‘Serenade’ finds musical connections in Haiti

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A report by Jeffrey M. Anderson for the San Francisco Examiner.

Seventeen years ago, San Francisco filmmaker Owsley Brown made his directing debut with the beautiful feature-length documentary “Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles.”

His new documentary, “Serenade for Haiti” — also about music and beautiful, yet quite different — screens three times in the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Brown says that he learned about the Sainte Trinité Music School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from a friend of his father’s.

“In 2006, I went down for a visit, just for five days,” he says. “It was a just mind-blowing experience to walk in and feel the intention of the music school. There was music everywhere, pictures of Mozart hanging in the hallways, and you’d hear the drumming class. You could just tell that something super special was going on.”

The film shows how the school is not focused on creating careers and fame, but is devoted to preserving history as well as teaching new generations of musicians — to making a great circle.

The filmmaker found the Haitians “incredibly welcoming” and began to think about Haiti as a neighbor, and part of the whole interconnected history of the Americas.

Brown made several trips back over a seven-year period, following some of the students and teachers over time.

Unexpectedly, his story took a major turn after the devastating 2010 earthquake that left the school in ruins.

“What kind of movie would I have made without the earthquake?” Brown wonders. “In hindsight, I would have made something not so different from what I made. The Haitian people have been through so much. That’s just in a long line of devastating blows that the people have endured. It’s a way to talk about resilience.”

While many documentaries about music only offer snippets, Brown lets the pieces play uninterrupted, in their entirety, in his films, giving the movies a patient, respectful feel.

“I’m attempting to make as many discoveries as I can along the way,” Brown says. “The hope is that that translates to what the audiences feels, a sense of discovery as you’re watching the movie. Patience can really be your friend.”

With “Serenade for Haiti” at last appearing on Bay Area screens, Brown says he doesn’t even mind being referred to as the guy who makes music documentaries.

“If you’d told me that by the time I was 46 I would make three feature-length films, all about music, I would have been so happy!” he says. “And now I have to pinch myself that it’s actually happened!”

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