Looking for Life

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Chèche Lavi
"This is a small, personal story with big implications."

After the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, many people left the island, hoping either to find work so they could send money home to those in need or to start new lives elsewhere. The building of new infrastructure for the coming World Cup in Brazil provided an immediate opportunity, and when that was over a rumour began to circulate to the effect that they would be welcomed in the US if they journeyed north. That journey, with its own share of hardships, is not the focus of Sam Ellison's documentary. What he's interested in is what happened next, and here he tells the story of two young men whose lives are put on hold as seismic changes occur in the political landscape of the continent.

Robens and James are waiting in Tijuana. They have already gone for several months without work and they're worried about how they will manage. On arrival they were given numbers by the border guards, told that they will each, eventually, get the chance to go through the application process and find out whether or not the US will accept them. If it doesn't, they could be deported back to Haiti. Either way, they will probably spend some time in detention, despite having done nothing wrong.

In the meantime, all they can do is wait, like the 16 million or so other displaced people currently stuck in camps or spread out along borders. In the prime of life they are unable to do anything towards building their futures. James is frustrated, focused on what's waiting for him on the other side of the fence. Robens tries to find a way of getting by, something that gradually shifts into trying to build a life for himself in Tijuana in case he never gets any further. Interviewed for a job in a bar, he is asked if he can speak English. Apologising, he explains that he can only speak French, French Creole and Portuguese. It's a small hint of how much talent is going to waste.

This is a small, personal story with big implications. Ellison reminds us of the human side of geopolitical events. By using twentysomething men to do it rather than wide-eyed children or worried families, he gets beyond conventional appeals to pity and explores a more general sense of unfairness about the random way that fate is determined by the circumstances of one's birth. There's a real sense of squandered potential and of politics getting in the way of practicality. The perfect metaphor is available in the form of the border wall being constructed as the months go by. Peering through a gap in the fence, Robens watches the labourers at work and we are reminded that he, too, has construction skills.

Ellison isn't one for big explanations. He provides a few facts in intertitle form; beyond that, we simply observe. Dust swirls everywhere. The sun beats down every day, just the same. The town seems to be full of people in similar situations, most of them men (it's much harder for women to survive long migrations without being kidnapped and trafficked), drifters who might, in other circumstances, be working productively and raising families. They sit around and talk and play cards as drifters do. Though the film is only 76 minutes long, we can feel the time go by - the endless days that can all too easily blur into merciless years.

Chèche Lavi feels like a portrait of a dying civilisation - one riven by failed systems, no longer cognisant of what they were for.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2019
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Documentary about two Haitian migrants who become stranded at the US-Mexico border, with no way forward.

Director: Sam Ellison

Year: 2019

Runtime: 76 minutes

Country: Mexico, US, Haiti

Festivals:

DOC NYC 2019

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