A Richard Senecal film to most movie fans means a work of quality, marked with professionalism, and an especially good story. Senecal, who begun his career as a television commercial helmer, and as the name behind a great many Haitian music videos in the early and mid-1990s, has the visual arts in his blood, having had a grandfather who was one of Haiti’s first professional photographers.
After serving as the Director of Photography for a couple of film projects, including Reginald Lubin’s film La Peur D’Aimer, Senecal sought to venture out on his own. The project: 2002’s Barikad, a simple story on the surface—that of a young girl sent to work miles from her home in the household of a wealthy family in Port-au-Prince—opened up new possibilities for Haitian cinema. The film, produced by Sénécal’s Imagine Haiti film company, launched the careers of so many young Haitian actors and actresses, many of whom who have sustained their popularity nearly a decade after the film’s release.
The film’s cinematography and apt use of a musical score, in addition to its easily relatable plot of class inequity touched the inner nerves of film audiences. Some cited the film along with a plethora of other Haitian movies that were released around that time, and following Barikad, as a sort of renaissance for Haitian films. The comedy I Love You Anne, Senecal’s next film, was cited as the biggest Haitian film blockbuster, as it seemed to be a hit that took not merely Haiti by storm, but swept the entire movie-buying Haitian diaspora off its feet. The movie’s lines became catch phrases, and catapulted comedian Daniel “Tonton Bicha” Fils-Aimé and singer-turned actor Joe Zenny Jr, in a new category of stardom.
With Cousines, the storyline was much more serious, and this time around Senecal recruited Geneus, the teenage actress now 20-something who had made her screen debut in Barikad, and Hollywood heavyweight Jimmy Jean-Louis came on board, along with the late veteran actor Roland Dorfeuille and fresh faces like Jerry Lentz Rocher and Elizabeth Soledad Jean (all delivering widely-praised performances). The film got a glowing review from Variety, and was screened at the Montreal World Film Festival, the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival and received awards at the Brooklyn International Film Festival.
Since Cousines, Senecal has shot the yet-to-be-released I Love You Anne sequel, and has done several documentaries, but is predictably revisiting the fictional form soon.
You helped start the trend of working with virtually unknowns in the Haitian film industry. We would appreciate it if you would comment on this. The advantage and the disadvantage? Or any other thoughts.
I don’t know if I started a trend. Truth is, at the time I entered that market—around 2001—the only known actors were the ones playing kind of “cliché” characters. I can remember Raynald Delerme, Jean-Gardy Bien-Aimé or Jesifra. They were not people that I would use for an ordinary drama such as Barikad —the first movie I directed. They were not “neutral” enough—or if you prefer—they were too strongly identified to the characters they used to play. Furthermore, most of them were also the directors of their own movies and it remains to be seen if they actually can be directed by somebody else. So I ended up having no choice but to make auditions. From that emerged actors such as Fabienne Colas—who was actually my second-choice for the role—Gessica Généus—16 years old at the time—Handy Tibert and Haendel Dorfeuille. I find it more interesting to work with newcomers. It’s very easy to teach a motivated person. It’s much harder to manage a person who already learned the wrong way.
What actors would you jump at the chance to work with?
There are two manners I select an actor. First, I can select the person that I think will fit the role best. This can only be done through auditions or by selecting someone I worked with in the past and who I’m confident can play the character. The other option is to write the entire script knowing well before who’s gonna play the character. This was the case of Cousines. I wrote it knowing well in advance that Gessica Généus would play the main character. Therefore I cannot say that I would jump on an actor. This is I think more a producer than a director’s way of thinking. And although I do both at times I think I have more a director’s mind.
What elements make a great movie?
There is no formula for a great movie, or for good art in general. It is all about perception and when you think about perception you see a donor—the movie maker—and a receiver, the audience. In between, there is the medium, the film. The perception of a movie being great depends of all parameters. And the movie maker is only one third of the equation. I never try to do a great movie. I just try to say something. And I think the more you go deep into your saying, the more sincere you are, the more you have a chance to capture the audience.
What advice would you give a first-time director?
I would say, “Do short films first”. There is this unfortunate tendency in our market that any aspiring or “to-be” director wants to make a feature-length film. This is total nonsense. It’s like you want to read a book without even learning your alphabet. A good recipe for disaster. And it’s probably a major cause of the current disaster in the so-called Haitian filmmaking industry—although I don’t like the expression.
In addition to directing Cousines, you also wrote the script. What inspired it?
So far all my scripts have been inspired by personal observations and experiences. Cousines is not very different. I don’t understand the reflection behind movies such as VIP or La Rebelle within our reality. We are a country so rich with original stories that I really don’t see the need to borrow a vision which is far from being ours. It’s a kind of Bovarism that in my sense leads to a waste of resources in an already under-funded industry.
