Words by Lucy Shelley
A country clouded by the destructive histories of authoritarian men, has a silver lining in its network of business women: the Madan Sara. Etant Dupain’s enlightening documentary tells the impressive tale of the entrepreneurial spirit of the women who work tirelessly to provide food and goods to the people of Haiti, whilst supporting their families and providing jobs and opportunities for their communities. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere yet even though these impoverished women are relied upon by much of the Haitian population, the government refuses to acknowledge them as a formal business, thus denying them the security and safety they need. As a son of a Madan Sara, Dupain proudly displays this as part of his identity, introducing himself as a ‘journalist, filmmaker, and son of a Madan Sara’. Dupain’s documentary intimately spotlights these women in a brilliant story of female and Haitian strength and ingenuity conjuring great admiration for the women in a country so haunted by its past.
I joined the zoom call at eight in the evening back in January to watch a screening of Madan Sara, curious as to who I might see on the call, if anyone at all. Through the small screen of my computer, I was welcomed into a community of watchers, eager for the film to start, from England, France, Haiti and the US. Etant Dupain and the presenters introduced themselves and the film in French and English with many participants asking for Creole, the native language of Haiti. Whilst I was sat in my room, surrounded by a winter’s night, Dupain was sat with the hot Haitian summer sun beating through the window behind him. Across different climates and continents he gathered us together by listening to a Haitian song whilst we waited for more people to arrive. There was a sense of an assembling community on the call and I felt privileged to be a part. The importance of community continued through the film and is at the heart of the Madan Sara attitude.
The Madan Sara collect food and goods from the farmers in the mountains to transport them on a perilous journey in huge trucks to the cities to sell and distribute. Both the countryside and the cities heavily rely on the Madan Sara because the prices in Haiti are so high as most of the country’s produce are exported meaning that the Haitian inhabitants are consuming predominantly imported goods at a high price. A popular restaurant in Haiti, Le P’tit Creux, depends on the Madan Sara for 80% of the produce because the secret to the unique Haiti taste is the juice from fresh local spices rather than using dried alternatives. However, even though the Madan Sara are depended upon by much of the country, they are faced with issues of security and safety from thieves and gangs, which is exacerbated by the lack of support from the government.
The main obstacle that the Madan Sara face is the inability to get credit. Loans are risky because if the money is lost or stolen, not an unlikely eventuality in the lawlessness of Haiti, they can never pay it back, losing everything. ‘No one is looking out for us’ they cry, as the government marginalises these women, making them more vulnerable as victims of violence. All the historic marketplaces where the Madan Sara sell have been burned at least once. After an election had ended, a marketplace was set ablaze, showing the devastating inverse relationship between politics and the economy in Haiti. There is no water or public officials present to put out these fires, causing anger and raging demands that the President Jovenel Moïse must go. The film shows women and children hopelessly screaming as their whole livelihood has been destroyed before their eyes, and no one will help them. Just as a successful Madan Sara can support their family for generations, these fires and loss of business can destroy the hopes for just as many.
The screening was followed by a Q&A session, again spoken in both English, French and Creole, demonstrating the widespread attention this film is gaining, but also the intimacies and importance of familiar language within the community. I asked Etant Dupain ‘What is the future for the Madan Sara?’. His response was that the next step would be to help the Madan Sara modernise and gain access to credit. He wants to see the Madan Sara move from an informal business to a formal trade, with access to technology and greater knowledge. Dupain aims for this film to be greater than just a film, as he believes these women should be at the centre of the movement to rebuild Haiti. His film applauds the lives and indefatigability of these women whilst it also serves as an activist uncovering of the insufficiency of the government.