USA ,Mexico ,Haiti, 2019. 1h 16min
After a 35 day-long shutdown, costing nearly 6 billion dollars, the US government has reopened, temporarily at least. At the same time, its president threatens a state of emergency, having spun his much desired border wall into an issue of national security. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, real people continue making the effort to legally enter the US in search of a better life – as the eternally advertised «American Dream» invites them to do. With news anchors trying to follow the on going quarrel between the president and politicians, and late night hosts continuing to mock the situation, flourishing with each new announcement (and tweet), the seemingly whimsical policy decision affects many of these real people – a dynamic that seems largely overlooked.
Temporary protected status
Chèche Lavi, Creole for «looking for life», portrays two such real people: Laureus «Robens» Gasgasha and James Dorcelus, Haitian men who we meet at the Mexican – US border. Like many others, Robens and James fled Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to find work outside their devastated country. Originally, Brazil offered construction opportunities with both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics coming up.
Once these tournaments concluded, however, the country’s economy collapsed forcing the two men to move on. With the US allowing selective entry under the refuge of its Temporary Protected Status (TPS) policy, Robens and James took the long and challenging journey north.
While Robens has no home or family left in Haiti, James dreams of a reunion with his fiancée.
TPS is given to citizens from a number of countries affected by war or natural disaster, amongst which Haiti is one. It does, however, force many to wait months for their application interviews. It is during these months that director Sam Ellison and his team, including Haitian-American anthropologist cum producer Rachel Cantave and Tijuana-based filmmaker cum producer Abraham Ávila, portray the two men who, amidst thousands of others, have developed a close friendship. Following an introduction to the context of Haitian migrants at the Tijuana – San Diego border, the film reconstructs Robens’ and James’ friendship and demise in four acts. While Robens has no home or family left in Haiti, James dreams of a reunion with his fiancée, who is living in Florida. The film follows the two as they wait, discuss their future, squabble over basketball, and socialize.
An observational reality
Sam Ellison, an experienced cinematographer in fiction, shoots the film. In long takes he observes the two men, visualizing their closeness in medium shots and their loneliness in long ones. The film’s interview monologues accompany an observational visual style, while most of its factual information is included via text.
I met Ellison at the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam, where he told me his team worked closely with Robens and James in deciding the scenes to film. This approach worked until James was allowed access to the US and subsequently disappears. Ellison recounts how the team tried to get in touch with James, eventually finding out he was moved from one prison to another, handcuffed like a criminal, and without access to a lawyer. Eventually, James is sent back to Haiti, where the team finds him reunited with his family, where his journey began.
After a 35 day-long shutdown, costing nearly 6 billion dollars, the US government has reopened, temporarily at least.
In the meantime, a new president takes office and the country’s immigration policy instantly changes – the TPS is suspended and bound to terminate this year, which leaves Robens stuck in Tijuana still awaiting his interview. With nowhere else to go he eventually decides to try and make a life in the Mexican border city.
Rather than focusing on the hardships endured in the past, the tragedies survived, or any heroism that arguably arises, Chèche Lavi focuses on the present, thereby reducing Robens and James into ordinary men. Without a blanket of music prescribing the audience on how to feel, Ellison opts for modest themes – «Initially I did not want to include any music. But as I discussed the film over the years with a composer friend we ended up collaborating on a music score. The subjects are foreign and their language unfamiliar; the music hopefully helps to make their story accessible.»
Chèche Lavi is a non-sensationalist portrait of the friendship between two men and how fate directs it. Said Ellison, «This is not a film about success, nor about failure», and that is refreshing.