Samuel Suffren, filmmaker and winner of “Visas pour la création”

I felt the need to talk about Haiti from within to find my identity.

Director and filmmaker Samuel Suffren runs the association Kit, a collective of Haitian photographers and filmmakers. A recipient of the Paul Robeson prize at the FESPACO festival for his film Agwe, he explores his country and the issue of migration in his eclectic work. Between two projects, he tells us about his key inspirations and a nation with an imposing legacy. 

Updated on 26/05/2023

5 min

Samuel Suffren

Can you tell us a little about your background? When did your passion for film first develop? 

Having been a photographer for a long time, my interest in film came from that first love. I then met a community of filmmakers at the Ciné Institute de Jacmel in Haiti, where I set up a film club. Back then, we’d watch films by Wong Kar-wai and Pier Paolo Pasolini, which had a huge impact on me. It was at this point that I began to have a cinematographic vision, a desire to tell a different story. I felt the need to talk about Haiti from within to find my identity. 


You run the association Kit, a collective of Haitian photographers and filmmakers based in Port-au-Prince. How did the project start out? 

The starting point was, once again, a film club. There were around twenty of us and we had a little space below where I lived, where we watched films every Sunday. We then wanted to launch a documentary month, because it was a genre that was difficult to see, and ultimately we decided that it would be better to enable more people enjoy it. Documentary month eventually became documentary week and we came up with a festival, which is now in its 5th edition. We also set up audiovisual training, a multimedia content platform and photography projects. 


Your film, Agwe, explores issues surrounding migration and the topic of boat people. What was your major inspiration when choosing to tell this story? 

I was truly born with the American dream, because my father wanted to travel to the United States at all costs. He took a boat in 1980 when he was 30, but he never arrived at his destination and ended up at sea for twenty-two days with nothing to eat or drink. Luckily, he and the other passengers were rescued by a trade ship returning to Haiti. My father told me this story at great length and hoped that I would go to the United States. Meanwhile, I travelled a lot, be it to Europe or Canada, but I never visited the United States, maybe for that reason. My father eventually died without ever having set foot there and, since then, I’ve developed a kind of obsession about the subject. How can a Haitian get on a boat and leave his homeland, his motherland? So I focused on the person who stays and how you can wait for someone for ten, fifteen or twenty years, sometimes with no hope of them returning. 


Agwe won the Paul Robeson prize for diaspora films at the FESPACO Festival in 2023. Did this prize have an impact on the film’s distribution? 

Above all, I was very happy and proud that the film was so well received at FESPACO, because I really identify with African cinema. Being recognised by your peers is hugely important. The film was actually included in some major selections before it got to FESPACO, but this prize was a turning point, an accolade that meant a lot to me. Then came a request for it to be played at a museum in France and even at some universities in the USA, which gave this award an even more special resonance. 

Adapting a book represents a way of blocking the viewer’s imagination and I had to own that responsibility.

Your upcoming feature film, Je m’appelle Nina Shakira (My name is Nina-Shakira) is inspired by Makenzy Orcel's novel Les Immortelles (The Immortals). What made you decide to adapt this novel? 

I really remember the day I read Les Immortelles for the first time: I was on holiday, in a little house, and I was deeply moved by this very short text, built from fragments. Right from the start, I said to myself “I’m going to adapt this”. I had heard of Makenzy Orcel, but it hadn’t especially occurred to me that it was written by a man. I really read it as a text that was hard to assign a sex to, to say whether it had come from a man or a woman, because it is so feminist. The book inhabited me for years: I felt that there was a huge amount of work to do to bring it to the screen, especially as it was to be the first novel adapted by a Haitian. 


In 2022, you won the Institut français’ “Visa for Creation” programme, which included a residency at the Maison des Écritures of the Centre Intermondes in La Rochelle. How did this support help you to make progress on the film? 

Having time to write in Haiti has become a real luxury. It’s especially difficult in Port-au-Prince, because the city is such a chaotic space now. This support was so beneficial to me: I was shut away in a house with a park opposite me and precious time available. I was able to go back over the text, understand the violence of subjecting it to my own imagination and allow myself a lot of freedom with it. It’s an independent piece of material with a lot of proposals for dramatisation, which haven’t been resolved. Adapting it like that represents a way of blocking the viewer’s imagination and I had to own that responsibility. 


You are currently taking part in the collective exhibition Entre là, an exploration of insularity, at the Casa Conti. How did this collaboration come about? 

I was contacted by a gallerist who had seen Agwe and wanted to invite me to join a collective of filmmakers who have explored insularity. I agreed, because I felt it was important for the public to be able to access the film and learn about the problematics of “elsewhere”, of migration. I also liked the idea of the film being played in a loop in a space. I have already done several screenings in museums during my career and I like the loop as a format where, each time it comes around, you notice something you hadn’t seen before. The idea of the collective also really spoke to me and I’m really happy with the film’s journey today. 


What are your upcoming projects? Is there a release date for your fictional feature film, Je m’appelle Nina Shakira? 

We don’t have a release date for Je m’appelle Nina Shakira for the moment. We’re developing the film and hope to produce it next year. It’s important for us, because it’s a project with a certain cost to it and you have to remember that there are no state subsidies in Haiti. I’m also working on a trilogy, the first part of which was Agwe, and I’ve just finished the second short, called La Cassette. This time, a man is waiting for a woman who has taken a boat. It should be played at festivals at the end of the year. Next year, I’m doing the final part, focused on the child who has to wait. I’m also working on the documentary on my father, which is called De l'autre côté de la mer, and am currently scouting out the American dream that formed the backdrop to my childhood. 

L'institut français, LAB