September 1, 2006

By Candice Russell

For art collectors enamored of Haiti, a glimpse of island life on the big screen is sufficient to fire up a desire to visit in person. But going to Haiti isn’t as easy or safe as it used to be even three years ago. Haiti-maniacs like myself are having to make do with other people’s cinematic interpretations of Haiti. A new film in theaters called “Heading South” or “Vers Le Sud,” since the language is occasionally French with English subtitles, is a sensual and disturbing view of Haiti in the late 1970s, in the innocent sexual times before AIDS reined in wantonly licentious behavior.

Charlotte Rampling as a Bostonian literature professor and Karen Young as a Georgia divorcee who discovered her bliss on a Haitian beach with a well-muscled teen-age boy play rivals for the affection of the handsome Legba. He attempts to please all the women who want his company, playing no favorites because they reward him with money and gifts in return for the pleasure of his sexual performance. A considerable gap of decades separates Legba and Rampling’s character, making her the biological peer of his grandmother, but no matter to either party. Gigolos dominate the elite scene at La Petite Anse, the beachside resort where the film’s action is set, and immorality or ethics seem to be no one’s concern.

While intense jealousy plays out between the women, Legba has troubles of his own with a well-connected ex-girlfriend who wants him back. The threat of danger no less than the desperation of Haiti for poor, beautiful women hangs over the drama. Director and co-writer Laurent Cantet, working from a novel by Dany Laferriere, conveys the tension between foreigners and Haitians at nearly every turn. The relationships are pathetically unequal and devoid of respect or understanding. All the insouciance, rum drinks and coupling cannot vanquish a sense of foreboding. It’s sad, it’s true and it’s worth seeing.

From what I could gather from the end credits, the beach scenes were shot in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island mass of Hispaniola with Haiti. Discerning collectors who see “Heading South” may notice background glimpses of Vodou flags in beachside cabins and metal sculptures by Serge Jolimeau on the walls of the plein air restaurant. I’m still waiting for a film about Haitian art from a contemporary fictional or non-fictional perspective.

Jonathan Demme, who ended “The Silence of the Lambs” with Anthony Hopkins talking on the telephone in Haiti, is the logical director of choice for such an ambitious project. He previously made the documentaries “Haiti: Dreams of Democracy” in 1987 about the overthrow of the Duvalier dictatorship and “The Agronomist” about the murder of a noted peaceful man of the land. Demme’s support of human rights in Haiti and his large Haitian art collection underscore his sympathy for the place and the people.

If Demme were to make the ultimate film about Haitian art in Haiti, it would be enough to counter the depressing excesses of the lamentable “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” a big-budget Universal Pictures film that perverted and sensationalized the non-fiction book of the same title by Wade Davis.

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