The all-elusive American Dream — we’re all chasing it, but some of us have a harder journey to obtain it than others leading us to question whether it still truly exists. That all-encompassing toil towards the American Dream is what is at the heart of writer/actor/director Edson Jean’s debut feature Ludi. Seen through the eyes of a Haitian immigrant in Miami, Jean tells a touching and relatable story while giving voice to a segment of society that isn’t often seen on the big screen — at least not in something other than a stereotypical trope. I recently had the chance to catch Ludi at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival and had the pleasure to sit down and talk with Jean about representation, being an actor/director, and what’s up next for this filmmaker on the rise.
LV Taylor: I guess we’ll go ahead and jump right in — so let me just start by saying that I really enjoyed your film. It was a simple slice of life story but it resonated so much because we’re all really just trying to chase that American dream, if such a thing, still exists. And we’re all just trying to be good people and doing the best that we can but somehow it’s still not working out in our favor. So with that said, what was the inspiration behind this story?
Edson Jean: Yeah, thanks so much for those words — it means a lot to hear your takeaway and your experience with the film. The inspiration was largely, if not mostly, in part inspired from my mother’s earlier years where she emigrated from Haiti to the United States, specifically Miami. It was about her first couple of years here and finding her footing as an immigrant and the culture shock and all those other things that have to do with completely planting a new seed in the foreign land.
There was just an array of experiences that she would get like different gigs — some from her friends who were established nurses — that she would work. There were night shifts and things like that as a caretaker and then other odd jobs that were completely unconnected to the hospitality, medical industry, or healthcare industry — but the film was largely inspired from my mom’s earlier years here and just everything that sort of comes along with just trying to blaze a path and create opportunity for yourself and the generations to come.
LV Taylor: You could kind of see this film as almost like a critique of the American dream — or what we know as the prototypical American Dream. Do you think that still exists and that people are able to really attain that in today’s society?
Edson Jean: Well, I definitely do think a version of the American Dream still exists. I think the challenge is that I believe it’s strategically kept away from those who desperately seek it — through information or other specific ways because opportunity definitely exists in this country. Coming from a third-world country like Haiti, and others around the world, there’s a stark difference in what you can create for yourself, but in the same regard is also set up to kind of pin you and keep you in a certain socio-economic status. So I do believe it’s there but I also believe that strategically, it’s stacked up against us — the immigrant or minority. It extends further than just a sort of a first or second-generation immigrant story.
LV Taylor: Definitely agree with that. So this was your first feature — what was that experience like and can you talk a little bit about how it was to have it premiere at some festivals but during a pandemic and a different kind of environment?
Edson Jean: Yeah, great question. The first part, about how it was jumping into my first feature — it was just fun! I love doing this and it was really exciting to be able to even have the opportunity to execute and create a go and try to manifest this idea that exists — that turns into a script and then now you’re on set. So it was just really exciting and fun to be executing that. This film was largely possible because of a local filmmaking grant that I got here in Miami from an arts organization called Oolite Arts and their artist support organization that’s all about pushing visual artists and creating opportunities for them here in Miami. So that was exciting and I had worked out a project that was actually bigger than this project — in scope and budget — but it was the digital series.
So having that under my belt was cool because it gave me the opportunity to let go of some of the more customary tendencies of doing a bigger show and just get back to filmmaking one on one and get into something scrappy — that experience was dope. And the festivals have honestly been a blessing for me. We finished principal shooting just before the pandemic so throughout 2020 We were just working on post and allowed ourselves to slow down and not really feel like we had to have a reset process because nothing was really happening. Then we got to IFP and other different filmmaking labs, which all those labs traditionally are in person, so because the buffer that we can’t go to New York or go to Poland and put in your leads. But it was still an awesome opportunity to workshop ideas and things like that. We were actually able to have an in-person world premiere because they did a hybrid festival here in Miami.
