Visual Culture: “Papa Machete” Explores Haitian Machete Fencing

Words by Jesse Serwer

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As a country with a history of both turmoil and self-reliance, it’s no surprise that Haiti has its own distinctive form of ceremonial warfare. An underground sport kept alive in pockets of Haiti’s countryside, Tire machèt mixes elements of martial arts, fencing and stickfighting with one of the Caribbean’s staple tools: the machete.

Papa Machete, a new short film from Miami-based Caribbean film and art collective Third Horizon, explores Haitian machete fighting through the lens of “Professor” Alfred Avril, an elderly Haitian farmer who has taken it upon himself to pass the artform (which he describes, succinctly, as “A gift”) on to the next generation. Naturalistic yet mesmerizingly surreal, Papa Machete offers a rare look into Tire Machèt—which has its roots in the Haitian Revolution when slave rebels defended themselves from the French army with machetes—and has long been shrouded in secrecy.

“I came across a video online of two men fencing in Haiti with machetes, and it unmade my head,” says Jason Fitzroy Jeffers, one of the film’s producers and a co-founder of Third Horizon. “It was posted by a group called the Haitian Machete Fencing Project, and after some research I quickly made arrangements to travel to Haiti to learn this martial art.”

Avril comes across as a caring provider, patient educator—and someone you would not ever want to test. When he looks into the camera after demonstrating his skills and says, in Creole, “Shall I cut your head off,” it’s clearly in jest, but with the undercurrent of a potential reality. Later, we see the cost of misjudgment in tire machèt—a facial wound treated with a cap full of Barbancourt.

Jeffers points out that there’s great symbolism in the use of the machete, the same tool used by Haitian slaves (and, up to today, workers) to toil in the canefields. “No matter what island you’re from, the cutlass or machete is a universal thing. It’s everywhere. I’ve always seen it as our Excalibur.”

Papa Machete was completed after the filmmakers mounted a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for post-production, and for the construction of a new training facility and living quarters for Avril, whose home was damaged during the 2010 earthquake. Sadly, Avril was not able to personally enjoy the fruits of this effort: the postscript reveals that he passed away in December, one year after filming.

The 10-minute film, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September,has its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this Friday, Jan. 23. The directorial debut of Miami-based Jonathan David Kane, it’s also the first project from Third Horizon, which aims through its projects to “explore the stories and culture of the Caribbean with new levels of nuance and insight,” according to Jeffers.

“I came up with like 10 ideas for other films while we were making Papa Machete,” says Kane, whose previous work includes the cinematography for the Sundance-screened short The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke. “Haiti, much like many Caribbean nations, has an incredible cultural identity with a distinct voice that is only just now beginning to be fully explored in cinema.”

Follow Third Horizon here, and watch the Papa Machete trailer below:

Papa Machete – trailer from Third Horizon on Vimeo.

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