“Madan Sara”: A Look into the Women who Serve as Haiti’s Backbone
Get an in-depth dive into the new film through an interview with co-executive producer Lu Childs
Written by Cara Robbins
Most days, the problems that confront Haiti daily seem so distant from mainland America. Sure, every once in a while you hear a vague impression of the problems they face — increased poverty, lack of jobs, occasional environmental disasters and more. But it often gets drowned out by the 24/7 media extravaganza surrounding every event in American politics at any given moment.
We must start paying attention to the issues that face the people of Haiti everyday — and the issues that face other international communities as well. After all, these are often universal problems which every country struggles with and every person can identify with. In Haiti, people are fighting to provide for their families, striving to create safe and vibrant communities, and taking bold steps to counteract the unjust attempts by political actors to take the money that they work hard to earn.
This is not just art — this film is a call to action
“Madan Sara,” a new film from debut filmmaker and director Etant Dupain, dives into these problems facing Haiti with unflinching compassion and attention to detail. This is not just art — this film is a call to action.
Dupain — whose mother was a madan sara — introduces us to these Haitian women who serve as the backbone of the country’s economy. They act as the middleman between the consumer and the farmers and artisans, sourcing goods and selling them at the many vibrant marketplaces in Haiti. But their role is not exclusively economic — they provide fundamental support to their families by using their job to allow their children to get a good education, while also caring for and looking after the community as a whole.
Being a madan sara is not easy. In addition to the countless hours, the job requires a unique combination of strategy, intelligence, intuition and compassion that not many people possess. On top of that, madan saras face life-threatening danger every day from bandits, plunderers, political actors and a patriarchal system which leaves them vulnerable to violence without consequence. Robbery, property destruction and marketplace fires are common tactics used to strip madan saras (and Haiti) of their hard-earned and vital income.
"I think this film would be a new introduction to Haiti — knowing the real issues and what’s going on in the country."
Dupain’s film proves the impact a loving, strong community has. Though the issues that the madan saras face are devastating and often difficult to watch, the film remains endlessly optimistic. The film shows these problems with the knowledge that the situation can change. It won’t be easy. It requires dedication, compassion, persistence and intentional, well-planned strategies to restructure the political and economic system. The key is, once again, community. And think how quickly that change could come if the entire international community were backing the madan saras, as Dupain hopes to achieve.
To get a closer look into the powerful message that this film shares, I had the opportunity to sit down with co-executive producer Lu Childs.
The following questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Cara: This film feels to me, above all else, like a love letter to the people of Haiti, but you also seem to be drawing plenty of parallels to America. What do you want American audiences to take away from your film?
Lu: That’s a good question. I think that a lot of people in America, myself included, don’t really know Haiti. I think it was a bit of a learning experience for me to be part of the film because I learned so much about Haiti during these past years while putting it together and screening it. I think this film would be a new introduction to Haiti — knowing the real issues and what’s going on in the country. And it could be a breath of fresh air for people who may already know Haiti and its issues. I think this film shows a different Haiti that a lot of people may not know — and they may be surprised to learn that they connect with it. So I think it’s really just keeping an open mind while watching this film. In most schools in the United States, you learn about the American Revolution, then you go to the Civil War, then the presidents, World War I, World War II, civil rights — you just go through it with the American lens. A film like this is good for people because it shows the absolution of one country, or the issues in one country from their lens and standpoint.
"If a madan sara cannot sell, she doesn’t eat. It’s just that simple. They need the marketplace to be safe so that they can at least try to put food on the table. If a madan sara doesn’t sell, they can’t get a job anywhere else in Haiti— because there aren’t any other jobs to be had."
C: Historically, by the nature of the position, madan saras always had to be women. That isn’t theoretically the case now, but today we still see the role of the madan sara is filled exclusively by women. Do you think there’s something inherent about the role of the madan sara that means it can only be done effectively by women?
