Jason Fitzroy Jeffers on His Film Papa Machete and the Art of Machete Fencing

Jason Fitzroy Jeffers has been a Renaissance man of sorts in South Florida. A musician and journalist, he recently changed his focus to filmmaking and his first official production, the short documentary Papa Machete has been steadily picking up momentum. This week it was officially selected for the Toronto International Film Festival's (TIFF) inaugural section of short international works, Short Cuts.

Concentrating on the life of farmer Alfred Avril, the movie explores his status as the last remaining master of tire machétt, a martial art created by slaves when combating Napoleon's armies, there is a poesy of protection and pragmatism as "the machete, which is both a weapon and a farmer's key to survival," transcends symbolism and hyperbole.

We spoke with Fitzroy about his experience with Third Horizon working on the film with the Borscht Corporation, Haiti and his latest musical endeavors.

Let's start off with the obvious. You have been a musician and journalist in South Florida for a long time... What can you tell us about yourself since Paradise Low?

Fitzroy: Wow, Paradise Low. I can't even listen to it without squirming a bit. I actually never stopped doing music; I just stopped putting it out. After I lost a number of compositions for my second album to a hard drive crash, and a record deal with an indie label fizzled, that side of me just shut down for a while and I've been focusing on my writing and production, which is tremendously fulfilling. That said, I do miss performing, and I am working on some new material.

What drew you to Haiti and machete fencing?

You and I have talked in the past about my machete obsession. I've always mythologized it in my own mind as the Excalibur of the third world, a symbol of determination and self-fortification yet to be fully realized. Back home in Barbados, we call it a cutlass or a 'collins' -- it's practically the pocketknife of the Caribbean.

I've featured them in a few of my music videos and also on the cover of Paradise Low. It blew my mind when I found out there was actually a martial art using the machete in Haiti called Tire Machèt. And it wasn't just flinging around blades; it is precise combination of African stick fighting and European fencing. It ripped my head open.

When was that exactly?

I found out about it when I came across YouTube videos of Mike Rogers of the Haitian Machete Fencing Project, who has been flying to Haiti for over 10 years to train with Alfred Avril, the only master of Tire Machèt in Haiti known to train foreigners. I immediately reached out to Mike and made plans to fly down with him to train. Soon, I was thinking about writing a magazine piece about my experiences, but that quickly gave way to plans to produce a short film.

My production partner Keisha Rae Witherspoon and I reached out to our good friend Jonathan David Kane to see if he'd be interested in directing. He's been a filmmaking force in this city for a while now, especially through his work with Borscht Corp. He was game. Other friends came on board as well: camera wizard Richard Patterson as director of photography and documentarian Joey Daoud as co-producer. We flew down to Haiti last summer and made it happen.

In my opinion, Haiti has not received the accolades that it deserves as a nation and moreover, as a guiding example for liberty in this hemisphere. What can you tell us about the resilience of the Haitian people?

It's not a coincidence that Haiti has not received that recognition. Imagine you were a slave master in 1804 at the time of the Haitian Revolution. Maybe you had cotton fields in the U.S. South, or a sugar plantation in the Caribbean. How would you react upon hearing the news that the slave masters of the largest sugar producing country in the world and no less than Napoleon's armies had been beaten back by a united front of "lowly" slaves?

It sent shock waves around the world, and the world responded in kind, whether that meant failing to acknowledge Haiti's new independence from France or isolating the small country.

It's hard to get your head around just how much Haiti has endured since then: ostracism from the rest of the world, dictatorship, endless political turmoil, and to top it off, the earthquake of 2010. And yet, people carry on. I don't think they have much choice actually. All of this has forged a people with incredible strength, one that allows them to go forward in the face of the turmoil that still exists. That's what I find particularly impressive. You're dealing with some of the strongest people in the world here.

As I've told you in private correspondence, my initial thoughts on "machete fencing" were akin to Filipino stick fighting, how close or off the mark am I in that mentality?

I definitely see some similarities. The interesting thing about Tire Machèt is that there are many different styles and strains of it. We've been contacted by people who see similarities between Tire Machèt and German messer fencing and Venezuelan garrote fighting. I think there's a key difference in the training, as Professor Avril's students train from a defensive position with one hand behind their back. It essentially trains you how to fluidly fend off attacks while seeking the best position to strike back. After training for a while, you develop your own style and strategy.

It's like dancing on a chessboard with machetes.

Your Kickstarter campaign was featured as their Project of the Day. What was that experience like?

We hit our 10K target in 10 days, and exceeded it by the time the campaign ended. The response from people and press around the world was overwhelming -- touching even. Most of the funds raised have gone toward the construction of a new house for Professor Avril, as his former home was badly damaged during the earthquake. The foundation for the new home was just laid a few days ago, and I'll be flying back down to Haiti soon to lend a hand before I go to Toronto to premiere the film next month.

Papa Machete is the first project for your collective Third Horizon, and you're one of the finalists for the Knight Foundation Art Challenge this year. Can you tell us a bit about the collective?

Third Horizon was born out of the realization that, to many outside of the region, the Caribbean is the beachside hotel where you hope to spend your honeymoon, or the reggae and jerk chicken festival that sets up at a nearby park once a year. We aim to create and celebrate programming and content from the innovators in film, art and music that the region has produced -- especially those here in South Florida. There are so many among us.

It's hard to keep count of how many creative trailblazers have been supported by the Knight Foundation, so to be recognized as a finalist in this year's Arts Challenge makes us feel like we're on the right track.

Borscht Corp is one of the co-production companies on the film. What has working with that collective been like?

Having their support has been amazing. As a collective, Third Horizon is just getting in motion, but Borscht has a wealth of experience producing groundbreaking Miami cinema that has made the rest of the film world take notice of what's going on down here. It's a model worth studying, for sure.

Jon (Kane) has been making films with Borscht for five years now and put what he's learned about indie filmmaking in that time to work on Papa Machete. He also forged a connection between Third Horizon and the Borscht crew which has allowed us to produce a few other projects they're cooking up. It's been really great to get these added experiences under our belts. We're really grateful for that.

What are your hopes and expectations with this documentary?

Premiering the film at TIFF is a thrill and an honor. Hopefully, it's just the first of many film festivals. We've already been asked to show Papa Machete at schools and universities so we're looking forward to that after our potential festival run.

Really though, this short is just the beginning. Papa Machete is focused squarely on Professor Avril, but we've been in touch with other teachers who are interested in sharing what they know of this very arcane art. There's so much history to explore. As such, we're in early production of a feature length version of the film.

In closing, give us an idea of the Haiti of the future; its people, its culture, its music, its day-to-day.

Far be it for me to say as my relationship with the country is only just beginning and there's still a lot for me to learn. In the aftermath of the earthquake, there are so many NGOs embedded in the country. Some go to truly help, others go with the more sinister motive to rake up charity dollars from overseas even if they don't actually do much.

Whatever the intention, many travel to Haiti without gaining true insight into the culture and history of the island, or they try to impose "fixes" that make more of a mess than anything else. That's worrisome. Raoul Peck's recent documentary Fatal Assistance is a good starting point for anyone who wants to see how messy things have been.

There's also the issue of cultural intrusion, and that's something you're seeing across the "third world". Older traditions are dying out, and a lot of younger people are buying into a vision of progress that doesn't include their heritage. That's why we're so interested in exploring and celebrating things like Tire Machèt.

All that said, the aftermath of the earthquake provides a lot of opportunities to build anew. How will it all go? Hard to say. Time will tell. It always does.

Please consider donating to the Kickstarter campaign here.

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Abel Folgar