Monsieur Bonhomme, 105 years old, a small microphone clipped beneath the collar of his shirt, sits facing our cameras and lights.
He listens to me bombard him with questions about the United States Occupation of Haiti nearly a century ago; it is for our then untitled documentary. But old age has taken a toll on his hearing and his mind is not up the grueling task of plucking up days from long bygone decades.
But I'm desperate, so I press on. He remembers there was talk of the Cacos in those days, the armed peasants that resisted the US Occupation. He did not, however, remember anything about their leader, Charlemagne Peralte. He vaguely remembers the Corvee, the system of forced labor imposed by the Americans to build up the country's infrastructure; he relays how the police was rounding up people throughout the country to send them to work.
Mr. Bonhomme dies a month after our interview.
My film crew and I then find ourselves in Port-au-Prince, interviewing Fritz Valescot, a historian and radio broadcaster. The left shoulder of his shirt is a little wet from the pouring rain. He worries that the quality of our sound will be ruined. We assure him of the opposite and he begins to muse ruefully of the generation of his parents and grandparents, most of whom are gone, and with them the memories of the devastating U.S Occupation.
He bemoans Haiti’s youth who knows little of their history, Haiti’s occupation included. It is then that it struck me: the title of our film ought to be the Forgotten Occupation. It is a fitting title for a world that has all but forgotten that the United States once occupied Haiti for 19 years.
The 100th anniversary of the United States Marines Corps invasion of Haiti is fast approaching. Our documentary is being made to commemorate that anniversary and to preserve the memory of that period in the collective minds of the island. There has been, since the 2010 earthquake, an increased focus on Haiti.
Television pundits, internet bloggers, newspaper op-eds, casual observers, all hypnotized themselves into being mystified about the perpetual instability that plagues Haiti, all concluded that it is a cursed nation, and then all speculating on the causes of its ever growing poverty and all spewing out solutions on how it can be fixed.
Hardly any one of them ever mentioned Haiti’s occupied past. For them, Haiti’s chronic problems exist in a vacuum, independent and unrelated to any history that preceded it. This is one of the reasons we are making this film, to help change the perception on where Haiti’s current socio-political problems are rooted.
The Forgotten Occupation spans the two decade U.S Occupation of Haiti; it’s narrative takes into account the seizure of Haiti’s national bank by the Americans who then turned it over to the National Citibank of New York, constituting a strong undermining of the country’s finances and its ability to invest in its own infrastructure. The film too sheds light on the vast amounts of land taken forcibly from the peasants who inhabited them for generations, devastating the local economies, for the sake of turning Haiti into a major export economy.
The Occupation imposed itself by way of martial law, harassing and jailing journalists who were critical of it and violently stomped out any resistance. By the time it ended in 1934, it had left behind a trail of violence, torture and forced labor. An upwards of 15,000 were killed.
The occupation, as the film makes clear, continues to haunt Haiti today.
It is our hope that the project can deepen the dialogue that will continue to be held around Haiti as elections approach, and that we the filmmakers are able to provide much needed insight about the current conditions of the country.
Alain Martin is the writer and director of the upcoming documentary, the Forgotten Occupation, due out later this year.
For more information on the film, visit the following websites: