Life Outside Of Pearl

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

When outsiders think of Haiti, the chances are that the first images to spring to mind are those familiar from news broadcasts - images of poverty, the damage done by tropical storms, and armed struggle. But Haiti is known as the Pearl of the Caribbean and is home to a rich culture. The first republic to stand up against African slavery, it has a lot to be proud of, as the vivid introduction to this film reminds us. The legacy of this stays with Haitian people at home and abroad.

Living up to that kind of legacy can be difficult, as this affecting snapshot of a Haitian immigrant community in the United States reveals. It's an ensemble piece in which a plethora of sub-plots gradually combine to tell the story of an extended family caught between the desire to assimilate in its new country and its need to hold onto its ethnic identity. This is the cause of intergenerational friction as young people who know little about their history fail to understand the motivations and priorities of their elders - not that the behaviour of the adults is entirely without fault itself.

The film takes a stark look at some difficult subjects and thus avoids eulogising, but it also shows the positive side of the community - friendship, social support, family dinners, games, and romance.

Some of these sub-plots are more successful than others. In places the film strays too far into soap-opera territory, whilst in others its exposition is very heavy-handed. It was made on a low budget and this shows through in the quality of the visuals, but that's not entirely a bad thing, as it adds to the sense of rawness and immediacy, in places creating an almost documentary-like atmosphere. Throughout the voice of the film's writer and director Uscla 'Johnny' Desarmes comes through clearly, and it's clear that the film has been made by people from the same community whose life it explores. The first such film to focus on this particular group, it will also resonate with immigrant communities around the world.

The acting in the film is very varied, though all of it carries that same strain of authenticity. Many viewers will recognise Jimmy Jean-Louis from TV's Heroes, though his character here is very different. There are familiar archetypes - the impudent young man whose ambition leads him into trouble; the daughter who rebels against her father's attempts to restrain her sexuality; the frustrated patriarch who struggles to communicate his feelings; the hardworking mother trying to hold it all together; and the policeman who dreams of seeing his community achieve its true potential. But with these pieces Desarmes has constructed a story that is more than the sum of its parts. It's an impressive debut which marks him out as one to watch. Now Haitian Americans have something else to be proud of.

Reviewed on: 07 Jun 2009
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A snapshot of life in a Haitian immigrant community in America.
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Director: Uscla Desarmes

Writer: Uscla Desarmes

Starring: Natacha Noel, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Carole Demesmin, Rudolph Moise, Freddie Robinson Jr, Rick Borgias, Dominique Fouche, Katherine Guzman, Yami Iwase, Gouk Weleah, Anthony Stevenson

Year: 2007

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: Haiti, US

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