By Emilie Upczak
Eat, for This Is My Body, directed by Michelange Quay (105 minutes)
Michelange Quay opens his first feature film, Eat, For This Is My Body, with a fifteen-minute aerial scene that spans from the coast of Haiti to Port-au-Prince and its ghettos, then into an isolated landscape that leads us to what appears to be an old plantation. A sense of curiosity builds as the viewer (waiting for dialogue that is never delivered) is taken towards the sounds of labour, where a woman moans as two midwives attend her. Here the filmmaker blurs the space between dramatic and documentary, which he later reclaims in a scene in which uniformed boys in a boarding school eat a white frosted cake in a choreographed yet also spontaneous manner. Quay uses an almost entirely amateur cast; it is hard for the audience to know what is performed and what is being documented, in a genre that is characterised by the filmmaker himself as a “1970s LSD political manifesto surreal poetic film.”
Quay — who was born in New York of Haitian parents and studied anthropology and film at the University of Miami, and later New York University — is looking into the colonial past in order to develop a contemporary discourse on the dynamics of power in the sphere of colour, but also those of sexuality and gender. The white schoolmistress (Sylvie Testud) apologises to the black schoolchildren for not having food to serve them, and suggests they pretend to eat. The black butler follows the schoolmistress in what appears to be an act of seduction on her part, but which ultimately leads to him mysteriously morphing into an albino.
Eat, For This Is My Body interestingly takes on an almost French postmodern feminist discourse, by exposing preconditions of western knowledge, based on objectivity, rationality, and universality, that exclude the feminine, the bodily, the unconscious. The film reverses such notions and places the feminine at the source, but also discloses the matrix of age and race within an abstracted postcolonial setting. Julia Kristeva has suggested that “significance is inherent in the human body”; Quay indirectly examines such meaning by looking at black and white bodies in their particular religious and cultural context — in this case, Haiti.
What is most impressive about this film is the layering that occurs from the perspective of a filmmaker who has Haiti in his bloodline, but who has clearly benefited from his metropolitan education and the resources he has secured in order to produce this beautifully shot 35-mm film. Many of the most profound storylines of today are no longer coming from colonial transplants to developing nations, but from a renewed interest in one’s own ancestry. Quay, who now resides in Paris, regularly visits his family in Haiti, and says it is difficult for him to say to which country he belongs — though he does acknowledge Haiti as a spiritual homeland.
Thomas Ozoux, the director of photography (which the French rightly and plainly identify as image), deserves special recognition. The unique quality of the film is not merely in the script or the direction, but also in the depth of filmic vision.
Eat, For This Is My Body would be more digestible with an intermission. At times some scenes feel gratuitous, and it can be overbearing to watch in one sitting. Like an intense love affair, this film is better taken in parts. And Eat, For This Is My Body may seem better suited to a New York gallery than to the MovieTowne multiplex in Port of Spain, where it will be screened at the 2008 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. Visually, if not ethically, the commercial multiplex is the antithesis of what this non-narrative film represents, but it is important for art films like this one, made from a Caribbean context, to be seen in the “real” Caribbean, and not just in metropolitan art-house film festivals.
Emilie Upczak is an American independent filmmaker currently working on her second film in Trinidad. She is also the associate director of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. She lives in Port of Spain.