TIM, Entertainment,Wyllisa R. BennettWhen independent filmmaker Uscla “Johnny” Desarmes wanted to tell his story about a slice of life through the eyes of a Haitian-American family, he called upon some heavyweight talent with deep Haitian roots to bring his story to the big screen. International actor Jimmy Jean-Louis of NBC’s “Heroes” and Haitian music icon/activist Carole Demesmin lead the ensemble cast of LIFE OUTSIDE OF PEARL (103 minutes/English with Creole subtitles). On May 18 – Haitian Flag Day – limited edition copies of LIFE OUTSIDE OF PEARL will be available on DVD at independent retailers across the country and online at MySpace.com/500000UNITEDWESTAND.
The breakthrough film, LIFE OUTSIDE OF PEARL tells the story of a lower middle-class Haitian-American family and their struggles to assimilate while trying to maintain their ethnic identity and culture. Written, directed and produced by independent filmmaker Desarmes, LIFE OUTSIDE OF PEARL, was a five-year labor of love for the young filmmaker. He honored his homeland by using the country’s nickname “Pearl” in the movie’s title. Because of the island’s beauty, Haiti has been called “The Pearl of the Caribbean.” “The world needs to see Haiti in new light,” says Desarmes.
It’s a couple of days before the official DVD release, and Desarmes, 34, is a little nervous, but excited. “I feel like this is graduation day for me,” he says. With no studio backing or distribution, Desarmes is releasing his movie through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and online visibility. Shot entirely in 35mm, it took five years and more than half-a-million dollars for Desarmes to bring LIFE OUTSIDE OF PEARL to the big screen. He is the first Haitian filmmaker to tackle a full-length film of this magnitude with an all-Haitian cast, including headliners Demesmin and Jean-Louis. The film was shot entirely in New Jersey, where there is a heavy concentration of Haitians.
The Haitian and Caribbean community has been excited about the film, since its premieres in Newark, NJ, Atlanta, and Miami. LIFE OUTSIDE OF PEARL was chosen as an official selection in the 2009 Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Desarmes was born and raised in Haiti. His parents divorced, and his father remarried and settled in the United States after years of working for the Haitian government. Given the political climate and unrest of Haiti, Desarmes’s father knew he had to provide a better life for his sons. And so, he uprooted his children from Haiti to Orange, New Jersey. At the time, Desarmes was 12.
For Desarmes, the move to the United States was a shock – the language, the culture, the people, even the weather – was vastly different from home in Haiti. Still, he managed to adapt and assimilate, learning English in six months, in addition to his fluency in Creole, French (the official language of Haiti) and Spanish.
Desarmes was heading to college to pursue a career in computer science when he decided to spend his college savings on film workshops. He was hooked. In 1998, Desarmes moved to Los Angeles and formed his production company, Telescope Films. His other credits include the short, TRANCE and writing credits for the independent film, “HAITIAN NIGHTS,” starring former Miss USA Kenya Moore and Emmy- and Tony-nominated Obba Babatundé. Production on his newest project, BATON, will begin in the coming months.
When Desarmes reminds you that Haiti was the first black republic that fought for freedom and won, he says it with conviction and a sense of pride. “I feel Haitians have a big history to live up to,” he says, “but right now, my people are fighting for food.”
Desarmes’s production company, Telescopic Films, plans the DVD release of LIFE OUTSIDE OF PEARL in conjunction with the philanthropic campaign, “500,000 United We Stand.” The goal is to raise $500,000 for the country of Haiti. Proceeds from the sale of LIFE OUTSIDE OF PEARL will be donated to 10 states in Haiti. Monies received will help build roads, repair schools and hospitals as well as assist in providing clean drinking water since natural disasters have left Haiti financially and economically crippled.
He’s already donated $10,000 to the Helping Hands Haitian Relief Effort of United Way of Miami-Dade, to help people in Haiti suffering from hunger. For Desarmes, it is important to give back to his people who are fighting to make a living. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. He hopes the release of LIFE OUTSIDE OF PEARL on Haitian Flag Day will inspire more people to participate in the campaign because they will be already engaged in festivities of the day. Also, as the plight of Haitians becomes more prominent in the news, this is a direct way for people to donate their money for to this humanitarian effort.
For Haitians and Haitian-Americans, the breakthrough film is a good piece of cinema they can call their own; and for Americans, especially African Americans, the movie provides a short history lesson, sparking enough curiosity about Haiti to want to know more. “You cannot tell the complete history of the United States without including Haiti. It’s impossible,” says Desarmes. “The history and culture of the United States and Haiti are intertwined.”