L: I think it’s a legacy. Obviously, the role of the madan sara started during slavery where the men would do the same work as the madan sara, but they would run away to be free. So slaveholders made a decision that women had more ties to the community, so they were less likely to run. When Haiti got its freedom and afterwards, the practice has stayed the same with women dominating the marketplace. But it also speaks to why , in my opinion, the issues that the madan sara have are ignored because it’s mostly dominated by women in a patriarchal society. It’s a double edged sword. I think the “Madan Sara” film shows a little bit of that issue.
C: What drew you to want to work on the film, personally?
L: I was working on a film about Haiti, but it was more sports-related. But I had never gone to Haiti. My mother is from Haiti, but I never went. So when she told me the story about the topic in regards to the film that I was producing, I kind of figured it would be cool to work with other Haitian filmmakers to really get a sense of the culture — as much as I could over here. So when I saw Etant’s trailer, I thought it was a perfect answer to get into the culture. I reached out, we met up and we started working together.
C: The marketplaces that are depicted in the film are vibrant, lively and full of community. One madan sara discusses what she believes keeps the marketplace alive, saying that “it takes love to run a business.” Personally, I can’t say that I’ve experienced anything like that in my life. Do you think there are any parallels to this type of economic practice in America currently?
"They are essentially the backbone of the country."
L: Good question … for a madan sara, there’s a lot of capitalism but there’s essentially some aspects to socialism. It’s like how we do things here because America is not completely capitalist. If it were, there would be even more poor people than there are now. There’s a reason why we have social security and worker’s comp. It’s because we want to make sure that people have a floor should they ever fall so they don’t become completely destitute. There’s a way for them to get back. I think in a way it’s like our system, but I think the only issue is there is no safety net in Haiti. If a madan sara cannot sell, she doesn’t eat. It’s just that simple. They need the marketplace to be safe so that they can at least try to put food on the table. If a madan sara doesn’t sell, they can’t get a job anywhere else in Haiti— because there aren’t any other jobs to be had. The jobs that are created are too little, or there’s too many other people looking. You have to know someone in order to get a job in Haiti. I do think the system is like ours, but I think the Haitian government has to put in certain parameters that will ultimately help the madan sara do their business the way they know how to do it.
C: Is there anything that would specifically want younger, college-age students to be taking away from this film?
L: Sure, I know a lot of college students will end up taking the alternative spring break, where they’ll go and do mission trips. Right now, it wouldn’t be smart to do that in Haiti — but if things should ever get better, I would hope that they watch this film and decide that they want to go to Haiti. If they decide that’s what they want to do, they would watch this film to get a better idea of Haiti and some of the issues on the ground. I would just say for any students who are watching the film or thinking about watching the film, just keep an open mind.
C: Where can audiences go to see your film?
L: Right now we’re still doing private screenings. This is a totally independent film, so we don’t have a film marketing company that’s helping us promote it. We’re negotiating with different streaming platforms to eventually get the film out to the masses so people can see it. We’re definitely trying to raise more awareness and get more press for the film.
C: To close out this interview, what does it mean — in your opinion — to be a madan sara?
L: Madan saras have a status in Haiti. People see them as hustlers and go-getters, but I don’t think people get into the issues of how they can do their job better, or how they can be safer if certain things were in place. Because a lot of them are able to put their kids through college, a lot of their kids become doctors, lawyers and judges. I think that while people admire what they’ve been able to do in regards to taking care of their family, I think the bigger issue that the film speaks to is how can we make things better for them so that they’re able to do their jobs that much better. If they’re able to get cheaper access to credit, that’s going to help even more families. I gotta imagine that if I was a madan sara, that there would be angst everyday knowing that you’re going to a marketplace where you don’t know if you’re going to get shot, there might be a fire where you lose all your goods, and then you lose all your goods and you owe money. It’s a double-edged sword. You don’t want to run into a greedy politician who will take money out of your pocket that you worked hard everyday to make. There are all these problems that would make their lives a whole lot easier if they were just taken seriously. But things are what they are in Haiti right now. I think that’s the emotion that this film’s talking about. We really have to take care of these women. They are essentially the backbone of the country.
Learn more about the film at www.madansarafilm.com