By Onz Chery

Haitian-American filmmaker Jean-René Rinvil. Photo credit: Cassandra Rinvil

Jean-René Rinvil was walking around his Cité Soleil movie set, looking through a camera’s lenses and checking the lighting and sound for another day of shooting a mental illness documentary. From a distance, the sound of a gunshot reached the set. Then another. 

The documentary film’s interviewer, John Wesley Placide, quickly looked over at Rinvil for a reaction. But Rinvil’s attention wasn’t on the known Haiti, the dangerous one. Instead, his eyes were trained on a narrative not seen in the Haiti story: mental illness. 

Now Rinvil’s film, “Twoub Mantal: Healing a Nation,” is sharing that story around the world. Since its June 2020 release, the film has won two awards: the Ciudad International Film Festival’s best documentary in Mexico and Bergen County Film Festival (R)’s best documentary in New Jersey. It has also been selected to be in the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival and was in the Black Star International Film Festival in Ghana.

“I’m really joyful because all the stories in the film are from people in Haiti,” Rinvil, 47, said. “It’s bringing awareness to a subject that’s really taboo within our community.”

Jean-René Rinvil behind the camera. Photo courtesy of Jean-René Rinvil

“Healing a Nation” is slated to open to the general public in 2021. It tells the stories of people who suffer from mental illness in Haiti, with the main focus on Richard Saintal. The translator, teacher, and social worker’s psychotic episodes turned him violent and eventually landed Saintal at the beleaguered Mars and Kline Psychiatric Center, where he tragically died. 

“I found [the documentary] enlightening. It was a teaching piece,” said Joellen Green, the Bergen County Film Festival (R)’s chief operating officer. “It brings light to a situation that many people should know about to give them opportunities.” 

Widening the lens on Haiti  

Rinvil started pursuing filmmaking because after moving from Port-au-Prince to Miami, Florida in the eighth grade he was only seeing negative stories about Haitians. 

“Every time I would turn on the news, it was like, ‘[they] just caught this amount of people on a boat,’” Rinvil recalls. “It was like there was no other stories.”

“I used to tell myself, ‘One day, I want to work at a TV station where I’m the person who makes the decision of what goes in front of the camera,” Rinvil added.

Young Rinvil asked his father to buy him a camera and later entered the South Miami Senior High School’s summer film program. He shot his first film then, about an alcoholic father who abused his son. Later in high school, he won a national PSA contest, earning a trip to UCLA.

“I wanted to make sure I tell the Haiti stories,” Rinvil said. “Whether I made it big or not, it was always about portraying Haiti in a different way from what I was always seeing in the news.” 

Rinvil later became a news editor at Miami’s Channel 7 Fox News station. But independent filmmaking was his. He released his first major documentary, “Laviche: A Crisis for The Poor in Haiti,” in 2010. Four years later, he won the Haitian Movie Awards’ best documentary with “Culture Clash.” 

“I could be doing something and he’s like ‘Oh, I got another award,’” said Rinvil’s wife Cassandra Rinvil, a mental health counselor and consultant of the latest film. “I’m really ecstatic about his success. Being in the background, I know about the sleepless nights, all the no’s that he got, and the disappointments.”

One of Rinvil’s most shocking no’s came from Haiti, which turned down screening “Healing A Nation.” Placide said it’s because Haiti doesn’t want to show injustices against the mentally ill.

“The mental health centers in Haiti are inhuman, it doesn’t make sense, but the leaders are just talking fancy,” Placide said. “That’s why I told Jean‐René [he] has to go international, spread it as far as he can.”

Coming soon: a sequel and a dance

As an independent, Rinvil manages to produce and show his films internationally through fundraising and personal funds. 

It’s all worth it to put that different Haiti Rinvil wants the world to see on the big screen, with films like “Healing A Nation.” 

“So far, it’s definitely looking like it’s going to be my most successful film,” Rinvil said. “I’m humble. I had a good team and a good mission. I did the project, but not so much for myself. It’s way bigger than me.”

Coming up next, Rinvil said, is a sequel to “Healing a Nation” and a konpa dancing documentary.

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Onz Chery is a Haiti correspondent for The Haitian Times. Chery started his journalism career as a City College of New York student with The Campus. He later wrote for First Touch, local soccer leagues in New York and Elite Sports New York before joining The Haitian Times in 2019.

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