Daniel M. Torres — alias “Luky” — is, in his own words, a soldier of film. If his name doesn’t look familiar yet, it should soon. As a member of Mexico’s Infinito Corazón collective, he’s the director behind many of the original music videos and vibey video content featured on our D.F. partner site New Weird Latin America, and was DP and editor of this summer’s Remezcla collaboration “Meant to Be.” But it wasn’t a music video that brought him to Haiti’s Cite Soleil, one of the poorest and most violent slums in the world — it was the desire to document the incredible resilience, magic, and optimism of communities who, too often, are portrayed simply as impotent victims of poverty and foreign interventionism (if they are depicted at all). Or in Luky’s words: “The magic [of Haiti] has to be shared before it is absolutely destroyed.”
Last month, he packed his bags and, alongside alongside childhood friend Jose “Shaggy” Hiriart, took off for Toussaint Louverture International Airport to make a documentary about Haiti under the auspices of his independent film production company Cine DMT.
That’s how he found himself, just a few days later, in the heart of Cite Soleil talking to Cyborg Dance, a collective of people who dance to fight violence in the Cite and provide positive spaces for the young people who live there.
It wasn’t long before a collaboration was afoot: the dancers needed a demo reel, and D.F. producer Fvded (aka Jesus Torres) needed a music video for his track “Barreto.” At first glance, the artists may seem like strange bedfellows, but in a way they make sense — both Cyborg Dance and Fvded belong to a generation that understands that the dance floor can be just as political as any protest. That a fight to change the world can take place at a party, with a bottle of mezcal or Barbancourt rum.
Below, read more about Cyborg Dance in Jose “Shaggy” Hiriart’s first-person account of the time spent getting to know them.
Cyborg Dance and Fvded belong to a generation that understands that the dance floor can be just as political as any protest.
“See, for us here at Cite Soleil, sometimes it hurts. It hurts a lot to see this image they are projecting of us here at the Cite. Inside the Cite not everything is wrong. There are a lot of young people. The majority of young people… I can say the majority of the people did finish school… They all practice a trade… and want to keep going and they can’t because a lack of means. But what they are saying about us is not true and this is not, not true”.
The square-jawed man who just finished saying those words leans his back against a concrete wall. Next to him, about 5 to 15 men talk about what it’s like to be a struggling artist living in the poorest ghetto of North America.
One name comes up a lot: Cyborg Dance. Someone named Delf explains. “Cyborg Dance is not a dance group; it’s a collective of people who dance together in order to fight against the violence in Cite Soleil. That’s why Cyborg Dance put up a dance school for the children of the Cite, so that those children can have the privilege of having somewhere to enjoy themselves… Now, tell me what are you doing to help the Cite? How can you help us?”
We don’t really look like journalists which is probably a good thing. According to a doctor and molecular biology professor, who now works as guide, translator, and/or driver, a couple of weeks ago a group of 17 journalists came to Cite Soleil and were robbed at gunpoint of their cameras, wallets, watches, and clothes. There seems to be a confusion. These 6 to 16 people think we are here as representatives of some foreign NGO. Why else would we be there talking to them about their problems?
In Haiti — as probably everywhere else in the world — foreign aid is, for the most part, a scam. Most of the money never reaches Haitian hands. Most organizations place the priorities of the local people, and localities they claim to be there to help, below the priorities of the people who fund them.
In Haiti — as probably everywhere else in the world — foreign aid is, for the most part, a scam.
A quick example. In 2010, after the earthquake, CRS (Catholic Relief Services) conducted a study regarding what people thought was needed the most in their communities. The results were clear. The people wanted schools built. However, the Episcopal Commission thought it was more important to improve the quality of education, to get better teachers, Catholic teachers. In a way, Haitians were saying “we know what we need, we want the tools, we don’t want you to tell us how to use them.” But for the poor even charity comes at a cost.
That’s why foreign aid has been such a big disaster for the western part of la Hispaniola “The road to hell is paved with Christian Missionaries,” they say around here.
It doesn’t matter how well intentioned — or not — these foreign aid workers are. Any agenda which seeks to ease the burden of life in a particular society, without really taking into consideration the nuances of said society, is set to fail in the best of cases or to destroy a culture in the worst.
