Focusing on foreign aid (before and after the earthquake), the slave trade and colonialism, and vodou in Haiti, this documentary provides a far-reaching scope of a complex society. If there is one flaw the film suffered from it was the ambitious attempt to cover everything. How can you not try to cover everything when you’re talking about a place that has a history of being so egregiously misunderstood? That misunderstanding was also a focal point of the film, and it seemed as though an appropriate subtitle would have been, “Everything you don’t know about Haiti and by the way we have a lot more than earthquake damage and vodou here but, indeed, we do have a lot of those things as well” or something like this. It was very much a film that knew its audience.
One particularly well done aspect of the film was the wide range of interviews conducted. From vodou priests/priestesses, to Haitian sociologues/economistes, to young kids living in the bad part of town, to the jaded American aid workers (including Sean Penn?), to the cynical but wise (drunken?) fonctionnaire (that guy is everywhere, what is it with that guy?), to historian Laurent Dubois (‘heck yes!’ for those of you who work on Caribbean history). And this is one of the things that they are all both demonstrating and saying, which is (to paraphrase) : “There are an infinite number of viewpoints in/on Haiti – some of them better than others.” And they create a fully-formed, comprehensible picture of current Haiti and how it got there.
Now, the actual subtitle of the film says perfectly what the real thematic thread is: “au pays des vivants“…which would be “in the land of the living” in English. If there is one thing you pick up in the literature – and I’m glad this documentary confirmed it because I never know if I’m reading it correctly – is that Haitians live day-to-day alongside their dead. The film begins with a vodou practitioner explaining that his ancestors are buried right beside his house. He is responsible for cleaning their graves, and for listening to them. While this is perhaps a more literal case than most, I think it’s safe to say that this is the model. That you live with your ancestors in a fairly straight-forward way. And really the whole film could be traced through the relationship with to the dead.
The legend of zombies is only one of the interesting ways this comes up, and zombies are a kind of everyday myth. Again, something with which you daily live alongside. While I’ve read a bit about this, one comment that struck me was about the relationship this has to slavery. What is more frightening than being both living and dead? The fear of zombies is the fear of that which is alive, yet is cursed by a total lack of agency. Which is also the state of the person enslaved. An adept portrayal of this constant consciousness of both the dead and the zombie state that waits around the corner from any people who has the grave misfortune of being conquered and controlled by another population, is perhaps the film’s best contribution to a deeper understanding of Haiti.
[Here’s a link to an article in the New York Times about the difficulties of counting the dead after the earthquake. This is something discussed in the film as a kind of trick that aid organizations were playing on the world – more dead, more funding – upping the numbers beyond what could ever be deemed appropriate.]
Another quick note is that the film begins on the shore, with large pirogues full of people landing on the beach. It also ends this way, but the Atlantic is not evoked at all during the film (except for one interview with a fisherman) and so it seems to serve as a kind of framing device. This would make sense, because what do boats traditionally do if not transport people and things to from the shoreline? The film’s most prominent focus is on the moving of people to and from Haiti. Exploring who comes in and who goes out (slaves brought to the island, exiles leaving political persecution, French colonialists and plantation owners settling then leaving, American troops, foreign business owners, etc.) and what this process does for the developing Haitian society is one of the film’s more tense trains of thought. So the small boats – whether they are fishing or transporting people – actually take on a prominence, though they are never discussed. They are simply left, silently, to put the rest of the story inside a context, and that context is the immediately accessible and infinitely reaching connection that Haiti maintains to the rest of the world – the Atlantic.