MONTRÉAL — For a guy headed back to Haiti in just over 12 hours, Kaveh Nabatian was pretty relaxed on Monday afternoon.
He offered me a glass of rum — who was I to refuse? — as we sat down to talk shop and catch up. The last time I had seen Nabatian, he was surfing the small but serviceable waves in the cozy beach town of Kabic, a half-hour moto-taxi ride from the cultural hub of Jacmel, on Haiti’s south coast.
My wife and I spent a month in the area in February, navigating the country’s challengingly under-developed tourism network while soaking up the benefits thereof. The fact that Haiti is not swarming with visitors makes it easy to immerse yourself, while avoiding typical tourist traps.
A vast majority of foreigners there are working, mostly with NGOs, which have proliferated since the 2010 earthquake that ravaged the country. Nabatian found a different way to help out. He was chatting with friend Richard Reed Parry, of Arcade Fire, last fall. The two play together in the instrumental ensemble Belle Orchestre (which also features Parry’s Arcade Fire bandmate Sarah Neufeld).
Nabatian has been more focused on his film career of late, and was looking for opportunities outside Montreal. The Concordia graduate’s ears perked up when Parry mentioned Ciné Institute, Haiti’s only film school, started in 2008 by American director David Belle. Arcade Fire contributes to the program, and the two entities collaborated on a big, free outdoor concert in Jacmel during carnival, at which the band performed.
“Rich said, ‘Maybe you can teach there’,” Nabatian recalled. “So I wrote them an email, but they said, ‘No, we’re all full.’ Two weeks before I (ended up leaving), they said, ‘Someone dropped out, want to come?’ ”
A week later, the school called back, saying another teacher had cancelled and asked if Nabatian knew anyone else who might be interested. He posted a notice on Facebook and within hours received about 50 responses. Acquaintance Maxence Bradley was hired.
Nabatian boarded a plane on Jan. 3 and soon found himself exploring a new country, making friends and sharing his love of cinema with a small group of eager young students.
“I was the directing and screenwriting teacher,” he said. “I gave a specialty workshop three times a week, for three hours, with eight directing students. The students are divided into groups — directing, editing, cinematography and producing. I was also teaching film history, and other random stuff.”
While the school’s focus is to provide students with the skills to work in the burgeoning media industry, it also provides students with a sense of film history. Nabatian noted varied reactions when screening classics by Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard.
“It’s really interesting to show a Bergman movie to Haitians,” he said, referring to the Swedish film great. “Most of them don’t get it at all, but some of them love it. It’s interesting what they get really into. They love Hitchcock.”
Things heat up when the students then try to incorporate the influences of these legendary directors into their own films.
“It gets really meta, and self-reflexive,” Nabatian said, “like (the French) new wave, if it was now, and in Haiti. As people do in film school, they’re copying Hitchcock, Godard and Tarantino. They’re not pulling it off, but because it’s going through the filter of Haitian culture, sometimes you get stuff that is really interesting and surprising.”
Ciné Institute’s two-year film production program accepts 35 students per year, from around the country. The school recently expanded with Audio Institute, a music production program backed by industry heavyweights Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie.
There is no tuition for either program. The school is financed entirely by private donations. Visitors and donors have included Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon and Jonathan Demme. A key Ciné Institute contributor is Oscar-winning Canadian screenwriter-director-producer Paul Haggis (whose credits include Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale).
Haggis and Belle are close friends, and the former visits the institute whenever his schedule permits. In December, he offered a master class at the school. He returned in February, taking in Arcade Fire’s performance and soaking up a few rays.
Paul Haggis was walking around on the beach,” Nabatian marvelled, adding that it was an unexpected perk of his teaching gig to rub shoulders with a Hollywood big shot.
“When else would I go drinking with Paul Haggis on multiple nights?”
Nabatian also saw his students outside the classroom. He often recruited them to help with a project he was working on, an experimental exploration of Haitian culture. “I would go around carnival with a crew of some of my favourite directing students,” he said. “Sometimes I would let them shoot — some of them have a really good eye.”
The collaboration went both ways as Nabatian and Bradley were sought out by their students for help with their own extracurricular activities, mostly music video shoots.
“They were constantly making music videos outside school,” Nabatian said. “They’re hustlers. They saw that I had a camera, and so did Max. They would say, ‘Want to help us make a video?’ so they could get their hands on our DSLRs. We were happy to. Every weekend, there was someone making a compa video.”
All in all, it made for a vibrant exchange. When offered the chance to return, Nabatian didn’t hesitate to sign on for another two months.
“I feel like I’m developing a relationship with the culture,” he said, while adding that after this he will take a break. “It would be easy to get sucked into spending all one’s time there. I don’t want to do that — I want to keep doing my own thing, so I don’t think I can commit to a year-long teaching stint. But it’s so awesome, the kids are so cool, and so into it. They became real friends.”