2011-09-22 / Dining & Entertainment

T.O. native produces documentary on plight of Haitian women

Film will be screened at CLU
By Michelle Knight

ACTIVIST—Documentary filmmaker Renee Bergan’s latest film, “Poto Mitan,” which explores the lives of five Haitian women, will be shown on Wednesday at Cal Lutheran University. ACTIVIST—Documentary filmmaker Renee Bergan’s latest film, “Poto Mitan,” which explores the lives of five Haitian women, will be shown on Wednesday at Cal Lutheran University. Thousand Oaks native Renee Bergan is an activist at heart. Although she wasn’t born until the end of the 1960s protest era, she’s found a way to bring attention to social injustice.

Bergan, 42, is an award-winning filmmaker whose passion is telling stories of the downtrodden unheard by mainstream America.

In her latest film, “Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy,” Bergan reveals the effects global economics and exploitation have on Haitian women. The term “poto mitan” is a Haitian cultural reference to women as the pillars of society.

“My films are activist films,” Bergan said last week in a phone interview from New York. “I’ve always been interested in film and realized that I wanted not to do Hollywood pictures but take my activism and take it to my art form or my work form. So then that’s why I decided to focus on documentaries.”

The film explores the lives of five women—Marie-Jeanne, a garment factory employee denied an education because of her gender; Solange, who details how violence in Haiti has economic roots; Frisline, who experiences frustration with male-dominated labor unions; Thérèse, who’s worked for 30 years and adds historical context; and Hélène, an activist who leads a grassroots campaign against violence.

“Poto Mitan” has been shown at universities, including Bergan’s alma mater, the University of California, Santa Barbara. Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks will screen “Poto Mitan” at 7 p.m. on Wed., Sept. 28 in Lundring Events Center. Co-director and co-producer Mark Schuller is expected to attend and lead a discussion about the film.

Renee Bergan was born and raised by Robert and Mary Bergan in the Lynn Ranch area of Thousand Oaks. She attended school at Ascension Lutheran and Newbury Park High. Bergan’s father, an oral surgeon with a practice in town, died in 1987.

Her mother has remarried and lives in Oregon. Bergan has three siblings; one of her two sisters lives in Moorpark. In 2007, Bergan moved to New York from Santa Barbara, where she’d lived since 1987.

Bergan is a graduate of the film school at UCSB. While a college student, she joined an underground feminist group and participated in student demonstrations.

She was among about 200 arrested in a protest against the country’s first war with Iraq. Bergan also demonstrated against university student fees being used to support U.S. weapons labs.

But she tired of protests.

“I really felt like it was in a bubble—an isolated world,” Bergan said. “I . . . got impatient and didn’t feel like it was really doing much to reach a wider audience.”

While still in film school, Bergan made her first movie, a documentary about domestic violence called “Persistent Discretion.”

The film won the UCSB Sherrill C. Corwin award. After graduating in 1993, Bergan went on to make promotional films and documentaries for Santa Barbara organizations and nonprofits.

To further her causes, Bergan founded Renegade Pictures Inc. in 2003. That same year she released “Sadaa E Zan,” a documentary about the oppression suffered by Afghan women. The movie won awards at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and the New York Independent Film and Video Festival.

In 2005, UCSB doctorate candidate

Schuller asked Bergan if she was interested in conveying to the world the economic plight of Haitian women. Schuller became acquainted with the dangerous conditions women there face while doing research for his doctorate.

Schuller found Bergan through UCSB’s Center for Black Studies Research. Professor Claudine Michel, center director and a Haitian native, pointed Schuller in Bergan’s direction when he asked if Michel knew of a capable filmmaker with the sensitivity to convey the women’s stories.

Bergan and Schuller, now a professor of anthropology and African American studies at a New York university, directed and produced “Poto Mitan.” Bergan is also the director of photography and editor of the film.

Michel, an associate producer of “Poto Mitan,” said it’s the first film she’s aware of made by non- Haitians that speaks with respect from the Haitian perspective. U.S. audiences tend to see the Haitian people as charity recipients rather than members of a complex society that contributes to the global economy, she said, adding that the film works to remedy that.

“ It’s important that these women are named, because they’re not an abstract concept,” Michel said. “(The film) clearly has pure humanitarian goals. . . . It’s a turning point.”

Bergan said she was vigilante during filming to stay true to the women’s perspectives.

To finance the film, Bergan and Schuller had to raise about $100,000 through grants and a network of friends and sponsors. Donations as low as $5 were welcome, Bergan said. “Poto Mitan” was released in 2009.

Proceeds from the film, about $70,000 to date, are given to the five women portrayed in the film and to women groups in Haiti.

For more information about “ Poto Mitan,” visit http:// potomitan.net.

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