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'En Garde' Takes On New Urgency In A Duel With Machetes

Machete master Alfred Avril instructs his son, Jean-Paul.
Richard Patterson
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Machete master Alfred Avril instructs his son, Jean-Paul.

Two men are sparring on a wooded slope in Haiti. Each has one hand behind his back. From afar, it looks as if they're fencing. But instead of using swords, the men are wielding machetes.

Yes, you read that right. They are aiming machetes at each other.

The older man is "Professor" Alfred Avril, a 70-year-old Haitian farmer who is also a master of tire machet, or Haitian machete fencing. He's quick but deliberate in his movements. His son and student, Jean-Paul, sways backward, descending to the ground to dodge the strikes.

At one point, Avril, with his machete resting on his son's, swings the blade up and it slices right into Jean-Paul's cheeks, drawing a speck of blood and ending the match.

The training session, which resembles a graceful dance as the two twist and turn their bodies, is documented in Papa Machete. The 11-minute documentary, produced by journalist Jason Jeffers and artist Keisha Witherspoon at Third Horizon Media, had its U.S. premiere on Friday at the Sundance Film Festival and will air three more times during the film fest.

The goal of the filmmakers is to show the world a different side of Haiti. "So often when you hear about Haiti, you expect that it's going to be a sad story," says Jeffers. "But Haiti has a remarkable cultural legacy. We hope people can see there's much more."

Like the little-known sport of machete fencing. The martial art form mixes European fencing with traditional African stick-fighting. The machete is the weapon of choice because it is ubiquitous throughout Haiti and the Caribbean, Witherspoon says. "You often see a machete leaning up against the back door, in the kitchen, in the yard."

She considers it the "pocket knife of the Caribbean" while Jeffers calls it the "Excalibur."

The art is rooted in the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, when slaves used their farm tools to successfully revolt against French colonizers. "The history isn't very clear, but it's our understanding that before the slaves rebelled against the French, some of the underclass had trained with the French army to fight off the Spanish so a lot of them knew how to fence," says Jeffers.

As for Avril, he says his skill with the machete was a gift from his father and teacher — and from his ancestors. He says their spirits visited him and passed on their knowledge.

The Professor died in December, shortly after the film was completed. Only a handful of masters remain. Most consider machete fencing a family tradition that should be taught only to a few loyal students in secret. "It was not something to be shared," Jeffers says.

The Professor's pupils practice with wooden sticks, not sharp blades.
Richard Patterson / Courtesy of Sundance Insitute
Courtesy of Sundance Insitute
The Professor's pupils practice with wooden sticks, not sharp blades.

Avril had a different attitude. He instructed roughly six students each day, including his sons, grandchildren (they practiced with sticks), nieces, nephews and a few others in his community. The fact that he opened his training sessions to the filmmakers — and essentially the world — is rare.

Jeffers first saw Avril in a video posted on the social media site Reddit by Michael Rogers, founder of the Haitian Machete Fencing Project. Jeffers and his production crew teamed up with the organization and headed to Haiti in 2013 for some training of their own.

Avril had his own style of fencing. "It was never about striking hard, it was about a certain amount of flow," Jeffers recalls. "He would say, 'This is not karate.'"

In fact, it's all about defense and Avril says so in the film: "I don't use this gift to kill people."

Of course, when you're dealing with machetes, minor injuries happen — small cuts to the fingers and face. A dab of rum from the bottles Avril often carried to training sessions, and the match would start over.

The film crew started a Kickstarter campaign to rebuild Avril's home, which was severely damaged during the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. A new building sits where the old home once was. And now the Alfred Avril Memorial Fund has been set up to help his family.

With the master gone, his sons, Jean-Paul and Roland, may take over the training.

"Anytime I go," Avril says prophetically in the film, "it is in their hands."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Poon