Some dreamers have the power to inspire us, bring us together, and help us reconnect with our humanity. Alain Philoctète, a Haitian artist and activist who settled in Quebec, returns to the country of his birth to develop a permaculture project with local farmers. There, he has an emotional reunion with family members and his former comrades in arms, whose ideals remain unshaken despite the lingering aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and political instability. However, Alain, who is suffering from cancer, has to undergo treatment in Montreal, where his loved ones provide the same degree of affection and solidarity as he receives in Haiti. Director Will Prosper films this inspiring dreamer on his hopeful quest, chronicling the challenges of exile and illness with the personal, knowing touch of a longtime friend. With a rich score composed by Jenny Salgado, Kenbe la offers a cinematic journey that will move viewers to ponder the importance of embracing ideals and passing them on.
Some dreamers inspire us, bring us closer together, and help us reconnect with our humanity. Alain Philoctète is one of them. A poet, painter and activist, he’s driven by deeply held values: sharing, solidarity, and the dignity of work. Whether he’s out in a farm field, standing in front a canvas, or with the people who matter in his life, he casts a loving gaze on the world around him. After having fled political persecution in Haiti and finding a haven in Quebec, this lover of art and agriculture returns to the land of his ancestors, where a local ecovillage becomes a source of inspiration. Far from considering himself a “saviour,” Alain favours taking an approach that’s all about mutual learning and enrichment: only by listening to the farmers’ concerns and understanding their experiences will he succeed in making his permaculture project a reality.
His trip leads to an emotional reunion with family members and his former comrades in arms: intellectuals and activists who had fought for access to farmland, and whose peasant rights groups were violently repressed by forces allied with the big landowners. Over the years, Alain has never given up on his struggle for dignified labour and a proud nation, but he now takes a different path: “Before, it was with guns. Today, it’s in other ways….” The dream remains a fragile one in this country still reeling from the devastating earthquake in 2010 and fraught with unending political instability, but the culture of resistance, organized around the traditional social structure of the lakou, lives on.
But Alain faces another personal challenge: he’s battling cancer and must undergo taxing chemotherapy treatments in Quebec. Along with his partner, Chantal, and their son, Malcolm, Alain’s support group in Montreal provides him with the same kindness and solidarity as his companions in Haiti do. Alain doesn’t fear death—but he’s not prepared to give up on his projects. As the Creole proverb goes: Kenbe la! “Never give up!”
Alain’s longtime friend, director Will Prosper, films this inspiring dreamer on his hopeful journey, chronicling this sometimes arduous tale of exile and illness with a personal, knowing touch. Highlighting the contrasts between the lush Haitian countryside and the icy landscapes of Quebec, and graced with a score by Jenny Salgado (J-Kyll) that brilliantly reinvents traditional Caribbean rhythms, Kenbe la offers a rare vision of Haiti: one expressed by “lovers of humane humanity,” as Chantal so poetically puts it. Through the portrait of Alain and the people around him, the film moves us to ponder our own ideals and our willingness to pass them on, and imparts a universal message of hope that is sorely needed today, no matter what obstacles we may face.
“What do you think, Alain: should I make a film about you?” I asked him.
“A film about me? But why?” came his reply.
I’m always fascinated by people who are so humble that they’re simply unaware of how valuable they are. Of their influence on our lives. Of their accomplishments. Without realizing it, they are diamonds in the rough, buried in an environment that doesn’t allow them to shine.
Kenbe la, pa molli (“Hold tight, don’t slack up”), the expression Alain often uses when we say goodbye to each other, always stirs the same emotions in me. Coming from the mouth of this fighter, the words are like a gentle yet oh-so-resolute call to push on until victory is achieved.
The first time I met Alain, at an activist gathering, it felt like we’d known each other forever. When he speaks to you and listens to you, you become the most important person in the world. And like the true philosopher he is, he charms you with his stories, with the vast knowledge he’s gained through all the struggles. He sows the seeds of resistance in your mind, building a bridge between you and him. With every meeting, the more I learned about him, the more a film was taking shape in my mind.
Why a film about you, you ask? My dear Alain, let me tell you.
I’m part of that new generation of filmmakers who are the product of two cultures, seemingly distant from each other, between which I too am striving to build bridges. I wanted to make this film to show you, beyond the image, with your deep, abiding roots in Haitian culture, your humanism—everything that makes you the person you are. And because talking about you is opening up to “we,” in a way. We, who are now more comfortable and assertive with our artistic talents, driven by a prolific musical, poetic and visual culture.
