The TV Watch
On Haitian TV, Masses Laugh at Other Half
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Two and a half years after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, life here can still be a struggle.
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“I couldn’t even get my mom a decent Mother’s Day gift,” Soraya said, pouting. “Finally, I used my measly allowance and bought her a ticket to Paris. It’s nothing special, but I figure it’s the thought that counts.”
Soraya isn’t a real Haitian, at least not exactly. She’s a character played by a 26-year-old actress named Belinda Paul in a sketch-comedy television show called “Regards Croisés.”
Soraya is a caricature of a certain kind of privileged, bubbleheaded daughter of the Haitian elite — a Zuzu. Zuzu girls are conspicuous in places like Miami and Paris, but they are hard to see in the hills of Port-au-Prince, where they shop, go to the gym and party behind high walls topped with bougainvillea and concertina wire. Zuzu-speak, an affected whine of Creole, French and “omigod” English, is deliciously recognizable to the less fortunate masses, and every Saturday night Haitian viewers roar, clap and rock with laughter at Soraya’s airs.
“Regards Croisés,” which translates roughly as “Viewpoints,” has been on the air a little more than a year and is a runaway hit with middle- and working-class Haitians who live, as people in the capital put it, “down the hill.” The show’s improvised skits, which feature all-too-familiar character types — the ill-trained schoolteacher, the mercurial embassy consul — gently send up Haitian daily life, particularly the class divides and crushing hardships that make so many Haitians desperate to get out.
Haiti is a poor, aid-dependent country rich in political instability, corruption and disaster. People here have a deep craving for comic relief. “Regards Croisés” is one of the few things that provide it; in a spare television landscape dominated by Mexican telenovelas dubbed into French, and Creole rap videos, the show makes Haitians laugh at their misfortunes and themselves.
The success of “Regards Croisés” is a little unlikely — it’s a comedy show in a nation full of tragedy — and that says something about Haitian resilience.
The limit of its popularity says just as much, though, about the rigidity of Haitian society, the inflexibility of the country’s class boundaries.
This low-budget program remains largely unknown or disregarded by Haiti’s tiny French- and English-speaking upper class; it is equally overlooked by the humanitarian agencies that devote time, money and expertise to communicating with the local population. It’s a phantom hit. Foreign aid workers and executives of Haiti’s many commercial TV channels complain that Haitians need meaningful shows made in Haiti for Haitians. Just out of their line of sight, on state-owned TV no less, one is already on the air.
In one improv skit, Sophia Baudin plays Consul Sophia, an imperious American Embassy official who finds wildly arbitrary reasons to deny Haitians visas, like bad hair. Flanked by two burly security guards, Consul Sophia torments applicants with their own answers. A meek, educated woman says she owns her own house but can’t remember how much she paid for it. “If you can’t remember how much you paid for your house, how will you remember that I issued you a visa?” Consul Sophia thunders. She shakes her head in disgust and calls for the next case.
All comers are rejected until a good-looking, light-skinned man shows up. Consul Sophia loves his shirt, his stylish glasses and courtly manners. “I don’t need to see your papers,” she coos. She gives him a come-hither look and a five-year visa.
Like her “Regards Croisés” co-stars, Ms. Baudin gets recognized on the street, but strangers sometimes confuse her with her skit character. “People will shout out, ‘That’s the woman who denied me a visa,’ ” she said with a smile. “A lot of people really hate me.”
Consul Sophia has turned the Creole words for “not qualified,” “pa kalifye,” into a comic catchphrase.
It resonates most for those in line for visas outside the United States Embassy, where pharmacists, nurses, janitors and farmers wait for interviews that include a DNA test to verify if they are truly related to those they claim as family in the United States.
