‘Papa Machete’ Film Preserves the Art of Haitian Machete Fencing

Machetes: In the annals of popular culture, they’re usually the tools of slasher-flick villains, meant to lop off a digit or slash a jugular. But across the Caribbean and beyond, they’re far less sinister and much more multi-purpose. And for some who grew up in the islands, like musician and journalist Jason Jeffers, they remain an object of fascination even after emigration from the homeland.

“It’s a Caribbean thing. The machete is the Excalibur of the ‘Third World.’ I grew up in Barbados originally so it’s just something you’d see all over,” says Jeffers, now based in Miami, Florida. “It’s a tool, it’s a weapon, it’s whatever you need it to be. It comes from the history of the Caribbean as a bunch of sugar colonies. So it’s just something that’s part of everyday life.”

Jeffers—who also records music under the name Fitzroy—sees them as a totem, drawing repeatedly on the image of the machete throughout his creative career. So, one day, when he was trawling a favorite subreddit forum on the martial arts, a YouTube video basically gobsmacked him. The clip showed one American acolyte, Mike Rogers, fencing an older Haitian man named Alfred Avril—with a sharpened, and potentially deadly, machete.

“Immediately I was like, ‘Okay, I have to go,’” recalls Jeffers. “At first it was like, ‘Okay, let me just go and learn how to fence. Then it became, ‘Oh, maybe I should write a journalism story about it for a magazine or something.’ Then it became, ‘Oh wait, maybe I should make a film about it.’”

One thing—Jeffers and his writing partner on the nascent project, Keisha Rae Witherspoon, had never made a movie. So they tapped a friend and experienced director, Jonathan David Kane, and a small crack team. Through Mike Rogers, the pupil in that original YouTube fencing video, they contacted Avril, also known as the “professor,” or “Papa Machete.”

A trip to his forest quarters outside of Jacmel, Haiti, yielded a new, 10-minute short but epic film called, appropriately, Papa Machete. Told through Avril’s point of view, it captures the grace and danger of the dying art of tire machet, or Haitian machete fencing.

But even Avril’s makeshift training camp may be on its way out. His home, damaged during the 2010 Haitian earthquake, is literally falling off its foundation. So the makers of Papa Machete have started a Kickstarter fundraising campaign not only to finish their film, but to fix up his home and school. And after a spotlight as Kickstarter’s featured project, they’ve got the bucks–and some pretty rad donors, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz.

Now, Jeffers, Witherspoon, Kane, and company are working to finish final post-production sweetening on the short film, before shopping it to the festival circuit. And they’re also raising even more money to fix up Avril’s home and school, with the aim of reviving his style of tire machet.

We caught up with Jeffers and Kane the day after their project exploded on Kickstarter. Check out the video above to see part of our interview with them for Fusion Live, or read more below.

Fusion: How did you decide to turn this into a film?

Jason Jeffers: Me and my production partner, Keisha Rae Witherspoon, said, “Yo, let’s do this. But we don’t know how to make films!” That’s where Jonathan came in.

Jonathan David Kane: Jason gave me a phone call and told me this amazing story about a guy down in Haiti who was a master of tire machete. Just on hearing the story I was fascinated and wanted to not only make a film, but go down and learn some moves. Upon going there I realized that this is an incredible practice and something I would love to continue throughout the rest of my life.

I had never been to Haiti before. As much as I tried to not go in with any preconceived notions from the media, it’s difficult not to. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it’s a beautiful country. There’s so much rich culture and so many fascinating stories that just don’t get told.

Jason Jeffers: Haiti is so important in the history of the world, really. It was home to the only successful slave revolution, ever, and that’s something that tends to get lost when people think about Haiti. It’s often just about political turmoil, or the earthquake, or poverty. It’s one thing after the other, and we felt it was really important to show a story that highlights this rich legacy they have there.

Were you concerned that the whole notion of people in the woods in Haiti, fighting with machetes, would almost sort of strengthen some of the prejudices people have about the island?

Jason Jeffers: It’s something we talked about a lot in putting this together. And for some people, it will.

Jonathan David Kane: There are some people who just won’t get this film. There are definitely some people who will just look at it and not understand it past some guy swinging machetes in the jungles of Haiti. But that’s okay. What’s important is that people who do understand the film feel a sense of pride in watching it—and that the film serves to proliferate and further continue this martial arts practice that is secretive and slowly vanishing.

Jason Jeffers: The thing is, there are some people who will just see Haitians flinging around blades. But that’s not what this is at all. It’s actually a martial art that’s a blend of European fencing and African stick fighting, using the machete. It’s actually a very graceful martial art.

When you think about it, the slaves who wielded this blade and used this style of fighting fought back no less than Napoleon’s armies. So it’s really impressive, and we hope it’s something that can reframe Haiti in people’s minds.

So what are the origins of tire machet?

Jason Jeffers: The origins are pretty shadowy, and the Haitian revolution is very complicated. Basically what happened is that some of the slaves had learned this style of fencing, and they combined it with African stick fighting, which they had inherited and brought with them to Haiti, which was a French colony. Then it became a syncretic martial art.

If you go to different parts of the so-called “Third World,” there are similar fighting styles which are blends of different martial arts. But you can’t really pin it down to, “This is the person who founded this particular martial art.”

Did it take any convincing for him to let you go down there and film?

Jonathan David Kane: Mike Rogers has been working with Professor Avril for 10 years. So when he first started training with the professor, the professor was so secretive about his teaching that they had to train behind a coconut-leaf fence. We’ve come from there, 10 years ago, to him trusting us—through Mike Rogers—enough to create this film.

Jason Jeffers: We couldn’t have done this without Mike. He was our translator. It was through him that we got access to the professor and became friends with him and built up a relationship with him. Mike was so instrumental in that.

Were there people trying to peek in on the professor’s methods? Why was he so secretive?

Jason Jeffers: This is not traditionally an art form that you share publically. It has a history rooted in the revolution. Through the years it’s become something you pass on from father to son, or to members of your immediate community. You don’t hand out flyers to train people in machete fencing.

Jonathan David Kane: Tire machet is perceived as this thing that you know you have, and don’t show unless you absolutely need to. But the reason Professor Avril feels the need to share it with the world now is that he feels like he’s part of the last generation that takes it seriously. So the essence of the film is preservation.

He’s got to feel pretty serious about potentially losing this martial art if he’s letting—no offense—a couple of interlopers just come in to see what it’s all about.

Jason Jeffers: I think his more immediate concern is just his day-to-day life. He’s not a man with much. He’s a poor farmer who happens to teach this. The one thing we noticed is that, although there are many members of the community who have an interest in it, it’s not strong enough for any of them to take up the mantle.

He’s trained his sons, and they can continue to teach beyond him, but will they? That remains to be seen. Like so many other youngsters around the world, they’re taken by the images they see on TV. They’re about the city life.

There are other teachers out there. We weren’t able to document them for this film, but in the future, who knows—maybe we’ll be able to go speak to them as well.

Jonathan David Kane: The film really speaks through the professor’s perspective on purpose. The whole film is told through his voice; it’s his version of tire machet. We don’t know the history, and our purpose wasn’t telling it. Our purpose was telling Professor Avril’s.

Video interview shot by Gabriel Morales
Edited by Jesse Swinger