Life Outside of Pearl: From Dream to Film Reality
By Pierre E. Auguste
Jul. 9, 2009
Uscla "Johnny" Desarmes: Director of"Life Outside of Pearl"
With such a small Haitian population out here in Los Angeles, you
cannot imagine the excitement shared by my wife and me as we
stood in the lobby of Uscla “Johnny” Desarmes’ home in Hollywood
waiting to meet him. When you’re far away from home — which
in my case is the northeast, the Mecca for Haitians in the U.S.—
you’re never sure what to expect from your fellow countrymen.
Johnny looked super-cool dressed fashionable in t-shirt and jeans, and for a second I actually felt like I worked for Vanity Fair and Stephen Spielberg was inviting me up to his apartment. That all changed as we stepped into the elevator, where the “Sak pase” greetings were exchanged and he immediately did something that many Haitians do when displaying the warm hospitality from the culture: He let us know that “diri kole” was awaiting us upstairs and that he hoped we brought our appetites. As we stepped into his apartment we were immediately greeted by the aroma of good Haitian food and at that point we knew we were home.
We were there to discuss “Life Outside Of Pearl,” Desarmes’ first feature-length film. Of course the “Pearl” that Desarmes is referencing is the island of Haiti, which historically has been viewed as “La Perle Des Antilles or Pearl of The Caribbean”. As to whether or not Haiti will ever be recognized by the world as this Pearl once again is a question that only time and action can answer. However, that can be left for another article.
Desarmes has spent the better part of the last seven years of his life fighting tooth and nail in an effort to not only make this film a reality but also to put it into the hands of the Haitian audience that he loves so dearly. Life outside of “pearl” is a topic that has undoubtedly taken center stage at many Haitian barbershops, restaurants and homes over the years. It’s a concept that most Haitian-Americans that migrated to the States find hard to get their arms around. As we sat around the island in his kitchen eating and discussing the film, Johnny and Ruth spent a better part of the evening reminiscing about Haiti, identifying with life after moving to the States and in particular how hard it was to assimilate to this new way of life.
Only after a short while did I realize that even then in that very moment I was experiencing life outside of pearl. There have been countless ways over the years that Haitian-Americans in particular have had to adapt to two cultures: one that comes strictly from the roots of Haiti and another that takes into account the American way of life. We’ve struggled greatly as to how to merge the two and that, in my mind is what seems to makes this film magnificent.
Life Outside of PearlCast with an all-Haitian selection of actors, including “Heroes” star Jimmy Jean-Louis, Johnny Desarmes has written and directed an amazing piece that finally coherently details the coping of a Haitian-American family to life in inner city New Jersey. The film was shot entirely in 35mm and is the first full length feature film of this magnitude in the history of Haitian filmmaking. There have been several films that have attempted to do this but none have come close to this level of success. The film incorporates hints of the common struggles that most families deal with: a teenage son having to choose which path to take in life; a father, working hard to provide for his family and a loving wife struggling with the romance interests of her teenage daughter.
That’s the easy part. You see, what I was quickly able to ascertain —much to Desarmes’ pleasure— was his ability to showcase the degree to which these struggles turn into problems, all the while maintaining the interest of the many generations of Haitian people and all people for that matter, that are watching. This is a film that can hold the interest of the 16 year-old urban dweller and his mother, whom by the way would be blown away by the performance of the renowned Carole Demesmin, one of the film’s stars who also happens to be one of the greatest performers in Haitian music. This film will also attract mid-30s professionals, taxi drivers, grandma and everyone else under the sun purely because it is that far-reaching. The movie, from beginning to end has many life problems that penetrate all walks of life.
The beauty of the film however is two fold: Desarmes’ depiction of these familiar issues was done in a way that is captivating and he also introduces concerning matters that are seemingly kept hidden in our community. This is one of the reasons that “Life Outside of Pearl” goes beyond the walls of the Haitian culture.
Desarmes couldn’t stress enough his dedication to give back to Haiti and in essence put his money where his mouth is. His goal is to raise $500,000 through sales of the DVD which was released on May 18th of this year (Haitian Flag Day).
His dream would be to raise these funds strictly from the Haitian community and to use this film as the bridge that can bring us all back together so that the phrase “L’union Fait La Force” means something again.
As we left his apartment that night it suddenly became clear that this was more than just a film for Johnny Desarmes. From one perspective it was a culmination of his life’s work. Desarmes is — in a way— beginning his filmmaking career in the manner that many directors end theirs. In response to why or how a film such as this that carries so much thought and history could be his first, he emphatically responds: “I put Haiti first not because I care to, because for me, Haiti has to be first.”
I couldn’t help but feel empowered by those words and can only imagine what our country could look like if we all not only felt this way but actually tried to do something about it. We can all start by seeing this film.
Pierre E. Auguste is a regular contributor to the Boston Haitian Reporter. Originally from Boston, he and his wife live in
Los Angeles, CA.