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SXSW Interview: Director Kaveh Nabatian Talks Haiti and the Artistic Collaboration behind ‘Kite Zo A’

Clocking in at a mere 67 minutes, Kaveh Nabatian’s Kite Zo A is a short documentary feature that nevertheless packs a punch. Exploring Haitian history, culture and spirituality with the help of poetry, music and dance, Kite Zo A is a soulful cinematic immersion into the atmosphere of the island nation. Following its international premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, Awards Radar sat with Nabatian to learn about the artistry behind the making of the film.

Shane Slater: You’ve made films like Sin La Habana and now Kite Zo A which explore various different cultures. What inspires you to be such a global filmmaker and how do you find your way into these diverse stories?

Kaveh Nabatian: I guess I’m interested because I don’t feel like I really have a home myself. I’m really interested in how different cultures work and how people do things differently in different places. Like my dad’s Iranian, my mom’s American, I grew up in Canada. So I never really felt like a lot of Canadians who tend to be really into hockey. I never really had that feeling of place. And so I’ve spent a lot of my life kind of exploring, I guess. And so Cuba, I was there because I was just super interested in the music in 2005. So that brought me there. And then I met Pablo Herrera, who was a hip hop producer. And we started working on some music together. I’m also a musician. And and then we came up with the script for Sin La Habana together.

And then the Haitian film Kite Zo A, I was in Montreal in the middle of winter in 2014 and I was just super depressed. It was so cold. And through Arcade Fire, actually, they have a link to Haiti, because the singer is half Haitian. And some of the people in Arcade Fire play in my band too and they had a link with the film school in Haiti. So they kind of set me up with the director of the film school. I ended up teaching there for a couple semesters.

And then it’s kind of like one thing led to another. Then I met Joe the DJ, who made the music with Lakou Mizik. And the guy who was running the audio side of the film school (Ciné Institute), he’s also the manager of Lakou Mizik. So they’re putting the music together, and they want images to go with it. So they got in touch with me to do it.

SS: There’s a real sense of spontaneity in the film. I was wondering how you created that feeling, while still making it coherent and impactful for the audience.

KN: It was a long editing process to get it right. But I want it to feel like when you’re in Haiti. It’s like anything can happen. Something terrible or wonderful can happen kind of at anytime. I wanted the film to kind of have that feeling. I hope when you’re watching it, you don’t really know what’s coming next. So I wanted it to really feel like you’re just lost in the feeling of Haiti. More so than trying to be like, this is the history of Haiti. That’s not really my story to tell anyone.

SS: And part of that spontaneity comes from the cinematography and I was especially fascinated by the scenes shot with GoPro by one of the film’s subjects. How did that find it’s way into the visual language of the film?

KN: As much as possible with documentary, I think it’s really fun to give people their own voice and their own way of expressing themselves and I would have actually done it more in the GoPro as it’s like such an indestructible camera. And you can give it to people and they can just do whatever they want. But then that dude lost it surfing, so we only got a couple and then you can’t get a new GoPro once you’re in Haiti. But I really love that because we’ve all seen a million surf shots. There’s a way to do it, but he doesn’t necessarily know that way to do it. So the way he filmed himself sideways while he’s up on the wave, usually it’s like a head mounted thing or it’s on the surfboard. But he just catches a wave and it’s just so dynamic and interesting.

SS: I’d love for you to speak on the dance sequences. Was there one choreographer? What was the collaboration like to direct those scenes?

KN: It was awesome. I like working with dance. And I’ve worked with dancers a lot before. It’s a really fun medium to mix dance with. So I know how to talk to choreographers in a certain way. But, there’s the traditional dancing where I had no real influence, I was just trying to catch it while it was happening. But then the more choreographed, almost music video-ish things, it was really a matter of just giving them the music. And in one case, like in the woman’s case, she just figured it out and it was kind of perfect. I had nothing to do with it, really.

For the other one, where the people are coming in and out of rooms and stuff, it was a little bit more choreographed. And I kind of helped guide it a little bit more. I really wanted it to be their own expression of the music because those are old Vodou songs, and they understand it in a way that I never will anyway, so it’s not really my place to be trying to teach them what the song is about. It’s like, you teach me what the song is about. But this is gonna look good on camera, this isn’t gonna look good on camera. Let’s find a way to kind of collaborate to make it sing as much as they can.

SS: Another one of your major collaborators was the narrator Wood-Jerry Gabriel. Tell me about your relationship with him and how helped to shape the film.

KN: Well, with Jerry I’ve known him for like nine years now. He was one of my students at the film school. And he was just really talented. There’s like three or four who have all continued making films and are all doing really interesting work still in Haiti. One of them is now in Cuba. And they’re out there doing stuff, which is really exciting that the film school actually did lead to people working in the very small industry of Haitian film.

But yeah, I’ve shot a bunch in Haiti, and pretty much every time with Jerry he’s there either as a kind of assistant director or fixer or like translator. I speak Creole, but it’s not at that level when we’re getting into really deep stuff. So he just kind of hangs out and helps out. So he was involved from the very beginning. And I guess his official role would have been kind of assistant director, fixer-ish guy.

But then a couple years went by where I didn’t really touch the footage. Joe made some music videos with the footage, and I thought it was done. But then when the pandemic hit, I realized that I wanted to do more than just a couple music videos. So I started trying to put it together and it just never was totally gelling. So I got in touch with Jerry and showed him the footage. And he knew what it would kind of be like, but for him to actually see it, he said “Okay, I love this.” And I was like, “Can you contextualize what’s going on here because I can’t really.”

So then we just kind of began a back and forth where he would send me poetry, I’d cut to the poetry, send it back to him, he’d redo some of the poetry and just kind of narrating it into his phone. And it was interesting, because sometimes he would send me stuff that was so bleak. And I was like, “We can use this if you want, but this is the opportunity to show Haiti in a different light than what we usually see.” I don’t want to sugarcoat it, but also, I want some of it to be really celebratory, as well as talking about the difficulties, you know?

Then we found a place where he could be doing something that was really honest, but it wasn’t super bleak. And I love the poetry so much and he then translated into French, and the French version of the poetry is just as beautiful as the Creole. And then I translated from French to English and it’s still really nice. Poetry is always just really hard to translate. One of the cool things about Creole is it’s a pretty efficient language. You can use fewer words and each word can have multiple meanings at the same time. And so you can get a lot of richness across without a lot of words and I think he did a really good job of that.

SS: You touched on the Vodou aspect and a strong theme in the film is embracing and celebrating it. So I found it interesting to see a scene in a Christian church. I was thinking you could have just as easily left that out and just focused on the African traditions. How did you approach that?

KN: I think that people have this idea that it’s like Vodou and zombies. And, and I wanted to show that it isn’t that. They say Haiti is 50% Catholic, 50% Protestant 100%. Vodou. And even when you’re in that church, it’s not like a Christian church in the US. I think, in general, the way Haitians approach Christianity is from a very Afro, kind of Vodou perspective. And church gets crazy, you know? It’s not like your church in Boston, or whatever. It’s a whole different vibe.

SS: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re able to talk about? And if not, is there any other culture that you’re particularly interested in exploring?

KN: I’m kind of interested in anything. I’m interested in how people do stuff everywhere. But I just co-directed a short dance film recently. It’s kind of a minimalist, abstract dance performance. I think it’s quite beautiful. But my main thing is, I’m reading a script for a new fiction film that actually takes place in Thailand or Vietnam. I’m not sure which yet. But it’s a surrealist film noir about a celebrity TV host who falls in love with an assassin from another dimension.


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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