Leading Haiti's recent renaissance in the cinema industry, Guetty Felin has been announced as the Caribbean country's first ever entry for the foreign film category at the Oscars with her movie "Ayiti Mon Amour," a portrait of a post-quake nation mourning its dead.
Haitian-born Felin, who journeyed to Port-au-Prince on a relief airplane 10 days after the disaster, recalls the scenes that met her as she landed: images that have stayed with her as she pursues her career in filmmaking.
"I had never smelled death before; corpses everywhere," she told AFP. "I was just like, 'What is this stench?' All throughout the city, it was just devastating."
Laying waste to most of the Caribbean nation's schools, hospitals and infrastructure, the magnitude 7.0 quake injured some 300,000 people and left another 1.5 million homeless in what was already the poorest nation in the Americas.
Seven years on, "Ayiti Mon Amour" marks not only the emergence of a distinct new voice in Haitian filmmaking, but a milestone in the country's cultural recovery: it is the first locally shot narrative feature ever directed by a woman.
Tapping into her past work in documentary filmmaking, Felin infuses the realities of modern-day Haiti — power and water shortages, the looming threat of climate change — with a lyricism that plays up its mystical side.
Set in Kabic, a small southeast fishing village where the sea is gaining ground thanks to climate change, Felin's camera shows life moving on, five years after the earthquake.
A teenager grieving his father discovers he has developed a literally electrifying superpower, while an elderly fisherman who talks to his cow believes the cure for his ailing wife can be found only in the sea.
Elsewhere, the beautiful and mysterious muse of a struggling novelist — the main character in his book — grows restless and decides to leave him in order to pursue a life of her own.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Felin divided her childhood and adolescence between New York and Haiti, although she came of age artistically in Paris, where she studied for a graduate degree in film and ended up staying 20 years.
Felin fell in love with cinema at the drive-ins of Port-au-Prince, her escape during the brutal dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who was followed by his despotic son Jean-Claude, also known as "Baby Doc."
"I grew up in this space knowing that the dictatorship existed, but at the time it was a space of joy," said Felin, recalling her childhood home as a place of music and parties. "There were moments where you were totally afraid someone might get taken away, so the fragility of life — that dance that my parents had to do all the time — totally inspired me."
"Ayiti Mon Amour," for which a U.S. distributor is currently being sought, stars just one professional actor. The rest of the cast and much of the crew were culled from the local community and Felin's own family.
Her French husband, veteran cinematographer Herve Cohen, was in charge of filming. Her oldest son, Yeelen, acted as her assistant, and his girlfriend performed second camera duties.
The real star of the movie, though, is Felin's youngest son, Joakim Ethan Cohen, a 17-year-old beginner who has since won critical acclaim for his accomplished debut performance.
"He knew that what he was doing meant a lot to me," said Felin. "It was like his gift to me. I directed him, but it was so easy — every take was really good — and I think he knew the story inside out."
Haiti's film industry was already struggling before the earthquake. Its last picture house closed the year before amid rampant film piracy, and no movies were publicly screened anywhere for the next five years.
"It's hard to make films in a place like Haiti because there's always something that happens that's prioritized, whether its political instability or there's a disaster or something like that," Felin said. "Filmmaking is really not a priority for the Haitian people."
"Ayiti Mon Amour" was born out of the rubble of buildings leveled by the quake, but Felin, who lost a close friend in the disaster and says she feels "survivor's guilt," wanted her movie to be about more than grief. "I kind of like to say that it's a love letter to this place, because it's a place at the same time that frustrates me, haunts me and angers me. But I'm deeply, deeply passionate about it."