Comments by Bob Corbett
At some time in the mid-1980s author Dennis McMahon accompanied me on one of my visits to the village of Pilate. Now he has written a screenplay set in Pilate and recently asked it I would read it, making any comments I thought might challenge the authenticity of his portrait of the village. His story itself, while fictional, had a rather startling sense of reality, and it turned out in discussion with him by e-mail, some of the personal elements of his plot were closer to reality that he even knew.
I first went to Pilate about 1985. On one of my teaching trips to Vienna, Austria I had read about Father Pollux Byas, the native Haitian priest in Pilate. The article in a German Marxist magazine claimed he was deeply influence by Liberation Theology, had formed a number of “Ti Legliz” groups (base communities), and was encouraging many small development projects through these groups. I wrote him and we met in Cap Haitien at Christmas of 1985. My wife and I had formed a small charity, People to People, Inc., and one of the works which I oversaw was the funding of some of these small projects through various Ti Legliz groups.
On my next visit to Haiti I made the first of several visits to Pilate, and Dennis McMahon accompanied me on one of them, I’m not sure when.
Dennis and I had no contact since then, and thus I was most surprised and delighted when he recently contacted me asking if I would read his screen play and comment on it. I have just finished that reading and now hope very much that some day he can bring this intriguing story to the movie screen.
The father of young Henri Regala has run afoul of Papa Doc Duvalier. He realizes his life is in grave danger and decides to flee with his wife and teen-age son, taking safety in Florida. However, the boat is hit by a passing freighter and the Regala parents die. Young Henri is returned to Haiti and ends up back in Pilate. The local priest, a missionary from Canada arranges to send Henri to Montreal to be educated, and Henri chooses to become a priest so he can serve his people.
Upon ordination, and having made a great impression on Haitians living in Montreal, Father Henri returns to Pilate, wanting to improve the lives of his people. However, Henri is as talented in business as he is in theology, and the dominant symbol of the screenplay is the tap-tap which Henri brings back to Haiti with donor money. His plan is to provide transportation to and from remote Pilate, encouraging people to market their products in the larger markets of Port-au-Prince, and in the process to improve the quality of life of the village.
The fictional Henri, though a full generation and half younger than Father Byas, is doing much the same thing in Pilate of the late 1980s as what I had seen in Byas’ work.
McMahon’s treatment of the work of the base communities, and his sense of what power the tap-tap could have had on village life is quite realistic, hopeful and well-done. Like Byas himself, Henri runs afoul the government of Baby Doc and Ton-Ton Macoutes are sent to disrupt this “threat” to Baby Doc’s power and control.
There is a secondary theme which involves a mutual attraction between Henri and a young American woman teaching at the parish school. This plot it handled with great sensitivity and reveals the depth of character of both Henri and the American teacher. I was moved and touched by this sub-theme, but amused at the same time thinking that McMahon’s creativity had gone far beyond the model of my dear friend Pollux Byas, who at his advanced age, and advanced stages of diabetes, would not have been much of a character to pin such a touchy love affair upon.
I was very impressed with the concept and design or plan whatever one calls it in a screenplay. (This was the very first screenplay I have ever read.) While the story is wonderful and in the main believable, I never knew a Haitian priest with quite Henri's goodness, humility and dedication. I've met many who were close, but Henri's quite a bit above the real folks I’ve know. Byas had some of Henri's qualities, but had been more beaten down by experience and thus not as enthusiastic. Aristide had lots of that in the early years, but was much too taken by Aristide to have much humility. The closest Haitian I would have know to Henri, is a friend of mine, a brother, not a priest who founded a Haitian order of brothers in the Plateau Central.
It was odd to know I was reading the text of what is meant to be a film, and to have no visuals. Yet I was extremely impressed with McMahon’s detailed descriptions of how he wanted various scenes filmed and I could just SEE in my mind’s eyes the visuals he had in mind. They are all so beautiful and positive, and then coupled with the upbeat power of his symbol of the tap-tap having such a positive impact on the village’s economy, give the film a bright and cheery atmosphere, even in those oppressive and dangerous times in which the film is set. McMahon’s directions of the use of music are not as rich and clear as his directions for what he would want filmed.
While I would simply love to see this screenplay to come to fruition as a film, I am skeptical that will happen. It would indeed be a worthy and exciting film project. But would it have market appeal? Alas, I rather doubt it. There is too much goodness in the text, and not enough hopelessness, violence, sex and all that crap that is so utterly attractive, almost mandatory for films in the U.S.
However, it might be a very appealing and potentially powerful piece of film art which could show a Haiti we seldom see with hopeful, decent, hard-working and successful Haitian people turning a small village into a place of decency and hope even in the face of political oppression.
I am appreciative of author McMahon for having given me the opportunity to read the text and make some comments. I did think he got a few things wrong about Haiti and he and I will enter discussion of some of those issues in the coming months.
If this project moves from the state of screenplay to an actual film, or makes any further development, then I will make an addendum to these notes.Bob Corbett email@example.com
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org