When cellist Carolyn Armstrong wanted to educate people about the music programs in Haiti where she volunteers, she arranged a slide show of sights. What was missing were the sounds.
“I thought it was really important for people to see what people at the camps were like, you know, to feel a little bit closer to the people there,” said Armstrong, a Lawrence University senior and a graduate of Renaissance School for the Arts, housed at Appleton West High School. “(Lawrence music professor Janet Anthony) was saying how nice it would be to have some actual film footage of the camps. That put a little bug in my head, like, it would be really cool.”
Armstrong is one of 40-plus Lawrence students and faculty members who over the past 12 years have accompanied Anthony to Haiti as independent volunteer instructors at music schools and summer camps. Armstrong wants to share the joy and resilience of the Haitian people, their love of and dedication to their music, and the grassroots work of the music programs with anyone who will listen.
To that end, she and Lawrence senior Stephen Anunson, a trombone player, have created Bel Son Productions in order to film a documentary about Haiti’s music programs. “Bel Son” means "beautiful sound” in Haitian Creole.
Armstrong is looking forward to seeing some of her past students as she travels throughout Haiti with Anunson over Lawrence’s winter break. The two planned to leave for Haiti on Thanksgiving and return home Dec. 22.
“My interest in film has always been this kind of story, trying to tell stories that aren’t as easily accessible, so this was an amazing opportunity,” said Anunson, co-founder and president of Lawrence’s film production club. This is his first of several anticipated trips to Haiti.
The Lawrence students plan to add their voices to the film, and document their experiences of interacting with students and volunteers in Haiti. Their goal is not only to raise awareness and funds for the Haitian music programs, but also to encourage others to use their gifts, whatever they are, to help those in need.
“Too often when you see someone in need like that, or you’re asked to do something for someone so far away and in such a different position from you, with that distance you feel you can’t do anything for the person,” Armstrong said. “We want to try to cut that distance visually, and with the music.”
Arts Wisconsin serves as Bel Son Productions’ fiscal receiver so the students can fundraise and apply for grants. So far they’ve collected about $1,500 in contributions and pledges.
A Nov. 11 benefit concert that Renaissance students organized at Harmony Cafe in downtown Appleton drew in many donations. The teenagers decided to fundraise for the film project after Armstrong and Anunson spoke at Renaissance.
“This entire project is kind of what Renaissance stands for, trying to work together as a community with our gifts to give back to the world,” said Renaissance senior Darcy Armstrong, who is Carolyn Armstrong’s sister.
Haitian musician Mackelder Saintilus, who studied for a time at Lawrence, told Carolyn Armstrong and Anunson in an interview that his experiences in his homeland’s music programs shaped him personally as well as professionally.
In Haiti’s stratified society, music can be a great equalizer, Anthony said.
“You take an audition and get a seat, and one child might be the child of a woman who sells gum on the street, and the stand partner of this child might be the child of a doctor,” she said. “This is where those relationships can start. This is very important.”
The Lawrence students hope to take the finished film into Wisconsin schools.
How to help
To contribute funds to Carolyn Armstrong and Stephen Anunson’s documentary film project on Haiti’s music programs, make checks payable to Bel Son Productions. Mail checks to: Carolyn Armstrong, 711 E. Boldt Way SPC 146, Appleton, WI 54911. Or donate online at www.belsonproductions.weebly.com (Click on “How to get involved”). Want to be part of the project? Anyone interested in volunteering or shadowing Bel Son Productions on a film shoot can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.