Miami filmmakers are bringing slices of Little Haiti to New York's Tribeca Festival. Al'Ikens Plancher's short film Konpa and Monica Sorelle's feature-length film Mountains were chosen to premiere at the esteemed independent film event next month.
Mountains centers on a Haitian construction worker and his son who are both struggling with internal conflicts — the father about his involvement in erasing his neighborhood's culture and his son's struggles to find his identity between two cultures.
"It was scary for a little while because [Little Haiti] is such a niche community in such a specific area that we weren't sure — even though we created it with this global reach in mind — if it was going to translate or not. We weren't sure who would want the film, where it would go, or how it would land," Sorelle says.
The catalyst for Mountains was Barry Jenkins' award-winning 2016 film Moonlight, which follows the story of a young Black man grappling with his sexuality as he navigates Liberty City. Sorelle worked on the set of Moonlight as part of the casting department, where she met her Mountains co-writer and producer Robert Colom. The two bonded over Moonlight's distinctly Miami setting and emotional depth.
"I think we were really inspired by the fact that a movie set in Miami could have such widespread global acclaim and be so touching, and so specific to a certain experience and a certain neighborhood, but so relatable to people all over the world," Sorelle explains.
Sorelle, who was raised by Haitian parents and spent part of her childhood growing up in Little Haiti, was walking through Wynwood with Colom in 2018 when the two noticed a construction worker saying goodbye to his coworkers as they worked to tear down a building in the area. Reflecting on how much Little Haiti had changed since Sorelle's childhood and the constant gentrification of neighborhoods like Wynwood have seen in the last few decades, Sorelle and Colom got to work.
"We were like, 'Okay, there's so many things that we want to explore in our work' — not just gentrification, but Mountains is a story about us and our families," Colom says." It's about a struggling young artist whose parents think that his profession is not practical enough, whose parents think his profession is kind of a joke, and that's us in a way. We also wanted to honor our families, see our parents represented in full ways, and see a loving marriage between immigrants on screen, which is something that you rarely see."
The film's dialogue is predominantly in Creole, with exchanges between father and son bouncing between Creole and English, respectively — a cultural element Sorelle was confident she needed to highlight in the film because it reflects a familiar dynamic in Haitian-American households. Sorelle's mother, Ritza Gervil, helped translate much of the character dialogue in the script, which came from what Colom refers to as "controlled improvisation."
"These are all just parts of the Haitian experience in Miami, growing up here, being in like a Haitian enclave. We wanted to make sure when someone watched the film, it felt familiar to them," Sorelle says. "It was really important to us to have the language, not only for authenticity but also because it's so rarely done in American films with Haitian people. If you watch an American film or TV show that has a Haitian character, if they do speak Creole, it's very clear that they're not Haitian at all."
"It's a short film, so it's just a great entryway. When you live in Miami, you know about Haitians, but when you go further up to like Ocala, or Georgia, or anywhere else further up north, people have a misperception of Haiti, and I felt like Konpa would be a great entryway and a fun way to represent our culture," Plancher says.
Immigrating from Haiti to Miami at a young age, Plancher's short film draws from both of the cultural spaces he inhabits. Everything from the setting — shot entirely at Naomi's Garden, the Caribbean restaurant and longtime Little Haiti staple that Plancher and his parents have frequented since the '90s – to the name of the film — intentionally spelled the Creole way because he often sees it spelled in French in non-Haitian contexts — is infused with what Plancher feels is not just Haitian, but innately him.
"I'm a filmmaker, and it's not like, 'It just so happens that I'm Haitian,' but that's me. [Creole] is what I think in and dream in. I count in Creole. The calendar in my head, like when I think of Monday in my head, it's not Monday, it's lendi," Plancher says.
The Tribeca selection shocked him but not producer Ronald Baez, who Plancher jokes loves the film more than he does.
"It was a shock. I did call [Baez] — I think we FaceTimed each other — and he was yelling, 'I told you so! I told you so! I told you so!'" Plancher adds.
For Baez, who cofounded White Elephant Group, the Miami-based production company that worked on the project, Konpa isn't just a testament to Plancher's creative chops; it's symbolic of the strength of Miami's filmmaking community.
"I'm super happy. I was ecstatic that the programmers that Tribeca agreed with me that this film was worthy of programming, and I keep telling [Plancher], 'Yo, get used to it; we're going to have a lot of these,'" Baez says. "But also, the moment I saw the film, and I saw how the community was authentically represented, I saw how [Plancher] was honest and sincere, I saw how my peers not only respected and admired it, but they felt what he was trying to say, I'll take all of the rejection letters in the world as long as I have that. If our community is behind us, we don't need anybody else."