a long time, and had seen some Haitian Art and really liked it so much that I wanted to travel down to the source.
What were your impressions as you got off the plane, in that first hour you
hit Haiti? Can you take a second and just recall what that was like?
It's interesting, because my interest in the painting is what led me to the country, but within moments of getting to the country and getting into the car and starting to drive by, the reality of the country and the people - the art kind of took a back seat and I was instantly as riveted by the place as I had been by the paintings.
Tell me about the people of Haiti. What was your impression? When
I went there, I was just blown away by these people. They opened up
a new world of understanding for me.
The thing that moved me the most about my first trip to Haiti was the fact that here was a country which had been under dictatorship under the most horrendous conditions, for three decades under the Duvaliers, and through various dictators and military regimes before that. And now in the late '80s, [they] were having their first hope - their first actual opportunity for the possibility of democracy. The passion the people had - the collective passion was so moving to me. To see this extraordinary faith, belief striving for democracy, it moved me so much, I went back four weeks later to try to capture that spirit somehow - to memorialize and pay homage to this amazing effort that the people were going through. They are still going through this. There has been a democratically elected president since then - in fact, two - but the struggle continues for an authentic working democracy.
You say the struggle continues. In some degree, I think there is a universal
theme in [Haitian] painting. The struggle comes through no matter what [the
painting] is dealing with. Do you have any thoughts on that?
For me, one of the singular things about Haiti - one of the inarguably amazing things about Haiti, and what sets it apart from most other countries, is that they have this unique history of having been the first nation of slaves to overthrow their colonial masters and to take hold of their country for themselves. As magnificent as that is, and it is magnificent, it also cursed Haiti to a certain extent because, in overthrowing the European masters at that point, they made Haiti a pariah country which was cut off from any kind of intercourse with the outside world for a long time. [This] made Haiti, right from the start, struggle not just because they were starting from scratch as freed people, creating their own country, but because they were operating as an outcast nation. And Haiti, the Haitian people, have struggled to achieve a fair place for [themselves] ever since then, and that's from 1804 right up to, we're on the verge of 2004 now. The outside world has always wanted to own Haiti, and that continues to this day. The Duvaliers have left, but in a way they have been replaced, as far as I can tell, by the international community - the World Bank now wants to own Haiti in the way that Duvalier did. Haiti continues to try to unite with extraordinary turmoil down there now, and it all has to do with selling the country. It is one of the last countries to sell themselves. And the outside world has told them, "If you want to survive, you're going to have to sell yourselves to us."
Can you talk about your favorite Haitian artists?
Toussaint Auguste is one of my very, very favorites. (I have lots of favorite Haitian artists.) He is way up high on the list. He is especially special because he was one of the very first painters, one of the original members of the Centre d'Arte, which he joined, I'm sure, in the late '40s, if not the very, very early '50s, and his work is just singularly appealing, and deep, and wonderful, and magical. One of the things that I think is so interesting about him is that, even though he moved to America many years ago, his work, his style, has remained utterly the same. You see one of his paintings of a market street in Brooklyn and you go, "What a beautiful Haitian scene." Then you get up close to see the details and, in fact, here we are in Brooklyn, New York. Christian Michel is very interesting to me because I know he did a certain amount of work in Haiti, but I get the sense that the body of his work he's created has been done actually here in America. And he works on American subjects, but I think he still works strongly with Haitian and universal subject matter. And I love the way that he has maintained his style and continues to draw so deeply on his Haitian experiential, cultural, mystical roots, while being just, let's face it, a deeply entrenched American citizen at this stage of the game. I love his work very, very much.
How does the duality of being very strongly rooted in the Haitian
world and having a strong New York identity excite you?
