In our spring series, Senior Theses: A Celebration, we take a moment in the interlude between thesis deadlines and graduation to appreciate the diverse, personal, and impactful work of seniors’ capstone research projects.
On Thursday, April 20th, the University Student Government presented Zanmim, a short film by Alex Ford ’17 who is a concentrator in Sociology and has a certificate in film studies. After completing both of his theses (a film and a research paper on Haiti), Alex agreed to sit down with PCUR to talk more about his work. Here’s what he had to say:
What is your thesis about?
The function of my thesis, both the film and the paper, is to give the Haitian perspective of Haiti. Haitians have been such a heavy victim of natural disaster, political corruption, etc., and the media portrayal of the country is really one note. If you look at news clippings, magazines, and TV, all you see is Haiti as helpless; the country is stereotyped as being poor and crime ridden. But that’s not how they should be perceived in my opinion, as someone who has been to Haiti many times and whose family is also Haitian.
So I interviewed people with transnational identities–those who cross between both Haiti and America to achieve some economic, artistic, social, cultural, or political goal, whatever it may be–and found that they also don’t like the narrative associated with Haiti. The ambassador of Haiti told me that whenever he tells people where he’s from, they start apologizing to him about his country, saying “I’m so sorry about what’s happened there.” And that’s frustrating because he doesn’t need an apology. Yes, Haiti and its people have gone through a lot, but those experiences don’t define them. The story that needs to be told is how the people, despite the horrible disaster that killed so many and left many displaced, are still resilient, powerful, and still have a sense of pride. And that’s what my film is about–the sense of identity and self associated with Haiti outside of these circumstances.
What kind of research did you need to do for this project?
I started researching why Haitians leave for my America my junior year and I learned that in a country where 90% of the population is impoverished and only 10% have an obscene amount of wealth, there’s very little hope for the 90%. Since 20% of Haiti’s income comes from Haitians overseas, Haiti needs people abroad in order to help the economy run. So going to America for social mobility is a very real dream of people living in poverty. I talked to my longtime Haitian friend, Madness, extensively while writing the film because I was essentially telling his and my story, and sharing his dreams and goals.
I also did a lot of research into how people perceive Haiti. And this factored into the editing process because I didn’t want to portray Haiti as a place of destruction or turmoil. I also wanted to make it clear that America is not an Elysium; not all good things come from America. That’s why the character representing me in the film is a spoiled brat who isn’t in tune with the different problems of the world until he goes to Haiti.
Can you give us a synopsis of your film?
The film is a story of friendship between Alex, a kid from America, and Madness, a young man from Haiti. After the earthquake, Alex goes to Haiti against his will and meets Madness in a warehouse they both work in. As their friendship develops, Madness tells Alex of his lifelong dream to go to America in order to help Haiti and Alex agrees to help Madness no matter what. In the end, Madness does eventually make it to America and the two remain very close friends.
What are the things you can’t thesis without?
Sour patch kids and gummy worms were my prime time thing to eat while thesising. Also, movie scores–I do all my reading and writing to movie scores. Some of my favorites are Interstellar, Victoria, How to Train Your Dragon, August Rush, The Theory of Everything, and The Odd Life of Timothy Green.
Did you have an Aha! moment in your artistic process?
I had a tough time with the editing process overall–keeping the film within a reasonable time and following a clear story structure. I also realized there were parts where I wished I had filmed more things in Haiti, but going back would have been too expensive. So I had to work with what I had.
And while I started off the film in a really abstract and rhythmic way to bring the viewers into Haiti, I was struggling to figure out how to end the film. It came to the point where I scrapped out a lot of what I liked in the original film and tried all of these different methods. But eventually, somebody told me, “bring the rhythm back from the beginning and don’t lose the things that you love about the film.” And when I heard that, it became very clear to me how to finish off my film, and I was a lot more pleased with it.
What’s one thing you would do differently if you could start over?
If I could start over, I would have taken a screenwriting course before I wrote the film. I’ve learned a lot from my screenwriting classes since then and could have used what I learned about storytelling and structure in writing my script. While I’m pretty pleased with my original script, I wish I had written one that was more accurate to the film that came out of it. Not only did I end up changing the order of the scenes, but most of the script was also in Creole, which meant that I had to trust the actors when they suggested different colloquial words and idioms. So that made it hard later on when subtitling. But I think that going off script added a new level of authenticity and that the film would have been weaker without it.