Documentary puts musicians on political stage
January 27, 2015
If you think the American political scene is raucous and unpredictable, you haven’t been to Haiti. After years of totalitarian dictatorships and military coups, the country’s first democratic election after the 2010 earthquake was an all-out brawl that drew more than 30 candidates.
Among the candidates was Michel Martelly, known to his Haitian countrymen as "Sweet Micky," a wild Creole-style rapper with few inhibitions on stage or in politics.
American attention was drawn to the election when Wyclef Jean, of the popular band The Fugees, tossed his hat in the ring. Wyclef was eventually deemed ineligible to run, but during the primary rounds, Sweet Micky began to develop a devoted following among the working class and poor. He also attracted the support of another Fugee, Pras Michel.
That is how filmmaker Ben Patterson came to make his first feature film.
Patterson, an aspiring filmmaker with his own advertising agency, met Pras through a client. He recalls that in early 2010, Pras enticed him to travel to Haiti to meet the man he believed could finally reform its government, end the corruption and represent all of its citizens. Before going, Patterson found a YouTube video of "Sweet Micky" rapping and shaking his booty in a very un-presidential manner.
"He was wearing a diaper, pulling down his pants. I said to Pras, ‘what are you thinking?’ He said, ‘trust me.’"
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For Patterson, the trip was an eye-opener in many ways. "It was my first time going to Haiti which was, compared to our world, really an alien way of existence. In one way it is amazing: the people, the culture, the music. But the everyday tragedy of the poverty and lack of opportunity blew my mind," said Patterson.
Patterson, however, was committed to making his first documentary. "I had been very fortunate. My company was successful, but I was at a point when I wanted to make something that was just me as an artist."
Patterson and his crew knew Sweet Micky’s candidacy was a long shot and were not entirely surprised when their pick was eliminated in the first round.
"When he lost we put our cameras away and I just thought, if ever made a movie it would be about a guy who lost against corruption. We didn’t expect him to be in the second round."
But he was.
In the wake of the earthquake, the world’s eyes were on Haiti and, suspecting the the election had been rigged, the Organization of American States, review the results and the candidates’ qualifications. When the smoke cleared, Sweet Micky was back in the race — with support from both Pras and Wyclef and crowds of cheering Haitians.
In one of the final scenes, filmed the night before the election, the Fugees reunite for a benefit concert to rally voters and Patterson’s skill as a music promoter turned documentary cinematographer is in full view.
"He was totally a grassroots hero and his evolution as a person was fascinating. As Pras says, ‘You can’t make this shit up,’" said Patterson.
With the outcome so uncertain at first, Patterson said he couldn’t very well shop the concept to investors. "We bootstrapped it every step of the way, he said. But in the end Patterson had the documentary he had hoped for, "an issue film that is also an entertaining and fun story."
Patterson said he is thrilled to be part of the Slamdance Film Festival and is excited to launch his career as a documentary filmmaker. A second project, a scripted TV series based on one of the characters in "Sweet Micky," is in the works. Stay tuned.
"Sweet Micky" is screening in the Slamdance Documentary Competition at the Treasure Mountain Inn. It will be screened Thursday, Jan. 29, at 6:10 p.m.