“It is humiliating,” Jessie Paulemon, 36, a social worker, said in line one morning while waiting for her name to be called. “I know a lot of successful people who have been rejected several times, and there’s no criteria, they just tell you you’re ‘not qualified.’ ”
“Regards Croisés” is broadcast around 9 p.m. on Saturdays on the state-owned channel, Télévision Nationale d’Haïti. It doesn’t have commercial sponsors, it’s not expertly produced nor is it well promoted. Its reputation has spread through word of mouth, without promos, viral YouTube video campaigns or fancy Internet fan pages. Haitians who don’t have televisions at home watch on the street, crowded around sets in barbershops, beer stands and on sidewalks. In Port-au-Prince, those in slums and tent encampments watch TV with power siphoned off the city grid.
The host and producer, Georges Béleck, is a playwright who in 1992 founded a theater group, Haitian Comedy Without Borders, and that troupe forms the cast of “Regards Croisés.”
“My plays before were dramas, but after the earthquake I switched to comedy,” Mr. Béleck said. “People were already crying so much in real life, why should they cry in theaters?”
The 90-minute show is spirited but the lighting is dark, the three cameras ill coordinated, and, though taped in advance, it’s barely edited. For the first hour, Mr. Béleck interviews guests, writers, singers and politicians, and the talk is more animated than on other cultural talk shows, since it has lots of singing, laughter and interaction with cast members, who sit onstage like a studio audience. It can seem a little long to those accustomed to the rat-a-tat pace of American TV, but fans can’t seem to get enough of it.
Chadrack Clergé, 20, has worked out a deal with his sisters: They rouse him in time for the comedy skits in Part 3. The women of the house, on the other hand, raptly watch every minute of every show around a 40-inch television set that is the main ornament in the sparsely furnished apartment of Ernst Clergé, known as Elsie, and her four daughters. Ms. Clergé, 39, who cleans offices for living, lost her younger son in the earthquake and the family lived in a tent for more than a year.
“There’s so much stress in people’s lives, laughing helps us relax,” explains Ms. Clergé’s 18-year-old daughter, Sarahie Thelasco, a student. And the girls are a committed, boisterous audience, crying at sad parts and laughing, singing and chanting back to the television, doing impersonations of the actors’ impersonations.
Part of the show’s appeal is the cast of actresses, television stars who look like down-the-hill Haitians: curvy, dark and beautiful in a society that holds up slim, light-skinned, straight-haired models from the Dominican Republic as the feminine ideal.
In May, Ms. Clergé and her children joined nearly 2,000 other fans jammed into a hot, crowded theater in Port-au-Prince for a Mother’s Day stage performance by the show’s cast. The audience response turned it into something between a rock concert and a Baptist revival meeting.
There are no cinemas in post-earthquake Port-au-Prince, and not a lot of theater or dance. “Whenever we see something cultural to go to, we jump on it,” said Katty Saint Louis, 38. She and seven family members pooled their resources to buy tickets for the show, which she watches religiously every Saturday. Her favorite character is Madame Enkli, a stout peasant who is meekly pious in church but acts out when the minister is away. She has almost no teeth left, but still has a bawdy wit and an eye for strapping young men. “I just love her,” Ms. Saint Louis said, chuckling. “She reminds me of members of my own family.”
It’s not easy to get reception in Marie Lourdes Arthur’s tent in Villambeta, a sprawling displacement camp that has become home to many hundreds of Haitians. Ms. Arthur shares the space with her elderly mother and four adult children; a 32-inch television set has pride of place. They don’t have a generator, so they can’t watch during frequent power failures, but the family makes an extra effort for “Regards Croisés.”
Ms. Arthur’s daughter Jennifer Septimus, 23, a nursing student, said she likes the show because it helps her escape her worries by making light of them. Her favorite character is Stella, an unworldly little girl in pigtails who is totally irrepressible and uninhibited — the Id of Haiti.
“When there is electricity,” she said, “and we can get reception, I never miss it.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 10, 2012
An earlier version of this article contained a photo caption that misspelled the given name of one of the television watchers pictured. She is Ernst Clergé, not Ernts.
Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Arts, of Wednesday, July 11, 2012.