You know, it's funny, because I live in a community that has a very strong Haitian-American presence. I speak a little bit of Creole and I love to speak Creole, and my kids have Haitian-American friends and I'll parade a little bit of my Creole and they look at me like I'm insane. I guess every wave of immigrants - I've thought about this - the new generation never wants to promote the heritage of the old country, not at first. You know, it's like, "That was then, this is now. We are Americans, I don't want Creole, I'm not interested in that." It bothered me at first, this idea that, "My God, you're from one of the most amazing countries with a heritage unparalleled. Own it, claim it, wallow in it. You should be so proud of it." It's not that they are not proud of it. It's just they just want to be Americans now and my hope is that - I have already seen this with some teenagers - that they do become interested in their country and they do start later on, they kind of like open up to it. It is a fascinating dynamic.
I'd like you to talk a bit more just about your own feelings, your
interaction with Haiti. I went out to Brooklyn and filmed neighborhoods
and people at markets and just the whole idea of this diaspora of
politically oppressed people getting out and moving and settling in
the New York area. It was very powerful.
I love the art because it speaks to me and it moves me and it makes me think. I get inspired by it. But on another level, what excites me about Haitian art is, it's so clearly the product of such a rich culture and such an important people. And every time I see that there is an exhibition of Haitian art, without even seeing the actual pieces, which I may not respond to as a viewer, I'm just so glad and so encouraged that there is Haitian art on display, that there's evidence of this great people. In a tiny way, this goes to fight all the unbelievably negative information that has formed such bad ideas about Haiti in the minds of most Americans. We learn nothing about Haiti in our public schools. What we learn about Haiti in trashy Hollywood movies is that it's a country filled with all kinds of supernatural spooky phenomena and what have you that's attributed to the voodoo religion, which, in fact, is a great religion that has a lot in common with many of the Native American religions. [The Haitian religion] has much to be admired, and I think [it] is a very deep kind of religion which actually speaks to me personally. But we've been force fed all these terrible ideas about voodoo and about Haiti, and then when AIDS made the scene, when we started becoming aware of the growing AIDS epidemic in America, Haiti was identified erroneously as one of the main contributors to the spread of the AIDS epidemic. And that was Page One, and then a year later when this was disclaimed, when it was proved that Haiti isn't causing the spread of AIDS in America, that was on Page 40, little tiny article in the back. And the Haitian people in America were burdened by all these lies, is what you have to call them, about their country. And the positive information hasn't been coming. So Haitian art has a very important role to play if there is ever going to be true acknowledgment in this country of how great the Haitian people and the Haitian culture is.
How would you turn someone on to Haitian art?
Well, one of the things that was encouraging and had a lot of possibilities, to me, was when President Clinton sent 20,000 Americans down to help President Aristide. I thought, "Great, 20,000 Americans will now go down and see Haiti first-hand and get the bug and fall in love with the people and the culture the way I have, and this could usher in a whole new era in American/Haitian relationships." I had visions of all these soldiers taking their parents, their girlfriends or boyfriends back to Haiti to share what they had learned down there. That hasn't happened, as far as I can tell. My other fantasy is that everybody has to go to Haiti, because if you were made to go to Haiti for three days, I'm confident that half the people, anyway, probably more, would get the bug and become interested in Haitian art that way. See the country first, then you're stuck with the art. I took a slightly strange direction, more being interested in the art first and then falling in love with the country.
How about Haitian music? Are you into music at all from Haiti?
Yeah, very much. I love Haitian music. Every time I go down there, I take a little tape recorder and plug into the radio stations and just record, record, and then I come back and listen to the stuff and make "best of" tapes. I love Haitian music. There's so many different wonderful idioms of it. There's the new kind of Haitian music that has a lot of King Posse and even stuff that the Fugees do up here - very modern, cutting edge, up to the minute. And there's also just the greatest dance music in the world, the Compas Direct, and then there's also the fantastic Raseem Roots music, all kinds of stuff going on. In fact, the soundtrack of Beloved, the movie we're doing now, we're working with a number of Haitian musicians, working on indigenous Haitian instruments, as part of our soundtrack.