DH Film Review || When the Drum is Beating

Recently I walked out of When the Drum is Beating, a new Haiti doc that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.  I fumed on Twitter but later that night I dropped in on the after-party at a hotel bar for the doc’s stars, visiting members of a 62-year-old orchestra from Cap-Haïtien, the Septentrional. By Flatbush, Brooklyn standards the party would’ve been a flop but as far as artsy-intellectual Manhattan gatherings go, it wasn’t too bad either. “There’re a lot of newcomers to Haiti here tonight,” was how one enthusiastic Haitian mingler described the crowd. Makes sense. Much of the doc came across like it was made for a liberal sensibility that’s shocked-just-shocked by deprivation.

When the Drum is Beating is about the band and the history of Haiti from slavery through the 2010 earthquake.  That’s a lot, too much, and it shows. Thank God then for the archival footage (rare stuff, to hear a 1915 Marine narrating the US’s arrival), some poignant interviews and the festival scenes.  As a concert-goer says during fet chanpet, “When Septen plays I’m rich, when they stop I’m poor.”

That singular statement is a brilliant set-up to explore the small triumphs of music-making in a place as trying as Haiti. But the film’s need to teach the History of Haiti 101 (hint: if you’re the type to watch a documentary film you’ve already taken that class) gets in the way of the actual story. It smothers its gems, the band-members, with the country’s brutality and poverty.  By the time I bounced, about 10 minutes before closing credits, I felt like I’d ground my teeth through another flat rendering of Haiti and Haitians.

Yet my reaction was what filmmaker Whitney Dow, known for PBS docs about racism in the United States, was trying to avoid. So what happened?

When I made this film, I was really hoping that I could create a different access point to Haiti. What people have at the moment is a vision of violence, privation, unrest and poverty, and I really wanted to offer people a different way in….I’ve seen so many films about Haiti that open with a squalid scene and some big-eyed child, and that absolutely exists there and we don’t ignore that in the film, but this will give people a different way to look at and understand Haiti.

It doesn’t.  Unlike his earlier work, which restricted itself to particular towns, time periods and events Dow goes super-wide and attempts to tell both the story of the Septen orchestra and the 200-year history of Haiti in 84 minutes. That’s nuts. So perhaps because of the time crunch, Drum plays like two separate and for the most part disjointed stories. The rare moment they come together however: magic.

Hulric Pierre-Louis, Septentrional's founder, passed in 2009

Like when Hulric Pierre-Louis, Septen’s white-haired founder waves his arms while recalling how a partier, a Tonton Macoute, sprayed bursts of bullets during a small-venue concert, accidentally killing (or maiming?) a band-member. But the show had to go on. While the older man gesticulates, the camera zooms in on his boastful lead singer (I’m the best in the world, he’d said) whose face is now tight with discomfort.  Later, said Pierre-Louis, Septen made up a popular song praising Papa Doc and they had no more trouble from Tonton Macoutes. The lead singer finally speaks. We’re here for music, not to talk politics. Let’s move on. And maddeningly, the camera obeys.

But now that Pierre-Louis can speak publicly about the Duvaliers, what does he really think about producing what was in effect propaganda for Papa Doc?  The lead singer: why doesn’t he want to talk politics? Did Septen ever produce music that questioned or challenged the status quo? If they didn’t, why not? And were Haitians more or less okay with Septen’s neutrality? Drum makes no effort to address this line of questioning even though this film is also about Haiti’s political history.  The omission is ironic, too, given the film’s title. Within the heritage of Africans and enslaved Africans in the New World, a beating drum was never just about making black people dance or, as this film suggests, forget.

Particularly for people kept poor and uneducated by their ruling elite, as in South Africa during apartheid and other Caribbean islands during colonialism and after, music expressed the complaints, frustrations and side-eye glances of the supposedly voiceless. Music was, is, a form of rebellion and popular mobilization (see Egyptian rap for its most recent incarnation).  Is Septen a part of that global tradition?  For a population whose human, civil and political rights are taken and given at the whims of others, I can’t imagine it’s an unimportant question.

Another not unimportant question: where are women in this film? Bands may or may not be an all-male affair in Haiti but its politics definitely is not.  While men comment on, suffer from or bear through the situation unfolding around them, women appear in the subtitled lyrics of two songs: one about them being tricksters (and men being hotheaded) and the other about a young girl disobeying her parents and going off to party (and presumably trouble). If women’s absence from political conversation is indeed the reality at least acknowledge it. Don’t reproduce their exclusion as though it’s acceptable for either me or, and I’m willing to bet, Haitian women.

Overall, Drum is a reel of missed opportunities. I wish that Dow had trusted that band-members’ stories alone could fill this film. With more space, and more attempts to show band-members interacting with their families and their city, there would have been enough insight, tension, triumph and of course, Haitian history from the band’s birth in 1948 and on, to keep an audience satisfied.  But what we get instead is another story about Haiti where poverty and violence, with some music thrown in, are the main characters. And really, what’s so new about that?


6 Comments to “DH Film Review || When the Drum is Beating”

  1. I do think it took on too much in trying to zip through 200 years of history. He overly simplified what occurred under both Duvalier and Aristide. I agree with you that he should have let the history reveal itself through the lens of the band itself. That would have allowed a more developed history of the band and Haitian music, perhaps with old footage as well as selections/hits from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I would have liked to see the old septen. That said, the film is different from most documentaries about Haiti and managed to depict a side of Haiti many people don’t get to see. I enjoyed it.

    • Francique, thanks for commenting. I was curious though how the film depicted a side of Haiti that many people don’t see. It’s a subjective statement and I wondered, which side does she mean? Thx. C.

  2. When the Drum is Beating is another documentary on a popular and respected haitian institution: Orchestre Septentrional! Though sincere, the amount of time, resources: financial or otherwise Whitney Dow had at his disposal proved once again only Haitians in this case musicians can truly plot a good story about themselves. Here you have a world renown band that has withstand the test of time yet never truly enjoys the recognition and exposure it truly deserves. Why? The entertainment heavyweights or power that bes never truly embraced it! Much of SEPTEN (as fans refer to the band) tenure, it has to settle for independent projects. There’s nothing wrong with being independent but the problem it espouses, is limitation. Whenever a group or artist is subjected to a small or limited market, their stature suffer. Recording executives and promotors know the only way they can work with SEPTEN is to really deliver in big and substantal ways. A band like Septentrional knows how the system works. They established their own night club within a few years in the business. They are not desperate for gigs. They are not about to sell their souls for fame anytime soon and the power that bes know it. In order for SEPTEN to be filmed in a truly meaningful way, they would have to do it their way; independently!

  3. Thanks for this review. I’ll be on the lookout for this documentary. It’d be worth it to me, for the Marine quote alone.

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