When I started writing the film you inspired in me, there was no intent to take the story outside Quebec. I wanted to document the quest of the dreamer torn between his desire to improve the lives of his fellow citizens in Haiti and that of spreading a message of freedom here, and sparking an activist flame in the service of the kind of humanity that seeks not to dominate others, but listen to them as equals. But our lives sometimes take unexpected turns, and yours was suddenly thrown into turmoil by cancer and the chemotherapy treatments you had to endure, restricting travel and ruining your dream of returning to your native Haiti.
Faced with the choice of starting chemo right away or delaying it, you decided, with the support of your wife, Chantal, to take the risk and wait: you wanted to go back to Haiti first. So now I would be accompanying my friend on an emotional journey. My film took on a new dimension.
Haiti is often depicted through its capital, Port-au-Prince, while the countryside is far less often explored. To think that in 1944, the Jacques Roumain wrote sumptuously of his love for that land and its people in Gouverneurs de la rosée (“Masters of the Dew”), the great classic of Haitian literature. His protagonist, Manuel, returned from the sugar plantations of Cuba to teach modern agriculture techniques to the farmers in the village of Fonds-Rouge. Seventy-five years later, we go from the printed page to the film frame, from Manuel to Alain, from Quebec to the Forêt des Pins, in a setting as sumptuously treated and dreamt of as that of its creators.
Ayiti, the island’s name in the language of the Taíno, its first inhabitants, means “land of high mountains.” I made a point of shooting aerial images to capture the splendour of the country and illustrate the sort of gentle floating, almost angelic, between the reality on the ground and the view from up there—recalling the spirituality of the people, who so often invoke heavenly protections in their everyday affairs. With you plunging ahead to encounter the peasant soul, in your quest for learning and collaboration.
Because the dream you’ve embraced is about returning to the land, it seemed essential for me to visually underscore the stifling feeling of the capital and the breath of liberation that comes with a return to the Haitian countryside.
I accompanied you all throughout your journey, sharing a closeness that continued once we returned to Quebec—yet was amplified, because then I began to share your home space. Saw your loyal and brave partner, Chantal, shouldering your life’s burden for both of you. Saw your son, Malcolm, the introverted teen going through this difficult time by swimming beneath the current, emerge as the next generation’s messenger, to whom you want to pass the torch. Doors opened, like Russian dolls multiplying the emotional resonance of the film, binding us more and more to you as you endured these excruciating moments.
It was difficult for me to watch you suffer through the treatments, and more painful still to record those moments of such vulnerability. There is a fine line that you can’t cross as a documentary filmmaker: you must preserve your subjects’ dignity no matter how generous they are willing to be, while making sure to convey the authenticity of what they’re going through. Seeing you suffer was the toughest thing I’ve ever experienced as a documentary maker, because most of all I was your friend, and that stirred feelings and emotions—though I know they were out of proportion to what you and your family were experiencing. In spite of it all, Alain, with your health declining, your spirit rose, becoming more luminous than ever, and you were suffused with a poetic beauty. Comrade, you shook my world even as you nourished my reflections about the tiny souls that we are.
My preference is for director-driven films that don’t hide music, nor hide within it, but accommodate its presence, like a character who is neither too talkative nor too reserved. For this film, I wanted music as vibrant as the people of the West Indies, a soundtrack that would spring from the roots, the heart and soul of Haiti. To my mind, there was no one who could write it but composer and musicologist Jenny Salgado. She and I decided very early on to use period instruments, but with contemporary compositions.
I didn’t want a film that would be a typical propagandist broadside. But since your activist spirit is deeply rooted, KENBE LA inevitably touches on many progressive issues—but with finesse, and without any kind of political agenda. I was more interested in engaging the audience to connect with you, Alain, through your poetry, philosophy, empathy, and humanism.
That’s why I made this film about you, my friend.
(Will Prosper, June 2019)
A film by
With the participation of
Researched, Written and Directed by
Production Manager (Haiti)
Shooting Consultant (Haiti)
Technical Consultant – Camera
Technical Support – Editing
Translation and Subtitling
Guitar André Courcy
Piano Alain Legagneur
Piano Martin Courcy
Percussion, keyboard and other instruments Jenny Salgado
Mal du pays
Composed by Emmanuel Charlemagne and Francine Chouinard
Performed by Emmanuel “Manno” Charlemagne
Music Rights Research
Éric Idriss Kanago
Georges Antoine Noël
Dr. Paul Perrotte
BLACK ON BLACK FILMS
Collège Jean-Price Mars
Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal
ECO VILAJ HINCHE
MOUVEMENT PAYSAN PAPAYE
La route de Champlain
La Régie des installations olympiques
Acting Development Producer
NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA
© 2019 NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA