In The Crying Conch, directed by Mauritian-born filmmaker Vincent Toi, the story’s protagonist, known simply as “The Man” (Zidor Montal) emerges from the ocean completely nude and sets out for the forest of Seguin, one of the last expansive pine forests in all of Haiti. The imposing wood is said be home to spirits who linger long after their passing, providing a fortunate few wanderers with the wisdom and guidance they seek.
When The Man encounters a group of forestry workers chopping down trees, one asks in Haitian Creole, “Do you have a job?” The Man responds, “No”, the only word he will utter over the course of the entire 19-minute film. The Old Man continues, “You’ve asked the spirits and they haven’t answered you? Have the voodoos answered you?” The Man simply laughs to himself and shakes his head. By the end of the film, The Man finally finds a calling, both shocking and unexpected.
Much like the Haitian wanderers in Seguin, Toi operates on apparitions when it comes to artistic pursuits; he will not embark upon a film project unless a story comes to him and consumes him. “To be honest, the way I make a project, I have to be immersed in it,” he explains. “Finding the story is always very hard. Whether it’s a short documentary, short fiction or feature, it’s always a lot of work, so the work has to mean something to you. I have ideas, I have themes I want to explore, but I need to find the story first.”
The story of The Crying Conch came to Toi after taking on a teaching position at Haiti’s Ciné Institute, an organization that provides free education to students looking to learn about the world of cinema and filmmaking techniques. Growing up in Mauritius, a former French colony, Toi felt a connection to Haitian culture before even stepping foot in the country. “I felt like I would fit in at a certain level. I didn’t know where or how, but I felt like I’d figure it out. So I went there and I did,” he says. “The language is about 40% similar to Mauritian Creole, and the ways also are similar. How you would approach someone, how you would have a dialogue with someone. There’s a familiarity. You know when you know someone understands a little bit of who you are? That’s how I felt.” One of those people would be Ebby Angel Louis, a teacher at the Ciné Institute.
Shortly after arriving in Haiti, Toi was compelled to investigate structures of power within the nation’s culture and history by telling the story of a “slave King leader”, who would lead a revolution resulting in the first Black republic. Louis introduced the filmmaker to the story of Francois Mackandal, the Haitian Maroon leader who sought to put an end to slavery in the 1750s. The story coincided perfectly with Toi’s vision and became one of the film’s two narrative streams, running parallel to and complementing the story of The Man, set in modern-day Haiti.
In addition to collaborating with Toi on the story side of The Crying Conch, Ebby Angel Louis also took on an acting role, portraying the character of Mackandal in a series of pulsing, rhythmic narration sequences. “To the world I want to say that most of the time, in different parts of the world we are happy to live in some free countries, but we forget the people who pay for this freedom with life. It was an opportunity for me to tell the story of Mackandal in the film because Cinema also has an important role to play in history and our collective memory,” explains Louis. “But telling the story of Mackandal is more than telling a story. It connects me to the story of my ancestors and makes me travel back in time in some way.” The actor’s passion for the character of Mackandal and all he did for the Haitian people comes through in his intense, deeply engaging performance; despite having little acting experience before working on The Crying Conch, Louis’ on-screen presence is absolutely mesmerizing.
The Crying Conch premieres at the 67th Berlinale this coming February and Toi hopes that, post-viewing, audiences will be prompted to contemplate the long-term effects of colonialism on a nation such as Haiti, and how unjust power structures can continue to impact a society long after being dismantled. “I hope they understand the whole idea of why… I’m not going to be the judge of why Haiti is like this right now, but there are a lot of elements in this film that try to understand why it’s like this, and why it’s very hard for this specific place to come out as a country that’s a bit more prosperous.”
By Kelly Hurcomb
Photos: Marcel Cabrera