What will it take for the Haitian movie industry to get back on its feet?
Be professional and be original. We must clean the house. There have been too many bad movies the last few years. We must stop awarding fake prizes to fake directors making fake movies. No wonder that the industry is now so fake! People must understand that moviemaking is a profession and an art. So if you’re here to show-off, you should not be awarded for it. Because this poison is killing the industry. Of course there are also technical and distribution problems. There is an obvious lack of funding. But to any technical problem there’s always a technical answer. Creativity is the key. Creativity in the moviemaking process and creativity in the distribution process. There is a lot of attention on Haiti internationally. This is something we must learn to capitalize on.
In addition to helming your own projects, you have also directed projects for the firm Communication Plus. What’s the difference between when you’re overseeing your own project and being commissioned to do a project? Do you feel restrained when you are directing projects not your own?
It is a paradox that my most successful work—I Love you Anne—was one I was commissioned to do. I can do it, I did it a couple of times but in those situations I prefer not to be the artistic director. I think any good director likes his freedom. A film should be the expression of a personal inspiration. Not the expression of a committee or a board’s inspiration—or lack-of. But when you’re spending other people’s money they want to be sure that you’re going the right direction so that they get their investment back and more. So at the end, it’s all about compromise. But the result leads to very different types of movie I think.
Why do you think I Love You Anne is so popular?
In a sense, I Love you Anne made Bicha…But Bicha made I Love you Anne. I think the character goes deep to resonate some cultural harmonies that we might have thought were lost in our evolution from a “lakou-centered” [family-centered] to an urban society. It is the quintessence of Haitian movie, probably lacking the universality of an international-targeted one. But in the context of Haitian audience it works 2000%.
What do you feel distinguishes you from other directors?
I don’t like the comparison game and I won’t play it. I feel distinguished enough by the movies I made. You can give the same script to two different directors and you will probably end up with very different movies. It is up to critics to characterize and categorize.
Most people know you as a feature film movie director, yet you have dozens of documentaries and short films under your belt. Can you please discuss these documentaries and shorts?
The bulk of my work is actually commercial work, mostly TV commercials and corporate documentaries. It is only recently that I started taking a full leave from commercial work to do my own projects. These have included so far fiction films but also documentaries and short films. I have found the web to be an excellent medium to reach an audience. And the web is better suited for short-length products. And I find myself doing more and more of these films.
Movie-wise, what should we expect from you in the near future? What are you working on, etc.
I have many ongoing projects. None of them is feature length feature film project I’m afraid. I’m currently finishing a documentary about Haitian students in the Dominican Republic. This has taken so far two years of my life and we still have a few more months to go. As I mentioned earlier all my spare time goes to the production of shorter fiction films or documentaries. I may consider starting the production of a “real” movie by mid-2012.
Do you think that the earthquake that Haiti experienced in 2010 will change the themes of Haitian movies to come?
The earthquake did change our lives and our perception of this world. This will certainly change our way of making films. This does not mean that all movies will be related to the earthquake event. Myself, I am more aware now than I was before of the triviality of life. So I’m willing to take more risks, to go beyond my own previous self. The only time you can manage is the present. the past is already gone and the future is yet to come. So put all your energy where you can influence. Yesterday is over and there might be no tomorrow.
Haitian movie fans have cited you as one of the best movie directors. Your thoughts on this.
We are still at an embryonic state of moviemaking. So being one of the best is not such an accomplishment. Not that I’m not proud to be an inspiration to many young directors. But I wish strongly that the best is yet to come. I wish there is more true challenge in the future because there is no progress without some kind of fair competition.
You’ve worked with a vast array of Haitian talent: Sandra Lobir, Reginald Lubin, Gessica Geneus, Handy Tibert, Nice Simon, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Roland Dorfeuille, Joe Zenny Jr, Blondedy Ferdinand, Fabienne Colas. Can you please share your thoughts on them as people, and on their abilities as performers?
Again I do not play the comparison game. This would be disrespectful to these people who, when I work with them put all their heart and body in the process. There is no such thing as a bad actor. But there are too many bad directors.
It’s been a minute since your first full-length feature film Barikad, and obviously you have grown a lot artistically since then. If you were to do this movie now, what would you do differently?
I never look back and say I would have done better or worst. By essence, a movie is prisoner of its time. Nothing can change that. Redo it today and it will be different. Not necessarily better. What you see as immaturity might have brought to the movie a touch of spontaneity and sincerity that more experience could have totally ruined. Thousands of people have enjoyed it the way it is and dozens still enjoy it every day. Nothing is perfect and sometimes this desirable sense of imperfectness is very hard to implement in highly finished work.