Theater of Cruelty

In search of life in the border town of Tijuana

Chèche lavi / Looking for life
Regissør: Sam Ellison

IMMIGRATION / While Democrats, Republicans and the US president are arguing over a border wall, shows Chèche lavi what whimsical political measures mean to ordinary people.


After an 35 day-long shutdown of the US state apparatus, at a cost of nearly 6 billion, the business has reopened – at least temporarily. At the same time, President Donald Trump is threatening an exception, having made his long-awaited border wall a national security issue. On the other side of the border, meanwhile, people continue to try to legally enter the United States in search of a better life, as the eternal "American Dream" ad invites them to do. As news anchors try to follow the ongoing quarrel between the president, politicians and talk show hosts and continue to mock the situation in response to each new announcement (and Twitter message), the seemingly whimsical political decision touches many of these ordinary people – a dynamic which is largely overlooked.

Temporarily protected status

Chèche lavi, Creole for "seeking life," draws a portrait of two ordinary people: Laureus "Robens" Gasgasha and James Dorcelus, both Haitian men whom we meet at the Mexico-US border. Like many others, Robens and James fled Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 to find work outside their own destroyed country. Originally, Brazil provided opportunities for work in the construction industry before the 2014 Soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. But as soon as these events were over, the country's economy collapsed and this forced the two men to move on. As a result of US regulations that allow selective immigration through Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Robens and James took the long and challenging journey north.

Chèche Lavita draws a portrait of two ordinary Haitian men we meet at the Mexico-US border.

TPS includes residents of a certain number of countries affected by war or natural disaster, and Haiti is one of them. However, many have to wait months for an application interview. It is during these months that director Sam Ellison and his team, which includes Haitian-American anthropologist and producer Rachel Cantave as well as Tijuana-based filmmaker and producer Abraham Ávila, portray the two men who among thousands of others have developed a close friendship .

Following an introduction about the conditions for Haitian migrants at the Tijuana-San Diego border, the film reconstructs the friendship between Robens and James, but also the end of this friendship, in four acts. While Robens has left neither home nor family in Haiti, James dreams of reuniting with his fiancé, who lives in Florida. The film follows the two while waiting, discussing the future, arguing about basketball and socializing with others.

New reality under new president

Sam Ellison, an experienced fiction film photographer, is in charge of the footage. In long shoots he observes the two men, visualizing the closeness between them and their loneliness in longer and shorter recordings. The film's monologues go hand in hand with an observational visual style, while most of the factual information is presented as text.

Chèche lavi / Looking for life
Director Sam Ellison

I met Ellison during the International Film Festival in Rotterdam this year, where he told me that the team worked closely on Robens and James about the scenes in the film. This worked well until James was released into the United States and disappeared. Ellison talks about how the team tried to get in touch with him and eventually found out that he had been moved from one prison to another, handcuffed as a criminal – without access to a lawyer. Eventually, James is sent back to Haiti, where the team finds him reunited with his family and where his journey began.

In the meantime, a new president comes to power, and the country's immigration policy changes immediately. TPS will be suspended temporarily and will be abolished this year. That means Robens is stuck in Tijuana, where he is still waiting to be interviewed. With no other place to go, he finally decides to try to make a living in the Mexican border town.

Instead of emphasizing the main characters' difficulties in the past, the tragedies they have survived or their heroism, which can no doubt be highlighted, focuses Chèche lavi in the present, and thus portray Robens and James as ordinary men. Without a backdrop of music that would have helped to evoke certain emotions in the audience, Ellison chooses instead of modest themes: “Initially, I didn't want to put on music at all. But after discussing the film with a composer friend for a few years, we agreed to collaborate on a music score. The people are foreign and their language unknown; hopefully the music will help make their story accessible. ”

Willemien W. Sanders
Willemien W. Sanders
Sanders is a critic, living in Rotterdam.

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