Film Reviews

High on Haiti

"Can somebody pinch me," requests director Wilkenson Bruna, nervously speaking moments before his first feature film, Wind of Desire, premieres at the Intracoastal Theater in North Miami Beach. "I'm still dreaming."

Before him, the seats are packed with the movers and shakers of Miami's Haitian community dressed in their finest gowns and tuxedos. Outside, two stretch limos wait to take the well-heeled VIPs to La Paloma Restaurant for a private afterparty. Inside the cineplex, wine is served with a spread of catered Caribbean treats instead of the usual popcorn and soda.

As the couture and cocktails suggest, this is no ordinary night out at the movies. It's an evening that represents another first for Miami's Haitian community, which -- decades after mass exodus from tyrannical rule and desperate conditions -- is moving to buy some real clout in the American system.

Bruna's film, the first Haitian-American-produced project featuring Haitians as protagonists, opens at a time when the immigrant community is making political and business strides. North Miami's Joe Celestin became the first Haitian mayor of an American city in 2001. County Court Judge Fred Seraphin this year became the first Haitian American to be appointed to the Florida bench. Phillip Brutus was elected the first Haitian-American state representative.

Wind of Desire was received by the audience with as much significance and pride. "We do not need to look to Hollywood," Celestin beamed in the ceremony after the film. "Now we could look to Haiti."

The film also opens at a time when the plight of Haitian migrants is making national headlines. Just hours before the opening, some of those in attendance, including human rights advocate Cheryl Little, were at a different sort of gathering: a protest at the Torch of Friendship in which Rev. Al Sharpton appealed for the release of Haitian refugees being detained by the INS.

But the hundreds who marched and shouted along Biscayne Boulevard for equal treatment for Haitian boat people did not figure into Bruna's tale of love and vengeance. In watching Wind of Desire, even in the segments shot in Haiti, one gets the impression that Haitians are not just well-to-do, but spanking rich.

Bruna's leading man, attorney Richard Lazard (Rudolph Moise), zips through Miami in a red Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz G500 land cruiser. Nadine, his fiancée (Stefanie Henriquez), drives a white Mercedes and spends her days at malls or at the tennis club. Steamy siren Florence Casimir (Bernadette Chitolie), a New York physician with a blood lust, roams around town in a Land Rover and spends tens of thousands of dollars to get her man.

In the story it seems all the men are lawyers and all the women are doctors. The characters spend their leisure hours playing tennis in Wimbledon whites. The parties are formal and the manners are impeccable.

The image, Bruna says, was deliberate.

"It was meant to emphasize all the positive things -- and success -- of what the community is doing," he says. "[Many Haitians] come on a boat with nothing and work hard to make a difference. We wanted to show the other aspect of the community."

So instead of the grim tale being played out at the INS Krome Service Processing Center, or in the streets of Little Haiti, Wind of Desire is set in fancy homes, country clubs, and tropical beaches. It tells the pulpy story of a successful Miami attorney who has an affair with a New York doctor three weeks before his wedding. It turns out the femme fatale doctor has cooked up the affair as revenge on the fiancée, because of a childhood conflict in Haiti.

Bruna gets swept away with the lushness of his setting, often lingering over romantic views or street scenes featuring the red Ferrari. As a result the film has the soapy feel of a serial television drama -- think Knots Landing with a Caribbean accent. The only time a sobering message about Haitians' plight in America comes through is when a girlfriend of Nadine, Jeanette (Kalilah Eubanks), chides a mutual friend for being a part of the revenge plot. She says she's ashamed at how Haitians continue to hurt one another. It's an appropriate message considering the rash of killings in North Miami among Haitian street gangs, and the death that continues with sickening regularity back on the island. There is another call to unity when the city of Jacmel is mentioned, the architects of which had studied in Paris and then returned to their homeland to build a greater nation. But the moment passes.

In the end Bruna's script falls short of giving a full portrait of Haitians in America, due to a sense of selective memory. In fact the filmmaker even alludes to this omission in a scene between Jeanette and Richard's friend Gary. "You only remember what you like," Gary tells her, only the colorful part of Haiti's history.

Although the film steers clear of a political cause, Bruna thinks it still helps the community, and not just because a portion of the profits (if any) will be donated to nonprofit organizations that support Haitian Americans. "I wanted to make a film that would help somebody else feel better," he says. "[A film] that would give Haitians moral support and let them know that we are making a difference."

Although there may be merit in achieving a first, Wind of Desire misses a greater cultural opportunity by remaining in the realm of dreams with too few realities.