Shirley Bruno: A Reeling tribute to Haitian culture

American-Haitian film-maker Shirley Bruno is part of a new multicultural generation of artists who can help change perspectives on Haiti.  With six short-films to her credit so far, her modern work contributes to the artistic revival of the Haitian culture while also asserting a strong and independent artistic voice


Shirley Bruno  ©LeFresnoy

Common representations of Haiti are often stereotyped. When  the media focus on devastating earthquakes, hurricanes, and poverty, films tend to emphasise the toll of corruption and of local religion. Haiti thus inspired many foreign films and even more documentaries. Some old political films denouncing the Duvalier dictatorship can be found such as Haïti le chemin de la liberté (1974) by Arnold Antonin. Regarding documentaries, the classic The Divine Horsemen: The living gods of Haiti (1963) by Maya Deyren, is about Haitian vaudou.

There is much more to know about this country however, and  viewers can grasp it through Shirley Bruno’s work. Haiti is never far from the film-maker’s heart. Deeply attached to her home country, Bruno claims: “the traditional and older part of our culture really influences my work. Things like folklore that have very deep roots”.  Currently being shown in galleries, airing on TV5 Monde, and being in contest at many festivals, her one-reeler Tezen, adds to a body of work that gives a new perspective on Haiti.

Reviving a dying tradition

The Haitian heritage Bruno gets inspiration from is deeply rooted in the Creole oral culture and folklore. For a long time, inhabitants used to tell stories orally. People would sit around at night and tell stories to each other.  This however, is a dying tradition says Shirley Bruno: “As I grew up hearing stories like that, it was important to me to preserve that culture, and to show that it is still in us, in our psyche, that it is all around us”. 

Adapted from an old Haitian tale, Tezen (2016) displays a mysterious Haiti. It is the story of a girl who meets a water spirit. Friend or lover, their relationship is blurry but deep. He gives her pure water, but soon, her family begins to suspect the water’s origin. Fearing this unordinary relationship, they end up killing the mysterious spirit.

In Haiti, all traditional tales change as they are being told: while telling the story, people would put their own interpretation in them. This oral tradition is what fascinates Shirley the most: “I feel like I make a film just on these interpretations. I wanted to stay ambiguous: in a way, it is my ode to the way you tell stories like this. I wanted to keep it open so people can make their own version of the story. Besides, I am very curious to know people’s interpretations.” Thus, the end of Tezen might differ according to the version, providing viewers an access to these ancestral traditions and a lot to think about after watching it.


Trailer of Tezen                    © Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival

Visually rooted feelings as universal language

Living and working alternately between Haiti, Brooklyn and Paris, the young film-maker has a rich multicultural background that participates in her inspiration: “I have both extremes in me, but I need to have this difference in my life. I think that you see it in my films: the one I made before Tezen [Dear Pauline Jean], was set in New York, very city-like. Tezen is the opposite”. Thus, these different environments offer diverse perspectives and balance and help Shirley Bruno address universal issues.

Haitian immigration to the United States dates back to the 1950s. Leaving Haiti for political or economic reasons, all Haitian immigrants were seeking for a better life. New York has become home for the oldest Haitian community and this is where Shirley Bruno grew up before she was given the possibility to experience life in Europe.

The universal issues dealt with develop through a few common features that make her short movies. Equivocal silences fill her stories and images convey deep feelings. In Tezen, Shirley Bruno explores spaces between the real and the mythical world. The individual and his social relations are highlighted as well: the story flirts with the intimate feelings people carry in them, and the proximity and distance within a family. As always, solitude and unspoken words are outlined, since her films are scattered with silences. Words are unsaid. Her images shout louder than any other words and express so much. Through her visually beautiful short-films, Shirley tries to reach out to our deepest feelings within us.

Filming as the perfect art form 

Films blend many arts and thus talk to various people and address serious issues without them knowing it. Surprisingly, Shirley did not always want to be a film-maker: she thought she was meant to be a writer, just like her father. She grew up writing poetry and short-stories. However, as soon as she went to university, her world opened: she discovered what cinema really was. Many films attracted her such as Jean Luc Godard’s “Le Mépris” and “Joanne of Arcfor instance. Being a film-maker became obvious: “I realized film was such a powerful medium because of imageries. To me, it is stronger than other art forms. It is very powerful and so unconscious the way images can fit you and affect you. That was what really sparked the drive”.

Shirley graduated from The London Film School and Le Fresnoy – Studio National des Arts Contemporains in France, both with distinction. Today, various other artists inspire her as well, such as film directors Michael Hui Koon-Man, Apichatpong Weerasethakul —who did films like Tropical Malady, the Portuguese director Pedro Costa and the Polish director, Kieślowski. Some writers such as African-American novelist, Toni Morrisson or Japanese metaphysical novelist, Haruki Murakani, were among her influencers as well. “This is what I love about films is that you can use all of these things: music, dance, choreography, art direction, writing. It is one of the unique art forms in that way as all of it comes into play”.

Prized creative independence

For new film-makers, winning fame proves to be a challenge. Fortunately, awards enable them to bring more visibility on their work: being in film festivals and winning awards definitely give them great opportunities to publicize their work to the general public. This is why film-makers are dependent on awards, and this is what happened to Shirley Bruno: she was the happy 2016 laureate of the famous awarded French prize, StudioPrix Collector. Created by video art collectors Isabelle and John-Lemaïtre, Shirley had the pleasure to meet them: “They are very amazing people, they really care about video art, film and cinema. They have so much passion about it. It is really nice to be now associated with them”. Furthermore, this fame gave the film-maker access to new finances for her other works. Thus, she was awarded funding from the National Greek Film Centre to support her latest animated film, An Excavation of Us (2017).

All this spotlight gave Shirley more freedom with new experimentations. Now, her way of working stands out as a film-maker: she works without a script. While people tried to dissuade her, she proved them wrong. She uses mostly visuals, photographs and storyboards. Shirley also chose to work with a small crew, to get everyone involved in her work: «We were only 4 people for Tezen. My crews are getting smaller. I really like this way since it is more intimate, like a family».

            As for Shirley’s future plans, a first feature film is now in development with the support of La Cité Internationale des Arts. Still set in Haiti, the story will focus on an aunt and niece story, fighting over the family land issues. Shirley is even trying to convince her own aunt to be part of the cast: “For me, something that affects the story a lot, is who I cast. The story will change depending on it, as I like to use their real lives and their experiences. It is kind of blurring the line between documentary and fiction. So right now, I have to cast the people and that is how my story develops”.

With this long-feature film, Shirley Bruno is ready to spread her wings for another round. So, stay tuned!


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