Whitney Dow is an award winning filmmaker whose works have been screened all over the world. When the Drum is Beating, his latest documentary, examines the contemporary culture of Haiti through the country's oldest musical group — a 20-piece band called Septentrional, whose enduring popularity has been a testament to the passion, spirit, and joy of an entire nation. As Whitney's Kickstarter project draws to a close, he continues to travel back and forth between Haiti, organizing early screenings of his footage. Fascinated, we asked him to share the experience with us.
Making When the Drum is Beating was a journey, and — like most journeys worth taking — took me to an entirely different destination then I had planned. I like to say that I made this film in penance for an earlier film I made in Haiti about democracy. In that film, I tried to understand Haiti by deconstructing a current political situation and came away feeling that, like so many people before me, I had reduced the county to the sum of its problems. When l set out to make When the Drum is Beating, I was determined to make up for that error by telling a Haitian story of hope and perseverance — the story of Septentrional, the longest surviving band in Haiti.
Septentrional had, against all odds, survived and flourished for more than six decades in a country where the average lifespan is just 51 years. This was a band that sang about girls, falling in love, and the beauty of a country most often defined by its societal problems and environmental degradation. I wanted to make a positive film about an inspiring group of musicians and to give people a different access point to the country. But it got more complicated than that. I didn’t realize just how complicated until I arrived in Haiti last Tuesday.
Last week I came to Haiti with Septentroinal’s musical director Nikol Levy and the band’s biggest star Jocelyn Alce (know as Ti-Bass) to screen the film in a number of locations. The screenings were organized in concert with The Dominican Republic Global Film Festival and would take two forms. The first was a screening at the Hotel Karibe, for a rarefied crowd of the Haitian elite.The following screenings would be outdoors at some of the camps for displaced persons where some 600,000 people still live almost two years after the earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince.
The Hotel Karibe is one of the fanciest hotels in Haiti. The trip from the airport took us by the tent cities and slums that house some of the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. I found myself standing in the lobby of a hotel where the drinks cost more than many Haitians make in a week, and whose pool and tennis courts look like they were imported from a San Diego Four Seasons.
I was nervous because the film we were about to present was very different from the film I originally set out to make. As I spent more and more time in Haiti with the band, I realized that what had attracted me to Septentrional was not just what they were doing, but the context in which they were doing it. Although the day-to-day struggles of the band were heroic, what was really incredible was the historical context within which they pursued their art. The film, which was originally going to be about a band, was now woven through with the history of Haiti itself, from Columbus to the earthquake, tying the problems that the band faces today directly to some of the most brutal events in the country's past.
My fears were unfounded. The event felt like successful premieres everywhere. The night was filled with actors, beauty queens, politicians, and speeches by ambassadors. An audience of 500 drank cocktails and ate hors d'oeuvres, and When the Drum was incredibly well received despite the fact that the film lays a great deal of blame for the country's conditions directly at the feet of many people that were in the room.
The next night was a different animal. We were scheduled to show the film on a soccer pitch in Pétionville, but at the last minute the plans were changed, and we found ourselves driving through the night into one of the biggest camps in Haiti in a place called Tabarre. Like most of the camps in Haiti, Tabarre is made of thousands of tents that house tens of thousands of people. There is lots of crime, few sanitation facilities, and the desperation is palpable. It is hard to spend any time in one of these camps and imagine how life is going to get better. An outdoor screen had been set up in front of a pavilion in a clearing.
I have seen the film many times and many ways: on a massive outdoor screen in Battery Park City at the Tribeca Film Festival, with incredibly polite and quiet audiences in South Korea, in churches in Queens, NY, and at festival screenings across America, but sitting in the camp in Tabarre was like nothing I had experienced. The tech people had cranked up the sound to an excruciating level. It was amazing to hear the band's beautiful music blast across the camp and see the people smile in recognition. They clapped for the band and laughed at day-to-day scenes of the country. Then came the history sections of the film. When the Drum graphically details the horrors of slavery, the bloody revolution, the shameful American occupation, the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, and of course, the earthquake.
I realized that in this environment, the film was unspooling not a series of historical events about a place called Haiti, but rather a living a history that led in a straight line from Columbus directly to this camp and all its misery. I had always thought of the earthquake as the end of the film, that it represented the ultimate tragic outcome of 400 years of brutal history, and the film has a brutal earthquake sequence that contains audio and video from the security cameras that were in the presidential palace as it collapsed. But, as the scene unfolded, with the sound turned up so loud that the entire pavilion literally shook, I realized that the end of the film actually lay here in this camp, and we were living it in real time.
After the film, Ti-Bass got up and talked about the necessity of knowing and owning your history so you can change the future. This is not an original idea, but looking out at that particular audience it seemed real to me in a way it had never before. Driving back to our hotel, Ti- Bass and Nikol began to make plans to tour the country with the band and the film, educating Haitians about their country's past and showing them, through their own inspiring story, that no matter your history, it is your choice whether or not to be a prisoner of it.
Films are not inanimate objects. With distribution they become living things that have the power to change lives. This Kickstarter campaign is about making sure that this film gets out to the widest audience possible.