‘Tis the season for pumpkin: the big orange squash is everywhere, in stores, drinks, fragrances, decorations. It’s Halloween tradition. But there’s another pumpkin tradition with which you may not be familiar.
Haitians celebrate New Year’s Day with soup joumou, a concoction of pumpkin, beef, onions, garlic and more. Why? “Liberty in a Soup,” a documentary premiering Oct. 9, explains.
Filmmaker Dudley Alexis says the project was inspired four years ago by a chatty Las Vegas cab driver. “He asked where I was from, I said I was from Haiti,” says Alexis, 32, who moved to South Florida in 1999. “We started to talk about the Haitian revolution.He was talking about how he was a big fan of Haitian culture. Surprisingly, he knew about the soup.”
Before 1804, soup joumou was a forbidden delicacy, prepared by enslaved people but only to be consumed by their owners. A successful struggle for independence changed that.
It all starts with the historic revolt in the rich French agricultural colony of Saint-Domingue, when in August 1791, the power structure was shocked by a well-organized uprising of enslaved people. On Jan. 1, 1804, a counsel of generals named Jean-Jacques Dessalines governor-general of an independent Haiti (Toussaint L’Ouverture, the noted leader for much of the struggle, had been taken by the French and died in prison the year before.)
But there’s much more to the story, which features political power games; shifting alliances; deception and death estimates as high as 350,000, from illness as well as fighting. “The way I see the Haitian revolution was as one of the first revolutions that redefined human rights,” says Alexis, noting that the rebellion had led “not only to the abolition of slavery in the colony but changed how people defined human rights. And the word of the revolution spread everywhere.”
In the Western Hemisphere, Haiti was the second nation after the United States to throw off a European power and seize independence, making it the second oldest democracy here as well as the world’s first black republic.
After his encounter with the cabbie, a few months of conversation with friends and encouragement from his father, Alexis decided to proceed with the documentary, which was filmed on location. “That same year I went to Haiti to do my first kind-of shoot, and I started going to Haiti more often to do research,” he recalls.
Financing was a problem. “I had to pawn a few things that I owned so that I could buy the tickets,” he says, adding that this was the first time he’d been to a pawn shop – and that he was not able to reclaim all of his possessions.
Also, Haiti was trying to recover from the devastating earthquake of early 2010. “Because I said it was about the soup, people had problems and were really skeptical about the whole project,” Alexis says. “Because it wasn’t about helping Haiti, people were not interested in helping me with the project.”
But he persisted and says the completed film has surprised many doubters. “There’s more than a lot of the people were expecting and the feedback has been great.”
After the premiere, Alexis plans to take “Liberty in a Soup” on the road, showing it at schools and colleges. He’s raising money for the tour, which will begin here in South Florida with stops at St. Thomas and Barry universities.
“Liberty in a Soup” premieres at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212 NE 59 Terr. Admission is free but you must register for tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/liberty-in-a-soup-premiere-screening-at-the-little-haiti-cultural-center-tickets-27461090862.
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