Tire machete, the mysterious martial art of machete fencing practiced in Haiti, is forever documented in the short film Papa Machete, now available to stream online.
The film chronicles the story of “Professor” Alfred Avril, an elder living in the mountains of the island country. For many in the United States, a man carrying a machete conjures an intimidating image, but Avril teaches the spiritual value of the machete, “as both a weapon and a key to survival.” Avril provides a bridge between his country’s traditional past and its troubled present. According to Shadow and Act, the film “documents his proud devotion to his heritage and his struggle to keep it alive in the face of contemporary globalization.”
In the film, Avril wields the weapon without hesitation or fear. “One day, a spirit came to me and told me, ‘Here’s how you master this craft.’ Immediately, I obliged. I obliged without fear,” he says.
“It’s a Caribbean thing. The machete is the Excalibur of the ‘Third World.’ I grew up in Barbados originally so it’s just something you’d see all over,” says journalist Jason Jeffers, who developed the film, with director Jonathan David Kane. “It’s a tool, it’s a weapon, it’s whatever you need it to be. It comes from the history of the Caribbean as a bunch of sugar colonies. So it’s just something that’s part of everyday life.”
The machete in Haitian culture holds special significance in the island’s history. During the fight against French enslavement, the machete was the only weapon of choice for former slaves to wield towards soldiers, who were supplied with guns and ammunition. After the Haitian Revolution in 1804, tire machete, which used African stick-fighting techniques as a base, became a covert martial arts form practiced throughout the island, and in numerous styles.
Professor Alfred Avril openly taught the art form to an appointed few. In one scene of Papa Machete, the elder lights a white candle with one hand while holding a drink in the other hand. He’s also pictured with young initiates by marking their faces with a bottle top, leaving a fresh scar in which a small amount of blood seeps from the skin. When asked what the specifics of tire machete were, the master teacher responds, “What is tire machete? It is a gift. It works through me. The gift works through me, you hear? The practice came from my father. The gift came from him.”
As tire machete became a dying martial arts form in the island, Avril broke away from the tradition of teaching it primarily through familial lineage. “This is not traditionally an art form that you share publicly. It has a history rooted in the revolution. Through the years it’s become something you pass on from father to son, or to members of your immediate community. You don’t hand out flyers to train people in machete fencing,” Jeffers explains. “I think his more immediate concern is just his day-to-day life. He’s not a man with much. He’s a poor farmer who happens to teach this. The one thing we noticed is that, although there are many members of the community who have an interest in it, it’s not strong enough for any of them to take up the mantle. He’s trained his sons, and they can continue to teach beyond him, but will they? That remains to be seen. Like so many other youngsters around the world, they’re taken by the images they see on TV. They’re about the city life.”
Director Jonathan David Kane agrees: “Tire machete is perceived as this thing that you know you have, and don’t show unless you absolutely need to. But the reason Professor Avril feels the need to share it with the world now is that he feels like he’s part of the last generation that takes it seriously. So the essence of the film is preservation.”
Aside from farming, the machete master is a father to eleven children, working tirelessly to feed them in a country ravaged by imperialism, natural disasters, and unspeakable poverty.
“The Haiti I grew up in, the food could go to waste. You could kick the food around. Millet doesn’t grow here anymore. The kids have lost that, ” the elder teacher explains in the film. “Other places are selling us millet. In our country? What is that? You can’t be living faced with that reality. Other countries are feeding you.”
Avril, who passed away on December 1, 2014, remained vigilant to the practice of tire machete until his passing. “My father was born in this country. My father died here,” he says, with unwavering Haitian pride. “One day this is where I too will die. Yes, this is where I must die. And I would like for life to change before I die.”