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Ayiti Toma
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by Jay Seaver

"A country that is often a slave to its past."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2014: Full disclosure: I missed the first few minutes of "Ayiti Toma", so I admittedly cannot give a full accounting of the film. That happens when you try to squeeze as many movies that you will have limited opportunities to see later into one's personal schedule as possible. And while principle often keeps me from writing up something I haven't seen in full, this is a movie worth recommending, and Haiti gets ignored and poorly-served enough without me contributing.

"Ayiti Toma" means "country that is ours" in Haitian Creole, and director Joseph Hillel spends much of his time speaking to the residents, perhaps most memorably a group of residents of Fort National, an area of Port-au-Prince still devastated two years after the earthquake that hit the island in 2010. The island is more than Port-au-Prince and the disaster, though, and he spend time exploring his parents' homeland outside the city and going through the island's history, trying to examine what put it in such a bad situation even before the quake.

He takes an interesting tack in doing so, actually. Most documentaries, our histories in any medium, will generally start from the beginning and work forward, even if those chapters are intercut with present-day scenes to demonstrate their relevance; Hillel basically starts at the present and works his way back. So while the first half-hour is heavy on the topics that might inspire present-day activism and certainly can be most easily advertised, Hillel eventually places that on the back burner to dig up the roots of the country's current issues, all the way back to a revolution whose success left the newborn republic in economic thrall to France and then to how the colony was built on slavery, which is still reflected in the culture. He's then able to close the circle, in a way, by having anthropologist Ira Lowenthal imagine an alternate history where Haiti did not start out economically crippled and its revolution spread to it's neighbors. It's a fascinating way to look at history, one that emphasizes how self-serving decisions can cast long shadows.

While making this circle, Hillel certainly manages to get some memorable imagery and ideas into the audience's heads. There are the residents of Fort National, for instance, angry at how the relief efforts have ignored them because everyone in the areas is assumed to be bandits and slowly doing what they can to clear the rubble on their own. There's the ceremonial changing of the guard at a house of government left asymmetrical because the roof of one wing has sheered off, as iconic a symbol of a nation having trouble rebuilding itself beyond the superficial and short-term as you'll ever see. And there's a great bit linking the original zombie folklore and slavery that really make me wish that the term hadn't been appropriated to describe flesh-eating ghouls. There are also a number of interesting interviews, from local economist Camille Chalmers and voudon Papa Danis to the likes of Lowenthal, who has lived there for decades and argues passionately about the many raw deals his adopted country has received, and actor Sean Penn, who has been hands-on with relief efforts and is one of several to vacillate between decrying how much donated money winds up returning to the United States (or other first-world countries) and/or actually hurting the Haitian economy in the long term and how people need food now.

Ultimately, that sentiment seems to describe much of Haiti's history as much as its present: A unique culture founded on great ideals that just never got the chance to build for the future that it deserves. There's always hope, and Hillel always depicts a resilient people, but it's going to be an uphill battle.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=26819&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/07/14 20:41:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.

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Directed by
  Joseph Hillel

Written by
  Joseph Hillel

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