Artist Joanna Malinowska talks about Halka/Haiti, the panoramic film project she and her partner CT Jasper produced for the Polish Pavilion at the 56th Venice Art Bienniale. Inspired by a little known chapter in Polish history and Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, they brought the Polish national opera company to the mountain village of Cazale, in Haiti. With Polish performers, and local musicians and dancers, they presented Poland’s national opera Halka to the town’s Polish descendants. The film of the performance on view in the biennial effectively brings Haiti to Venice.
Sound Editor: Kris McConnachie
CATHY BYRD: This is Fresh Talk with Polish artist Joanna Malinowska. We meet on the steps outside the Polish Pavilion during preview days of the 56th Venice Art Bienniale. I’ve just viewed a stunning panoramic film project that Malinowska produced with her partner C.T. Jasper and curator Magdalena Moskalewicz. What the artists achieved is truly unique. Early this year, they brought the Polish National Opera company to Haiti. With Polish performers, a Haitian orchestra, local dancers, a generator, an electric piano, and a goat, they presented the opera known as Halka. Their audience? Polish descendants, the inhabitants of Cazale, a mountain village 60 kilometers from the capital Port-au-Prince. This project introduces a little known connection between Poland and the island country. I knew that Haiti was once a French colony. What I didn’t know was that Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had dispatched more than five thousand Polish soldiers to Haiti in the 1800s. He sent them to quell a local uprising that became the country’s war of independence from France.
JOANNA MALINOWSKA: We chose Cazale, a village in Haiti. The village was established by the Polish soldiers who were sent to Haiti under Napoleon to fight against the rebellion of the slaves. The historical records differ on the exact numbers, but we know that at least some of them changed side and joined the rebels and fought for the independence of Haiti, and then they stayed.
CB: Today there is still evidence of this surprising chapter in history.
JM: The people who live there are still very connected to the past. They identify with those people and among some of them you can see still some Slavic features—blue eyes and blond hair.
CB: I am wondering why you think you were selected for this Polish Pavilion? What’s the importance for Poland that this would be seen in this Biennale context?
JM: This proposal was written in the context of national representations —the way nations identify themselves and present themselves to others. So this opera Halka is considered a national opera and it is probably considered one of our treasures and something that we would like to export. We are just sort of playing on the notion of national representation.
CB: Another spark of inspiration is the title character in Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo (1982), a man with a crazed plan to build an opera in the tropics. These artists subvert the colonial narrative.
JM: The project has so many layers that it’s sometimes hard to talk about everything. Of course the historical background is very important—the place we chose. We didn’t want it to be in any place and we didn’t want it to be the colonizers who come with the opera that is a form favored by the European elites.
CB: Luring Polish opera singers to perform in Haiti wasn’t easy. Can you tell me a little about the process?
JM: It was quite complicated actually because opera singers are more sensitive than the people of other professions. They are afraid of climate change and other things. So it was not easy at first. Then when we came to Haiti, we were also looking for the collaborators from there. The orchestra from Port-au-Prince had agreed to work with us. For them, it was very unusual to do something in Cazale, a village that is not too far from the capital, but where they don’t go too often [laughs].
CB: Let’s talk about the opera itself that you chose to perform in this place.
JM: It’s not the first opera written in Polish, but it’s an opera that was written around approximately the same time when the Polish soldiers were sent to Haiti.
CB: Halka tells a universal love story.
JM: Another tragic love, but it also has some social undertones. It talks about struggles between the different social classes. Halka is a peasant girl who is seduced by the landlord. He marries another woman of his same social ranking and Halka commits suicide at the end.
CB: They staged the opera outdoors in the heart of the village. The audience sat in folding chairs beneath the trees.
JM: We didn’t want the opera singers to be just a center of everything. We wanted to also include the surroundings and the people, the animals, the architecture, the trees. In a way we wanted to just be very inclusive, and we also wanted to show our own vulnerability. It was done in one shot. So it was a very vulnerable situation. We wanted to have that somehow recorded on the camera.
CB: So the wide perspective is intentional?
JM: We are also referring to the nineteenth-century paintings of panoramas that were also popular during this same period as the fight for independence in Haiti and when the opera was written. So there are lot of historical connections.
CB: The film is much more than the recording of a performance.
JM: What is interesting about this film is that it is a documentary essentially, but it doesn’t look like one. It could be perceived as an ethnographic film in a way, but we are sort of rebelling against ethnographic film and some misconceptions about it. Because, for example, when you
take Nanook of the North, which is considered one of the earliest ethnographic films, and you do the research, it turns out that this film is actually full of lies. The costumes were made; the tools that were used in that film were already outdated and not contemporary to the time when it was made. So what we are doing was shooting something that happened in real life in front of us. In a way, it’s a truth that looks like fiction.
CB: And what was the response of the village to the opera descending?
JM: I think overall the response was quite positive, but it took us several months of building the relationship with the community. So it didn’t happen just overnight.
CB: Can you tell me about your big plans for your return to Haiti?
JM: We are definitely going to show this film to the community where so many are also trying to do other things. There are some people who are involved in this project from the Polish side who are interested in going there again and working. For example, the theatre director and the conductor from the opera really want to work with the local musicians. And, we are thinking maybe of getting scholarships for people from the village to study. So, I feel like this is just the beginning.