By Laina Gallagher
Sisters Doing It For Themselves Production is a newly established non-profit film company producing documentaries on Haiti. Sisters Courtney and Brooke Lehmann are spearheading this movement. I recently interviewed Courtney to learn more about their cause and their work.
LG: I understand your first project is a film about the survivors of the Haitian Earthquake, can you tell me a little bit more about this project?
CL: There are currently many documentaries being made in Haiti that focus on issues similar to ours; however, what makes our film unique is that we will be giving cameras to Haitian earthquake survivors so that they can tell us their stories from their perspective.
Shot in high-definition, “Is Anyone Listening?” will integrate both self-filmed footage by the Haitian people as well as on-site interviews with a broad spectrum of pre-identified characters located principally in the devastated cities of Port-au-Prince and Jacmel. We will follow these Haitians as they go about their day, revealing the many challenges they confront even as we highlight the strong sense of solidarity, resilience, and hope among them.
Those featured in the film will include children in an orphanage for amputees, as well as men and women representing a broad spectrum of ages, outlooks, and social roles. Focusing not just on the devastation, the film also takes us to places like the grassroots artist colony known as FOSAJ in Jacmel, whose resident painters, filmmakers, and sculptors are attempting to rebuild their lives through art. Their stories will be interwoven to show the range of problems—both predictable and unexpected—that Haitians continue to face on a daily basis.
LG: What inspired you to make “Is Anyone Listening?”
CL: The idea for the film came from a New York Times article, which published an assortment of letters found in the ‘suggestions’ boxes that the IOM (International Organization for Migration) had implemented in several of the camps. The letters were so eloquent and restrained, yet the need for help was self-evident; we want to insure that these letters and stories from other survivors do not fall on deaf ears, especially given the mass media’s scant attention to ongoing disaster in Haiti, which has worsened in the wake of hurricane season and the crippling cholera outbreak.
The title of our film “Is Anyone Listening?” comes from a song performed by the young Haitian singer Rosemond Jollissaint, who we met at the “Haiti Huddle” in San Francisco; it seems to be the perfect fit for a documentary that will provide a mechanism for Haitians to voice their perspectives on the disaster and its aftermath.
I also have a personal connection to Haiti. In January, 2010, I was living with my family in Italy in the medieval home that Flo MacGarrell, the visionary Director of FOSAJ, grew up in; my 5 year-old slept in Flo’s bedroom. I have been close to Flo’s mother for the last 8 years. Flo’s death on January 12, 2010 has devastated so many people across the U.S. as well as in Haiti—in my mind, this film is dedicated to him and his extraordinary work toward the creation of a self-sustaining artist community there.
Additionally, my sister, Brooke, has been coordinating and overseeing mental health services for Haitians since the disaster struck. Her husband Mike, of Caribbean descent, has served as a surgeon in Haiti several times, working in connection Project Medishare in the Central Plateau.
LG: Do you have other ideas in the works for future films you would like to make?
CL: Especially after the Haiti Huddle, we wanted to do some filming in the remote Haitian island of La Tortue, a place that was not affected by the earthquake but whose inhabitants are faced with conditions not unlike those in Port au Prince; as one woman put it “every day is an earthquake for us.” La Tortue is a place where not even the most basic of human needs, like a clean water supply as well as a functional health and educational infrastructure, are being met. So, we’d be interested in drawing attention to the problems endemic to La Tortue, as well as in other parts of Haiti, as a kind of “sequel” to “Is Anyone Listening?”
LG: Is there anything specifically that you would like to emphasize to people just learning about this project and Sisters Doing It For Themselves Production?
CL: This project is both educational and action-oriented, with the goal of galvanizing community organization—both within and outside of Haiti—toward creating positive and enduring change.
Before the earthquake that utterly destroyed the capital city of Port au Prince and its surrounding areas, Haiti was already the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. Since its inception as a sovereign nation, this country has struggled with profound poverty, political unrest and the many social, civil, and health issues that arise from such destitution.
The earthquake not only killed 200,000 people—it thrust those who survived into a world much worse than they had already known—fraught with squalid living conditions, a sudden increase in violence, debilitating injuries and outbreaks of contagious illnesses, and an unprecedented lack of basic infrastructures that would keep systems such as sanitation, agriculture, education, and public safety functioning. Although the world has responded in light of these circumstances by offering financial aid and other resources, the fact is that nearly one year later, Haitians have seen little improvement in their lives.
By adding human faces and compelling stories to an unceasing tragedy that has all-but-disappeared from the mass media, we hope to generate a broad response to the crisis, recognizing that progress has to be driven by indigenous needs.
Modeled after the national literacy campaign, “each one, teach one,” our film will call on members of the Haitian diaspora to distribute the film to another member of this community around the world using social networking platforms, in hopes of creating a “collective conscience” that prompts people to work together for sustainable solutions.
Our organization is a young film production company that specializes in documentaries that revolve around matters of social justice. We believe in the power of grass roots movements, which, in the digital era, can grow exponentially by virtue of the internet. Our goal is to generate widespread communication about issues, which, in light of our common humanity, affect us all.
We have yet to meet our modest fundraising goals of 10k at this point in order to bring the project to fruition; we would be grateful for anything you can offer in joining our “coalition of the committed.”
For more information on Sisters Doing It For Themselves or to find out ways to help, contact Courtney Lehmann at firstname.lastname@example.org.