The death of Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme came as a shock to me! A great friend of Haiti, I owe him a great part of my career and who I am today!
I was 14 when I first heard of Jonathan – the day Philadelphia came out in Haiti. He inserted the Haitian voodoo song “Ibolele” by RAM in one scene with Denzel Washington. That was HUGE for us Haitians! Our music was in a big Hollywood movie!!! (I’m sure it was not the first time, since Haitian voodoo music has always been ubiquitous.) But this invaded me with a massive feeling of pride, hope and a stronger belief that sky is really the limit… I was on a quest to meet Jonathan, and personally thank him for what he had done to share my culture with the world.
MY FIRST CHANCE…
Years later, Haitian filmmaker Raphael Stines was adapting Frank Fouche’s book, Bouki nan Paradi. I had a lead role for one year in Pè-Toma, a TV series that was airing on the Haitian National Television at that time (directed by Stines), and I was dying to play in a movie. The problem is, there was no part for me in that upcoming movie. I would never forget that moment when Raphael told me he created a part so I could be in the movie. That was such an honor. I felt so lucky.
But Stines needed funds to make all possible… he had been knocking on doors for so long and could not find enough money to make the film. His last hope was that Jonathan Demme, his friend, accept to executive produce the film… otherwise, the project would have been in jeopardy. I will remember Jonathan Demme as the man who gave me my first chance as an actress: as a great friend of Raphael Stines, Jonathan executive-produced the very first film I ever played in: BOUKI NAN PARADI (directed by Stines). Without him, that movie would not have been made possible. I had the chance to tell Jonathan that in person, in New York City, at the event Haiti Optimiste (organized by Artists for Peace and Justice) few years ago. That was my first time meeting him in person. I told him “without you Jonathan, I would not have become the actress I became…” He looked at me genuinely, smiled and whispered: “Trust me, you would have, regardless.”
KEEP IT SIMPLE!
Then we talked about the Montreal Black Film Festival. When I told him we wanted to invite him to the Festival, he smiled, said he would love to come and reminded me that there was that Haitian film we should have at the fest too… He insisted that I invite some Haitian students from Jacmel’s Cine Institute to the Montreal Black Film Festival that year… To which I replied it was already all planned. And that’s Jonathan; he was all about opening doors for others. He became a fan of the festival and planned to attend.
I was so excited that I sent him an email with exact details of how we would welcome him and all the activities and events that would surround his coming to the Montreal Black Film Festival… (That was huge)! To welcome him, we need brand new red carpets, great wine, lots of cameras, international and national press, press conferences, balloons… then we would have a movie-talk and a master class… what about an after-party (Lord, does he love to party?? Maybe I should ask him… after all we put together after-parties and/or great red-carpets for Spike Lee, Danny Glover, Martin Luther King III, Stedman Graham, Clement Virgo, Souleymane Cissé, Kim Nguyen, Dany Laferrière, Darryl Roodt, and many other great filmmakers from around the world). I was ready to have to world stop for his arrival in the city. And since he is also one of the biggest Haitian arts collectors, I thought it would be a marvelous idea to also have his collection featured… Anything for Jonathan!
Jonathan was quick to reply to his emails (at least anytime I would email him.) Overly excited, I wrote quite a long email to him that day. To which he replied: “Fab, you don’t have to do all that. Let me simply come as a filmmaker with a film, followed by a discussion/master class. No red carpet, no party or anything fancy.” I could NOT believe my eyes!!! Jonathan was more concerned about the festival having to spend too many resources on his attendance… and that attention goes to him rather than to the festival and other filmmakers… He wanted to (almost) come incognito. Is there a greater sign of generosity!!! I remember telling him jokingly “Jonathan Demme coming to the Montreal Black Film Festival incognito?? I don’t believe I can promise that!” He had a great sense of humour and was such a nice down to earth human being!
Unfortunately he could not make it that year (he had a film to wrap up). We promised to try and make it happen another year… this year, since 2017 commemorates the 375th anniversary of Montreal. But Jonathan left us this year. Though he will not be able to attend the fest, I know he will be celebrating with us all. And most of all, he will be watching over us, reunited with his friend Raphael Stines, somewhere up-there… They were two great human beings who touched so many lives in a positive way… (including mine). May they both rest in peace!
GREAT, INSPIRING LEGENDARY FILMMAKER…
While we should all remember him as the one who directed films like The Silence of the Lamb with Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, Beloved with Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey, The Agronomist with Jean Dominique… and many many many more, let’s also remember him as the activist, philanthropist, the one who has helped many young Haitian creators… the one who added so many Haitian songs in his great Hollywood films… the one who opened doors for so many…
I will remember him as the warm, nice, down to earth, Haiti lover, generous man who never took himself seriously. It was an honor knowing you Jonathan!!!
This was not a Blog Post like any other I post every week… Feel free to share with your Network on social media so they too can discover this side of Jonathan…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award-winning actress, filmmaker, speaker and business owner, Fabienne Colas is the ‘Queen of Festivals’ and founder of a successful entertainment & media empire – which includes 7 successful festivals in Canada, the USA and Haiti; a production company and several other ventures. CEO/Founder of Zaza Production, Fabienne helps people unlock their greatness, launch their products and services, reposition their brand and bring their business to the next level.