merle-augustin_web.jpgWhen a natural disaster devastated the homeland of film producer Merle Augustin earlier this year, she was consumed with anger and despair.

Augustin watched news covering the aftermath of the magnitude-7 earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12.

“My immediate family, thankfully, was safe following the earthquake, but lots of friends and family members experienced losses,” Augustin told the South Florida Times. “For my family, it was simply heartbreaking because we watched it unfold on television and we really couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Feeling so powerless, we couldn’t help. 

We couldn’t go there. We couldn’t take them out. The first two weeks of this, I was grieving, furious and sad…just heartbroken.”

Augustin explored those emotions in her latest project, Ten Stories Tall. The story is one of loss, coping with grief and finding a sense of peace, even after life is altered by unexpected and uncontrollable events.

The film was featured at the 15th Annual Palm Beach International Film Festival from April 24 — 25, and will next be screened in Augustin’s current home town of New York City.

“It’s a movie that covers grief and losing loved ones and how people deal with that,” Augustin said. “But also, it’s not all about grief. It’s about sometimes, even when you’re having the wake, the stories they remember about their loved ones, there’s laughter.”

Screenwriter and director David Garrett said Ten Stories Tall is personal, but not autobiographical.

“The film is drawn from my own life,’’ Garrett said. “There was a period 2005 — 2007 when I lost my older brother and my father and another half dozen family members and some close friends. It was a very intense period of loss and grief.  Everything you see in the movie pretty much can be drawn back to an actual incident. It’s fiction but inspired by these events.”

Garrett said he wants audiences to get into a real conversation about grief and coping with loss.

Augustin grew up in Haiti and worked as a journalist there, always wanting to give back to the country that raised her.

She said she wanted to work in politics or some other field that would allow her to affect social change in Haiti or in America.

The desire to help others eventually led her to a career in journalism, working at the Sun-Sentinel newspaper covering Palm Beach County.

While covering a story about a tragedy involving Haitian immigrants, Augustin met a photographer who was doing a book documentary about “invisible communities.”

Augustin said: “She saw how passionate I was about Haiti and the community and how I needed to do something. She asked me if I’d like to work on the film because she was documenting the Haitian community in Delray Beach.”

In Delray, Augustin said, there was a clear “color-line,” and Haitians helped to bridge it, developing businesses and eventually becoming an iconic force.

Working on the documentary project, Indivisible: Local Heroes Changing America, inspired Augustin to leave the security of a paid job and go back to school to earn a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Film.

“I was scared. Film is not a reality, you think you cannot do it. It’s not real, you’ll never make any money out of it,” she first told herself. “And I grew up in a country, it’s probably the same here, where you think the safe professions are lawyers, doctors, engineers.”

But later, she said, “This is another way for me to affect change. Not about me being a woman or a black woman but as women it’s important for us to share the knowledge we learn.”

Palm Beach County Cultural Council Vice President of Marketing William “Bill” Nix said Ten Stories Tall could open doors for women in a business dominated by men.

“More women, black or otherwise, ought to be involved (in the film industry),” Nix said. “The fact that Merle Augustin is also from Palm Beach County, in the sense of having a career here, I think it’s wonderful for her to bring this film back.”

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Photo courtesy of Merle Augustin. Film producer Merle Augustin.