Miami was the place I wanted to premiere it first anyway so it kind of worked to our advantage. I have a friend who got into Tribeca 2020 But they canceled it so he still hasn’t seen his film in person in a theater. So the timing was tricky, but it depends on what festivals you go. We went to SXSW and it was completely online but that was a great opportunity regardless just because of the notoriety of the festival or network attention that it brings. There are a couple of festivals down the road — some of them are still online, some of them are in person or hybrid — so I’m still able to experience some in-person festivals. But overall, I’m just super grateful for all of it.
LV Taylor: That’s good to hear. So let’s move on to your lead actress (Shein Mompremier) — she gave a moving performance. Do you think that being an actor yourself kind of helps you when you’re directing other actors?
Edson Jean: Yeah, in a way. I hadn’t really thought about it until I started to hear that question a little later. It’s something that I think I took for granted because I didn’t have to think about it. If you grow up speaking a language you don’t think about the advantages — it is just the people around you and what you’re used to. So in that way, I just speak to them in the same sort of language. Not all actors come from the same sort of background, but so I think a lot of the same principles about authenticity and how you approach certain things are just kind of innate in the conversation that I have with actors. Overall, I think is super valuable because I didn’t have to think about it so I was able to rest my laurels on that\ focus on other things that I needed to really pay attention to.
LV Taylor: In your work, you really use your identity as a Haitian-American (it’s something we don’t often see too much), Little Haiti, and Miami in your stories a lot. Why do you feel like it’s important to give a voice and let that cultural background shine on the screen?
Edson Jean: I just think it’s super important because, first of all, Haitians have been here as part of this country for a long time, even fought in World War II. But it seems like our stories are not being necessarily told and I think a large part is because we’re not telling our stories. That’s definitely changing. But, you know, I think for a while we were really just influenced by African-American culture because you come into a country and you’re like, ‘yo, this is the closest thing to what we are.’ It feels like part of you so we behaved in an American way a lot and gravitated towards African-American contemporary culture and all that kind of stuff. But there’s still this other half of you that is very much like, “oh, there’s a void,” and you don’t see that represented. I think it’s super important for the same reasons why it’s important to have authentic representation for Black people and all other minorities — even the nuances of minorities are just as important, right, those are whole pools of people that have different cultural nuances giving you a different language and really taking part in American society. So, yeah, I think it’s really important to see ourselves. It encourages growth and encourages unification and crushes stereotypes.
LV Taylor: Absolutely. So we’ll wrap it up with one final question — do you have any other projects in the works, what’s up next for you?
Edson Jean: Thanks for asking. I’m writing my second feature right now — pretty far along with it — it’s a narrative, true-life drama. It’s sort of capturing the untold story of the family that was affected by the infamy of the brother who was known for biting another man’s face on the Miami Causeway about a decade ago. There was the whole story about bath salts and whatnot. So it’s about that story. It addresses the dehumanization of black bodies and the misinformation in the media because, in large part, that story was widely just misrepresented.
For many reasons, there are no facts on it — there’s a lot of unknowns — so it’s not like we’re necessarily saying ‘oh this is what really happened because the project itself exists with a lot of questions. But the part that sort of grabbed my attention — not the biggest part because there are other themes like mental health in the black community and other things we were addressing — is that it’s really focused on a story that a lot of people don’t really know about, they just know of the infamy. But people here in Miami know that the family had a really tough time finding a funeral service for him in a church, because of polarization in the Haitian community — the incident was being associated with Voodoo and Haitian culture like it’s very separated with Protestant practicing Haitians and Voodoo practicing Haitians.
So that’s something that we experienced firsthand because the attacker’s brother is a very close friend of mine and we have been friends for a long time. So this is a story that kind of developed over time through therapy and journaling and things like that. Now, it sort of found its way into a narrative feature, but it’s really just going to shed a light on that experience and what a family has to go through because of the ramifications of today’s society and how we sort of just really jump on clickbait and regurgitate things — we don’t even know whether or not they’re actually true. So yeah, that’s what’s up next.
LV Taylor: That should be really interesting. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing that whenever you come out with it. Thank you again for taking the time to chat with me today definitely appreciate it.
Edson Jean: Appreciate it LV, thank you so much, Have a nice one.