About the Author
Shirley Bruno’s films take their point of departure from neglected histories, rumors, dreams and memories, both real and imagined. An alumna of Le Fresnoy, she lives and works alternately in New York, France and Haiti, where she is developing her feature Just Come//Been To and the video installation Saltwater Heart.
So there is an equilibrium that comes over me when I’m in Haiti. Normally, I’m living in the quiet countryside of Jacmel, the vital seaside city in the southeast. But I feel just as calm weaving through tight spaces in the extraordinarily congested traffic of the capital Port-au-Prince, watching two quarreling drivers pass each other on the road, hurling colorful insults like daggers across the swarm of market women and motor-taxis. In fact, I am part of some internal collective logic, some pulsating, invisible flow that carries and calibrates. Haitian sense of time moves differently than American or French. It moves in this perpetual contradiction – an oversaturated yet slackened rhythm that imbues the shape of how time unfurls in the films I make.
After days of shooting images for a film in the notorious Marie Jeanne Cave in Port-à-Piment, I trade my usual home in Jacmel, foregoing my aunt’s house in La Plaine for Thomassin, a hilly suburb just outside of Port-au-Prince. There is a collective way of living in Haiti that is reflected in the “family style’” interdependence I always seek on set and in the intimacy between my creative collaborators. Hardly anyone lives alone, everyone lives en famille, and you tend to depend heavily on family, friends and neighbors, even for practical things, on an almost daily basis. This time around I am staying with my on-again, off-again partner H, my surrogate family. In the evenings, I’m grateful for being looked after with care – H soothes my aches and pains from the grueling trek and the mental excavations from the shoot in the cave as I share with him stills of the stalactites that will become cut-outs for the film’s animation.
There are times when we are weaving through the outrageous Port-au-Prince traffic that I find myself really looking at this on-again, off-again partner of mine. Now he sings over Radio Soleil – badly, with pure joy. And before long I join in, exuberantly singing myself. In this moment, I am thinking about how, whenever I return to Haiti, our time apart seems immaterial. My director’s mind sees the metaphor in this and suddenly I find myself without the slightest idea why I’m living this fragmented life, oscillating from on-again, off-again homes – Haiti, New York, France – instead of just living and making films in Haiti, where I feel most at home in my body. But I’m no longer prone to sentimentalizing the places I belong to and yet don’t belong to, the places where my cinema is both insider and outsider. This fragmented life is in part the source of my cinema, expressing a longing for the speculative places I remember but haven’t necessarily been to; looking back to look forward; collecting the memories, myths and histories of others, because they are an interdependent part of the whole of us. My moment of doubt passes and I return to the present, watching H effortlessly steer through the rubber-necking with precision and grace. And the calm that was in me I recognize in him as well. We bend and curve through the traffic, part of the same invisible collective flow.
My flight back to France is the next morning and to figure out when I should be at the airport, I do the math in my head, switching from my liberal Haitian sense of time to my more exacting American one. And so I’m up at the crack of dawn. Looks like you’re in a hurry, H says in Creole as he wraps around me. What’s wrong with that?, my Creole round and accented as he wraps tighter around me. I switch to English, choosing my words carefully, a small armor against the pang of saying goodbye again. We’re doing it again, that on and off thing, that in-between. He sighs, uncoils himself, rubs his wooly hair. I don’t see it that way, he says, still in Creole, shaking his head. How do you see it then? His arm laced around my shoulders, his eyes tracing lines in the ceiling above us, once more I feel the subtle way time slackens. When he finally responds it’s in English, but the phrase couldn’t be more Haitian: We’re water finding its course.
The clear logic of that phrase still disarms me now as it did then. And when the tears started coming, tracing small streams down my face, I wondered if they would bend and curve into a nearby river or fragment and hit some congestion somewhere between the time zones, becoming something more hybrid, like Creole with an accent. This water that is finding its course is in fact my cinema, finding the spaces in the flow of traffic between languages, between countries, between fundamentally different ways of moving in time.