- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2016

Father Joseph Philippe does not consider himself to be a hero — nor a particularly interesting subject for a documentary. However, filmmaker Jeff Kaufman believed otherwise, and followed the Haitian Catholic priest for years as he worked tirelessly to increase education and financial opportunities for poor, rural Haitians — especially women.

“I’m not somebody who really wants to talk about myself, to talk about what I’m doing,” Father Philippe told The Washington Times. “When I see something to be done, if I can do it, I just do it. I was very resistant [to the film]. But Jeff was so persistent.”

Sitting next to him, his director smiles and asks, “Was I right?”

“Father Joseph,” now available on demand, chronicles Father Philippe’s efforts to build a school and orphanage, and to help the Haitian poor become financially independent and increasingly literate. He even built The University of Fondwa, Haiti’s first rural college.

However, many of his friends and colleagues were murdered because of their advocacy on behalf of the poor, and disappear from the film before its closing credits.

“Even though the film is talking about my work, you see different people doing different things in Haiti,” Father Philippe, who speaks in heavily accented English, said. “And the best thing I have in my mind is a new type of Haitian citizen.”

Haiti is among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and for years has suffered under the yoke of corrupt leaders, sex trafficking, crushing poverty and rampant illiteracy. The Duvalier regime ruled the island for decades before an uprising in 1986.

The devastating earthquake of 2010 only increased the Caribbean nation’s woes. What infrastructure in existence was all but wiped out. Over 230,000 people died, and donations from around the world were often siphoned away by criminal elements.

Amid the rubble, Father Philippe also struggled to rebuild.

“When I got the Haiti, the school was just flat,” said Mr. Kaufman. “You can imagine construction in the mountains of Haiti with barely a road, and yet somehow they had built this beautiful three-story school” before the earthquake.

Mr. Kaufman first met Father Philippe at a human rights event in Los Angeles. At the time, the director said he was seeking a new project that married his interests in faith and economic justice.

“I kind of bumped into this guy who pulled it all together,” Mr. Kaufman said of his subject. “He was laughing and charming at the same time. It just seemed like he was put in my path for a reason.”

Since he was not heretofore used to being on camera, Father Philippe said that Mr. Kaufman being a “good listener” helped him to open up for the documentary.

“He took time to understand and also to see the beauty of the work that has been done in Haiti,” he said. “Jeff has done more than a documentary.”

The film, which made the festival circuit earlier this year, has drawn praise not just from Catholics but from reviewers and advocates of all religious groups, including Muslim author Reza Aslan as well as prominent Jewish organizations.

Father Philippe said “Father Joseph” has given greater visibility to his cause, as well as better efforts at vetting sources of donations.

“We have identified four local grass-roots in [our] communities, and we have the select criteria,” he said. “Now each one is what we call a local development community. That’s one of the major things for us to rebuild from the ground up.”

“Every time I come back, there’s a little more up,” Mr. Kaufman said of the rebuilding. “Now it’s a beautiful structure,” he said, adding that his film shows how faith in action can lead to positive results.

In addition to the structure itself, clean water has been incorporated into the school’s infrastructure thanks to an APF-USA Foundation group called Raising Haiti, which accepts donations at RaisingHaiti.org.

“A lot of money goes to Haiti, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, but when you support a vetted grass-roots organization, a dollar is transformational,” Mr. Kaufman said.

Education, Father Philippe said, is key, but so is opportunity.

“I know how to rebuild Haiti, but I just need the resources to do it, Father Philippe said. “What I’m doing in Haiti can be replicated in any country wherever there are poor people. You first want to break the cycle of economic dependence, to break the cycle of poverty.”

“It was a long journey to get the film done,” Mr. Kaufman said, “but that also gave me a chance to see the wonder of [Father Philippe’s] work. So hopefully we can pass that on.”

“Father Joseph” is now available on video on demand.

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