We try to explain our position to the dancers of Cite Soleil. We are here to document some aspects of life in Haiti. Unfortunately, for us and them, we didn’t come with a lot of money to spend or too many promises to break. If we personally can help them in any way, we will. Why not? If we can’t, we won’t.
Def goes: “Here is what is important. For example, you can imagine, you can see at Cite Soleil, when an NGO comes and does some projects. Some internet cafes and some other things, but they don’t last long. The reason why they don’t last long is because young people do not know the value of those things.”
Def knows something. I don’t know if I know or he knows exactly what, but Def knows something.
Internet cafes don’t last long when people don’t care about them.
If things are to get better in Cite Soleil it will be thanks to the likes of Def and Luckman.
If the world is ever going to change in a way that benefits the masses, the change has to start at schools or on the dance floor, with a party, and with Barbancourt rum.
Def goes on, “Young people haven’t been educated. What is most important for us, for Cyborg, for other artists? We need to have a center, a center of education. When I say a center of education, I mean one that makes people know if an artist has made a painting, why has he made it? What it represented for him? When some other people, other young people see it, for them not only to pay attention to it or break it. That is to say, if we’d had a center which is forming young people, it would be good for us. And then it will help us move from the negative towards the positive.”
The neighborhood was renamed Trois Bebes after three nameless babies were found dead on the sidewalk. Behind a white metallic gate, just past some sort of uneven patio, a large construction – 10 meters tall? – learns to cope with the melancholy of being a building in Tres Bebes, Cite Soleil.
What is this place? It could be anything. An abandoned mansion, a church, a community center. The floors shine as the sunlight filters through the strainer, framed by two Virgin Marys, that serves as a wall.
Cyborg Dance uses this place as a studio. Def and other members of the collective show the outsiders what they can do. It smells of rum.
Few peoples have ever fought so hard to be masters of their own destiny.
“Everyone drinks here,” someone told us the day before, “if you don’t see them drinking right now, if you don’t see a bottle, it’s because they are hiding it; we know it’s wrong but what else can we do?”
But the people of Cyborg Dance are not drunk, or at least they don’t appear to be. They jump, slide, do backflip after backflip to the sound of the echo of their shoes crashing against the floor. There is no music playing. They can’t afford to buy a radio. La vie chere.
This fact makes their movements seem a bit off. Then you begin to hear the invisible music and everything starts to make sense.
For roughly an hour they shake their skeletons for the cameras as if there was no tomorrow. It is madness in its most direct form. People rolling on the the ground, joking, clapping, sweating, dancing just for the sake of dancing. Maybe sometimes being alive is better than being dead.
“It’s like they don’t care about the people in Cite Soleil. It’s like we don’t have good people. I’m an artist, I’m involved in the local culture; dance, national production. These are the things I can do but I’ve never had anybody to support me. And we have a dancing school at Cite Lumiere, we wanted to take care of it, to train the children, to prevent them from getting involved in violence, but because of a lack of means we began and we stopped. I mean, we already have the school but we don’t have the structure.”
Cite Soleil, like Haiti, is not poor because of a lack of talent amongst the population. Their misery is not an accident either. “This place is poor because it is strong.” Few peoples have ever fought so hard to be masters of their own destiny as the Haitian people have.
Since becoming the first Black State in 1804, Haiti has been judged as a glitch in the system, a place, a culture, that shouldn’t exist.
They want to dance even if they have no music.
More recently, United States-led imperialists have invested a considerable amount of resources to try and turn the country into the “Taiwan of the Caribbean,” — a tropical land of cheap labor, sweat shops, beach resorts, and Walmarts. To attract foreign investors, who will supposedly benefit Haiti by exploiting its resources at highway robbery prices, the U.S. has been working non-stop to change Haitian cultural identity, way of life, and practices into a less dreamy photocopy of the American Dream.
They have manufactured a tragedy instead.
Even Haitians who practice Christianity are not Christian, they are Boudou. They want to eat rice with beans and chicken not bacon cheeseburgers and spaghetti. They want to dance even if they have no music to do it to.
It’s as simple as that. Def and company know it.
After a while the dancing stops. The crew gets together for a final group photo. The sun is going down. An argument breaks out in the background. They advise us to put our cameras in their cases.
We walk out and say goodbye before going our separate ways.
They will go home to talk illuminated by the light of candles and stars. If it rains their place will get flooded. We get in the car and head back to the room we are renting, we’ll spend the night drinking Prestige and using the internet.