For some, his movie Pluie D’Espoir is by far, one of the best movies to have come out of Haiti, but director-screenwriter-producer Jacques Roc continues to pound the pavement, looking for new ways to depict Haiti on the screen, albeit in a positive manner. Roc was recently an honoree at the Motion Picture Association of Haiti’s first edition of the Haitian Movie Awards in Boston for being a model of excellence in his field.
Many know about his movie, which was screened at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival some years back—and more recently at the Dominican Republic Global Film Festival—but very few know the man behind the camera, or that he was a musician first and foremost, the way Jean-Léopold Dominique was an agronomist before he became a journalist. Currently in Haiti, juggling different projects, including his sitcom series and his screenplays, Mr. Roc was kind enough to respond to our request for an interview.
Now you started out as a commercial director.
I was a music director for Roy Eaton Music, writing and producing jingles. Was fascinated by the cinema industry since I was eleven years old. Had my first dark room at the age of twelve and developed black and white pictures for all my friends at school. I also did my first Super 8 movie when I was fourteen. It was probably what started the motion. Then of course, music took over and I became this guitar player in a band named Les As Noirs. Later on in New York, I was teaching Dadou Pasquet [a famed musician in the legendary Haitian band Magnum Band] how to play great guitar. He certainly did very well. As a music director in New York, I had the opportunity to create great track for the commercials being shot by professionals. I went to NYU and started my film career.
Do you have a background in theater?
Yes. Somewhat. Studied Berthol Bretch and Samuel Becket. Enjoyed his “Waiting for Godot”. And worked some time ago with the Troupe Quidor…Syto Cavé [Alan Cavé’s theatre veteran dad] and Hervé Denis [late pioneer in Haitian theater]. Wrote a couple plays, but it didn’t go further than that.
Nearly all the actors in your film were first-timers. How did you manage to get such great performances out of them?
Working in Haiti taught me a lot about the Haitian inner talent. They only need a good director. I have found out that it was much easier if they didn’t have previous acting [experience]. Love to make actors out of them. But I did find some good ones, like Lionel Benjamin and Claudine Oriol. Sandra Rabrun did a radio spot with me and showed that she could act.
The international media has reported that you were involved in directing a series based on the lives of the 2010 earthquake survivors.
After the earthquake, having missed death four times, I thought my place was in Haiti to bring relief in some form to the displaced people in the camps. Therefore, we started doing free outdoor projections in the camps. Later on came the idea, with the support of MINUSTAH [an international peace-keeping task force stationed in Haiti], to create a sitcom of a family living in the tent city, as a vehicle to disseminate public information and civic educative films. We went along and produced 20 public service announcements, one on domestic violence, drugs, illegal use of guns, kidnapping etc. We had played that one [the one for domestic violence] for mother’s day as a gift to all women who do not deserve to be violated.
Now as someone who is accustomed to directing splashy commercials and music videos, why did you choose to have such a simple story as the subject for your first feature film?
The simple story as you call it…is quite the fundamentals of our culture. I was always very impressed by the quality of life in the countryside and the moral of the peasants. I had many friends in Chalon when I was gowning up in Miragoane during the summer months. Writing the story was a tribute to their type of moral values and great mentality. Their kindness at all times and their coffee making and offering: “Vwazen wa-p pran ti kafe a?” It was always with a smile!
Everyone is excited about your next project. Or should we say projects. Can you tell us about them?
The very first thing I want to say to you regarding the next projects is the following: Not until everyone has seen the final version of Pluie d’Espoir will our other projects start. The scripts are written and as I said the productions will start after the release of the final version of Pluie d’Espoir. Next year for sure. We have many projects: Children Without a God. Prisoner of Ti Goave and Emilia. You will be hearing about them soon. We also are doing other project to help educate the Haitian population by creating and producing our own TV show for our giant 12 x16 foot screens via our broadcast division Telemobil. It’s called Lekomobil. We will be using this show to teach kids Alphabet like “Sesame Street” did.
Tell us about Jacques Roc the man.
I grew up in Carrefour Feuilles and spent my summer vacations in the little town of three major streets of Miragoane. I admire perfection and jazz music and true love. I love too deeply and get hurt too often. [So] I became passionate about perfection and my work.
My first mentor was Lionel Derenoncourt, nicknamed Nono, who taught me photography when I was twelve. [I want] to leave a legacy of better communicative tools to all the children of Haiti. Teach as many as we can how to read and be heard.
What kind of childhood did Jacques Roc have?
A somewhat terrible childhood—until I discovered music. How to play the guitar. It became my soul mate. My Dad disappeared when I was six, under the regime of the Duvaliers. My mom had a hard time raising six children. But being in a musical band saved my life.
What do you hope to accomplish through your movies?
Send as much messages as I can, when I can have an audience looking and listening; well, if you don’t do that, you waste all your effort. Our role as filmmakers is to create hope and through fantasy we can accomplish that and much more. Hope drives the mind to become stronger and to not only survive but to struggle to the end of the tunnel. Pluie d’Espoir was meant to show the millions of Haitian youngsters that all they needed was hope and confidence to make it in this tough world.
You worked with these actors in Pluie d’Espoir. What are your thoughts on their performances and their futures?
Junior Metellus turned out to be an excellent actor with versatility and brought my ideas to life. Working with him was challenging but worth it. He also had to get into the characters at random since the scenes were shot in that manner. Sandra Rabrun I knew she had talent and would be pleasant to work with since she had already done a radio spot for me for the NY City Department of Health. Lionel Benjamin was the first known Haitian actor I worked with in a couple of TV commercials I had shot in Haiti for Nissan. I though he was very talented as an actor.
Claudine Oriol was coached by the same teacher who taught Denzel Washington and came from LA with lots of credentials. She was great. Powerful. Christian Sajous? As an old friend of mine, since we were 12 years, Jean Christian Sajous was the lead actor in my first Super 8 silent film I did when I was 16 in New York. Of course he was a natural from day one.
Now the actress Ginou Mondesir, the female co-lead died tragically, beaten to death by a significant other. Are you planning on writing a movie or a documentary on domestic violence?
I have already. And will do more on different angles of this issue. We need to teach a lot of Haitian men how to treat women with respect.
We’ve read that after the actress’s death, you took the responsibility for the education of her surviving son.
Somewhat. We committed a percentage of the profits of the movie to his education.
Why do you think Pluie d’Espoir was such a success?
It dealt with a lot of taboos and how reality should be. The only time we show superiority was when we referred to intelligence as Toussaint becoming educated. A man shouldn’t run off and disregard the true essence of love. Toussaint never cheating on his wife made a lot of sense to most women, since they are usually more faithful than men.
The burning question that everyone has for you is this: when will Pluie d’Espoir be released on DVD? And what can we expect after having to wait for it for so long?
I must thank you for asking. It’s people like you that keep my spirit up! Pluie d’Espoir was pirated so be it! But now, we are going to release it on DVD and with a limited edition signed and numbered. With a beautiful book of pictures from the entire production shoot.
You also do your own casting for your movies. How do you decide the suitability of an actor or actress for a role?
Casting is something I enjoy doing because it takes me to the culture of understanding what the actor I have created in my vision should look like. When I meet the potential actor, I can sense his talent even before the audition. That is the basis of my (how to choose my talent). It may take me more time to find one lead actor. Like in Pluie d’Espoir, it took me six months to find Junior Metellus. The others did not take us as long.
Do you ever get the urge to direct music videos again?
Of course and I will. I just wouldn’t be interested in cheap HD musical video productions. Nothing beats filmmaking and real film. Super 16, 35 and Super 35. Negative transfer is where the essence of music video is.
Some critics have accused you of having an unrealistic plot in Pluie D’espoir. What are your thoughts on that?
Ah ahahah! People or critics shouldn’t even be criticizing because they don’t know what the real deal is. Critics write their criticism according to their own experience and never criticize the white man when he makes a car climb the Empire State Building or land a chopper on top of a tall building without a landing pad.
They tend to forget the real reality of the many Haitians who have left the country in the 60’s and never to return until ten, fifteen years later. Toussaint was a real character I knew when I was twelve years old and because of my clever guitar playing I was welcomed in all of his many Sandwich shops to eat for free. He made fortune within three years and left for the USA.
Many Haitians made fortunes in the country in a short period of time and to this day history is repeating itself. The critics shouldn’t stay biased and limited to their own conditions without looking around and deeply into the nouveau rich…how they made their money. In the US, stores hire salesmen to move their business, but in Haiti, people just sell to retailers without having salesmen to pay. Think about that. By the way this part that the critics didn’t quite get…they would easily [see it] if they had seen the final version of the movie, because one scene explains it. Or more like Philippe the entrepreneur explains to Toussaint how to make the money. If I were a critic, I would wait to have read the entire book before I write about it.
What Haitian actors and actresses do you hope to work with in the future?
Stanley Mathéus, Gessica Généus, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Benz Antoine and Elizabeth Alphonse who has played in my sitcom “Anba Syèl La”. By the way the new season of the sitcom starts soon.
Does Haitian cinema have a future?
I certainly believe that but contrary to what Mr. Arnold Antonin [fellow Haitian movie director] thinks: “Haitians can never make film like Hollywood”. I disagree because, yes we can. It’s not [about]how many special effects [scenes] in our films, we are creating science fictions, if we go back in time in the thirties…some black and white movies were outstanding. We can make movies just like Hollywood.