Review: “Machann Fig La” (Fig Lady) – a Film from Haiti


The Toronto-based Caribbean Tales International Film Festival (CTFF)l is back and will be coming to those lucky Canadians this month (September 4 – 20). In a press release, CTFF notes:

Twenty-one filmmakers will take part in the Tenth Annual Caribbean Tales Market Incubator (CTI) in partnership with The Caribbean Development Bank, Ontario Creates and Telefilm Canadaand with support from the National Film & Video Foundation of South Africa. At the annual Big Pitch [September 8], they will compete for prizes that will include an award of $10,000 for Best Caribbean Project.

I reviewed a few of the CTFF films last year in this blog. My favorite (and I confess to being geographically biased) was Mary Wells’ compelling, gritty downtown drama, Kingston Paradise

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Meanwhile, there is a nice Haitian flavor in this year’s Festival. The opening night film, Rattlesnakes, stars Jimmy Jean-Louis. I recognized him in a small cameo in Machann Fig La. Translated, the title means a woman who sells bananas (they are called “figs” in French Créole)So here is my short review of the film, which is 90 minutes long, directed by Amiral Gaspard, and the very first, promising production of the Jacmel-based Artists Institut of Haiti. You can read more about their Ciné Institute here. I am happy to be reviewing it; we need more storytelling from Haiti.

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The hapless couple, Andre and Tinamiz,

Machann Fig La

Soon after we meet Tinamiz, walking barefoot, past a green lake, we realize that her life goals (albeit modest) may be starting to slip away from her. She walks  through a verdant landscape on her way into town to sell her bananas.

The large bowl balanced on her head never seems to get any lighter. Tinamiz lives in the country with her young daughter Andrine. Times are hard. Before she leaves the house, half smiling, she grinds coffee by hand, strains it through a cloth and pours it into a thermos, to take to her husband (I enjoyed these details). 

Oh! There’s a husband. Where is he? Well, André (played by Josaphat Beauvais) is an artist, and “very busy” in the town of Jacmel. Tinamiz, meanwhile, cannot pay the school fee for her daughter, who is about to take exams. We first meet the wily André in his studio in the town. He seems to find no contradiction between elaborating to a visitor that a certain painting portrays the “reality of the Haitian woman in her struggle” – and minutes later viewing his wife’s dusty feet with some contempt. André has ambitions. “Honestly, is Tinamiz of my rank?” he asks his brother, not asking for more than a snicker from him. We later discover that Tinamiz is illiterate. And André is an opportunist of the highest order.

So, there is Tinamiz in her humble home: lonely, uncertain, “exhausted” mentally and physically (but still looking cool, beautiful and wide-eyed) – and not sleeping too well at nights. She is vulnerable. But she is patient, until… Well, you will have to watch it and see. 

If you are looking for “action” and adventure in this Caribbean tale, there is very little. This is because it is fundamentally about love (or the lack of it). Tinamiz’s long-suffering admirer, a street vendor who also sells minutes on his cell phone, confides to a stranger (Jimmy Jean-Louis), “Love is troublesome.”  The stranger, drinking alone on a verandah in the evening, says quite the opposite. 

The wayward André is not particularly interested in love at all – but then, neither are the other women that he dallies with. Expediency, convenience and personal advancement are much more important to them all. Relationships are a means to an end. 

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At this point, Tinamiz has had enough. And that loud, intrusive ring tone…

Visually, there is much to enjoy in this film. The city of Jacmel, with its old colonial buildings and dusty streets, has a great deal of charm and is lovingly filmed – a “stop thief!” scene in the market, a carpenter’s workshop, steps where the women sit, an old courtyard, the shade of trees where they sell their fruits. Tall, narrow doors and louvres and windows often frame one of the characters, as in the opening scene. After dealing with a tricky phone call, André pushes open a heavy door, returning to a room where an assignation awaits, one assumes. The metal school gate opens and closes. The inside as well as outside spaces speak of people’s lives.

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The cast and crew of Machann Fig La. (Facebook)

And there is art – plenty of it. Quite a lot of the story is played out in a spacious artist’s studio, filled mostly with paintings as well as some vibrant sculptures. If you love the energy of Haitian art, then this certainly enhances the narrative (and it is almost a distraction, as my eyes tried to take in all the works displayed). There is also music that reflects each mood – sometimes 

This is not exactly a feminist tale, although Tinamiz does receive support from other women, when needed. When she finally rebels against the wrongs done to her, it is because she has just simply had enough. Nevertheless, the film highlights the “misère” that the women of Haiti often endure – a word that is mentioned casually, once or twice by female characters. It encapsulates the constant struggle of their lives (which André romanticizes, but cares not about).

And life is a struggle. But still, it has its moments. And these small, delightful moments make this a very watchable film.

Machann Fig La will be screened on Friday, September 13 at The Royal, Toronto, alongside two shorts from Guadeloupe and Canada. You can purchase a ticket in advance here. 

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