(director/writer: Whitney Dow; cinematographers: Ed Marritz/Niels Alpert; editors: Nancy Kennedy/Federico Rosenzvit/Hemal Trivedi; music: Orchestre Septentrional; cast: Nikol Levy, Ulrick Pierre-Louis, Yvenel ‘Saure’ Etienne, Michel Tassy; Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jane Regan/Daniel Morel/Jennifer Latham; PBS; 2011)

“No-frills, straightforward documentary on the history of Haiti as seen through the eyes of Orchestre Septentrional.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Whitney Dow (“Two Towns of Jasper”)directs this no-frills, straightforward documentary on the history of Haiti as seen through the eyes of Orchestre Septentrional (translated as From the North-the group is associated with the northern city of Cap-Haitien), one of Haiti’s most popular and celebrated bands. The energetic band plays a blend of Latin jazz with African rhythms. The group was started by Ulrick Pierre-Louis in 1948 and he’s still running it as a 20-member band with lead singer Michel Tassy, making it Haiti’s oldest live band.

By chronicling the band’s history, it’s able to take a break from the music to tell how the island was discovered by Columbus, how the Spaniards ruthlessly treated the native Indian population, how it later became colonized by the French and slaves were used to work the sugar crops. After the slaves rebelled in 1804 it became an independent country, but since none of the world powers supported it the country went from the richest island on the Caribbean to the poorest country in the West. Talking headYvenel ‘Saure’ Etienne tells of the American occupation of Haiti for 15 years in the early twentieth century and how the Americans helped support the brutal dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. When the populist leftist Jean Bertrand Aristide was elected in the 1990s the Americans never supported him and shamefully supported the coup that drove him from power during his second term in office. The film also covers the devastating earthquake of 2010, where the death toll was high and damage to buildings and Haiti was great. It’s pointed out that Haiti is a tough country to survive in, where jobs are scarce and poverty is wide-spread. We’re left with only the hope that the Haitians are a resilient people and that maybe they will be able to some day overcome their tragic history. We’re told that at least they have a fine culture to be proud of.

When the Drum Is Beating Poster