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Deadly Grace: New Film Documents Haitian Machete Fencing

Papa Machete

The Haitian Revolution in 1791 was the first (and only) successful slave rebellion against a crushing colonist regime. And the revolt didn’t only result in a new state, it was also achieved with the edge of a machete.

The short film “Papa Machete” opens somberly, telling how Haitians developed a martial art called Tire Machèt during that bloody, turbulent period. A versatile agricultural tool in dense tropical climates, the machete makes a valuable weapon.

When Jason Fitzroy Jeffers, a local writer who developed “Papa Machete,” first read about it, he was floored.

“It felt surreal, almost as if it had popped out of my imagination and became real,” he says. “Growing up in Barbados, I always romanticized the machete. For whatever reason I envisioned it as an Excalibur for the people of the Third World, a symbol of untapped strength.”

Borrowing fencing techniques from French colonists and combining them with forms of African stick fighting and proto-capoeira traditions, Tire Machèt (“pulling machetes”) was an extremely effective self-defense system -- proven useful in large combat scenarios, even against the better-armed French.

"I always romanticized the machete. For whatever reason I envisioned it as an Excalibur for the people of the Third World."

Following the revolution, the form evolved into a cherished practice valued for its grace and kinesthetic display. It was passed down through generations, but only trusted members of the community were bestowed with training, and just a select few were allowed to watch the sessions.

Now, anyone interested can arrange trips through the Haitian Machete Fencing Project, which works with the only master who teaches Tire Machèt to visitors.

Jeffers and his production team, Third Horizon Media (a 2014 Knight Arts Challenge finalist), traveled to the woody slopes of Cap Rouge, Haiti. There, gaunt machete master Alfred Avril lives with his family, working the land and teaching students how to lunge, block, croisé and balestra. He goes by “The Professor.”

Jeffers’ team captured a mesmerizingly deadly dance between the Professor and his opponents. Avril periodically swills from a bottle of rum as he swings and spins his weapon with patient, self-assured prowess.

The bouts are carried out entirely unprotected; Avril and his student-challengers are clad only in polos and cargo shorts. The nerve-racking scenes are antithetical to the fencing of popular imagination, and there is unintended, bloody contact.

Credit Papa Machete / Courtesy

Keisha Rae Witherspoon, co-writer of “Papa Machete,” says she understood the conditions under which machete fencing developed after visiting the island. The Third Horizon team launched a Kickstarter to help the Professor, whose meager farming income has suffered due to lower land productivity in Haiti.

“Currently, he is teaching class outdoors, adjacent to his slanted home that was affected by the 2010 earthquake,” says Witherspoon. “Part of the campaign proceeds will go toward building a small, structurally sound facility where he can teach his students and shelter his family. This can be done very inexpensively and quickly.”

Jonathan David Kane from the acclaimed local company Borscht Corp. directed “Papa Machete.” He thinks helping Avril will also help a languishing cultural tradition.

“We believe that this is a very important step in the preservation and proliferation of this martial art,” he says. “The remaining funds raised will be put toward the film in the form of additional sound design, color correction, international film festival submission costs, and the creation of an interactive documentary website that expands on many of the questions raised in the film.”

Haitians resorted to the machete -- a tool they used long before colonization, the same tool later used to make their masters richer than any other colony -- for their freedom.

The machete is a potent symbol of the tropical consciousness: Caribbean people know it well as a token of labor, struggle, and possible menace. But “Papa Machete,” through the story of Professor Avril, reveals it as a tool of artistry.