You don't have to look too deeply into the short film Papa Machete to see the ethos of the Miami-based film collective Borscht. The short is both poetic and absurd; observant and human.
For a short film no longer than nine minutes long, it offers a layered view of a fascinating aspect of Haitian culture. It's a beautiful tribute to one of the island nation's last remaining masters of tire machèt, a Haitian farmer named Alfred Avril, who passed away only a few weeks ago. Tire machèt or "Machete Fencing" has a fascinating history, the art grew out of the slave revolt that led to Haiti's independence in 1804.
In August of 2013, director Jonathan David Kane and producer/writer Jason Fitzroy Jeffers and a crew of three ventured to the small community Oranges, tucked in the hills above Jacmel, to document Avril and his training sessions. The film has a poetic quality: mixed with Avril's narration and life philosophy, his movements with the machete have an uncanny grace, even if he's occasionally swigging from a bottle of rum with his free hand.
Avril himself is a bit of mystery, and given his recent death, one that will never be unraveled. We don't know the his date a birth--he had no birth certificate--and it's also unknown how Avril acquired his machete skills (hardly a necessity in modern Haiti). Jeffers says, "We do know he was in the army at some point. Exactly when, we're not sure, that's one of the things we were hoping to dig deeper into as we expanded the film, but then he passed."
Cultist caught up the film's director, as he was preparing for the Ninth edition of the Borscht Film Festival, where the film will screen twice, including ahead of a workshop on Machete Fencing at the Little Haiti Culture Center in Miami. When Kane speaks of Avril, he often refers to him as "the professor," as he and Jeffers both were granted hands-on training in the martial art from the master while filming him.
Cultist: How did you find Alfred Avril?
Jonathan David Kane: Alfred Avril came about through Michael Dylan Rogers, who is the professor's first foreign student, who has been training with the professor for over 10 years. The first time they trained, they had to build a palm-frond fence around the area they were training to create an enclosure so that Avril's neighbors couldn't even see what they were doing, and over a decade later, Mike has gained the trust of the Avril family enough to allow for the opportunity for a film crew and documents Avril's practice and his legacy.
How did Mike get in touch with you guys?
So Mike posted a couple of cellphone videos to YouTube on his blog and website, The Haitian Machete Fencing Project and Jason being from the Caribbean and being somewhat obsessed with the Caribbean was up late one night on a Reddit thread on martial arts and came across one of these videos and was absolutely enamored, and him being a journalist and an artist wanted to go and do a story on it. We started talking about it and decided if the opportunity presented itself, we should do a movie, so we did.
I know Avril passed away just two weeks ago.
When we went down there, although he's incredibly energetic, you could see he was along in his years, and we held a Kickstarter to raise funds to build Avril a new home. His previous house was listing, as you see in the film, so we raised over $10,000 on Kickstarter and built him a new home and opened a training facility, and after seeing the home built, knowing that will be there for his family, seeing that the film was carrying on his legacy, he passed away.
What was your approach to capturing him in a short documentary?
It's really difficult to direct a man who hasn't really been told what to do since he was a child (laughs). In one of my favorite quotes from him he would say, "I didn't know I was such a fountain of patience until I made this movie." And one time our cinematographer, Richard Patterson, was filming some close-ups of the professor on steadicam, like circling around him with a camera, and he says, "What is this mosquito flying around my head? Should I swat it?" and he raises his blade (laughs).
It wasn't easy, but my approach to this film, not being Haitian and being an observer, was to allow the professor's voice to prevail through the entire film. For the entire story to be from the perspective of this one man who is passing this knowledge on to other generations. I didn't ever want to be outside that world.
You actually had a chance to fence with him. What was that like?
The way the classes are set up is, we'd all sit around a tree, kinda of like in a circle, and one by one each student gets up, you fence with Avril for five to 10 minutes until you are completely winded, and then you take a swig of rum, you sit down, and then the next student comes up. So you're fencing with him, and five or 10 minutes go by, and you're completely tired, and here's this 75-year-old or older man standing there for two, three hours fencing consistently and not even breaking a sweat.
Yeah, it really seems like he's just breathing when he's doing it. It seems so natural.
Yeah, it's an extension of his spirit and it was fascinating to watch, and it was fascinating to learn from, and although we didn't take too many classes, in the grand scheme of life, there were some profound lessons learned underneath that fig tree.
How did this workshop in Little Haiti come about?
So Mike Rogers, the gentleman who I mentioned earlier, has agreed to come down and give a demonstration. It's something that we always thought would be a nice accompaniment to the film. It's one thing to see this martial art in practice in the film, and it's another to actually have a hands-on experience, and having such a multicultural community down here, I feel like such an experience will be welcomed and appreciated.
So can anybody partake in this event?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean space is limited obviously and time permitting as many people as possible will have an opportunity to learn from the professor's teachings through Mike. I'm sure everyone who is willing to step up will have that opportunity.
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So right after Borscht are you heading to Sundance?
Yeah, I mean just literally get on a plane and a few weeks later head on to Park City, which is really, really exciting. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. That was such a huge deal. It was the inaugural international short films program for TIFF, so it was an honor to be part of that, and then coming from there to be screening at Borscht and then be accepted to Sundance, it's such a privilege and a rarity, and I'm just so proud.
As part of the Borscht 9, "Papa Machete" will screen at Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212 N.E. 59th Terrace, Miami, on Friday, Dec. 19, at 1:30 p.m., followed by a demonstration of tire machèt by Michael Dylan Rogers. Free, but consider a suggested donation of $5. On Saturday, Dec. 20, at 7:30 p.m. the short will also screen at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets $25. For more information: borschtcorp.com.