Heritage Kompa Review
The film The Other Side of the Water tells the story of rara band Dja-Rara: creating the meaning of home in the Diaspora
Tequila Minsky, Heritagekonpa Magazine
In the first minutes of the documentary film The Other Side of the Water we’re listening to a car radio and told, “You’re on the right frequency” and it’s true! So, you might as well sit back and enjoy ‘The Journey of a Haitian Rara Band in Brooklyn,’ which is the subtitle of the film that continuously and enjoyably provides you a sense of place: as we listen to Haitian radio in Creole, wait for or ride the subways, get glimpses of the emigrant commercial streets, or walk New York. We always know where we are; we are in the Haitian Diaspora world of Brooklyn and its environs.
Filmmakers Jeremy Robins and Magali Damas have provided the viewing public a wonderful documentary about the band Dja-Rara, the Haitian musical form ‘rara’s’ very first band in Brooklyn and probably in the U.S.
Rara is a walking percussion band with hand-held drums, a snare, bamboo, many one-toned horns, and beat metal. In Haiti, bands appear for weeks on the roads every Sunday before Easter. In Brooklyn every Sunday, for almost two decades, Dja-Rara has been playing in Prospect Park near Parkside, drawing many a fan. Other Side of The Water is their story.
Footage of a Prospect Park sign sets us in Brooklyn. Through interviews with Pe Yves, the founder in 1990 and ‘father’ of the group and the other founders and later current band members, we discover Dja-Rara: each band member’s personal story and the story of the Diaspora in Brooklyn. Rara’s emergence in Brooklyn paralleled an increased pride in what was happening in Haiti when the first democratically elected president followed years of dictatorship.
The band came together organically; this person had a drum, this one a horn and together the band energized parts of a Haitian community living in Brooklyn. Activist Ray Laforest sociologically and politically frames the time period for the viewer. We also feel the struggle of the emigrant experience through the lives of the band members.
The film is not all talk though and we’re frequently in the park by night or day or on the streets, always in the middle of the horns, drums and pulsing rhythms of music or in one scene, we’re eavesdropping in a rehearsal.
The film offers illumination of rara’s place as music in Haitian culture (integral for many in Haiti and maligned by the Church, associated with vodou and forbidden for others.)
Possible theories of its emergence are suggested. Wonderful archival black and white footage (from hard research) provides an authenticity to the form’s deep historical roots.
So too, the film incorporates the time’s historical events in Haiti and the history of Haitians in New York City/Brooklyn including protests against the coup in Haiti and protests against injustice in the U.S. (The AIDS label, deportation, Abner Louima).
No longer the only one, there are now approximately eight rara bands in the Diaspora’two more in the New York area and bands in Montreal, Boston and Miami.
Filmmakers Jeremy Robins and Magali Damas started the project in 2003. Magali had returned from a stint in Haiti and wanted to make a film about Haitian-Americans that was positive and complex. Jeremy, who had begun to get involved with Haitian culture, was interested in the sociology and looking at a New York subculture and a story told through the eyes of one band. Their convergent interests were complimentary as this wonderful documentary attests.
They have much more footage than they could use including interviews with anthropologist and professor Liza McAlister, author of Rara!: Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora and Dorothy Desir, curator and scholar of African Diasporan art and culture. In the end, the filmmakers had to make choices and sacrificed a more thorough understanding of the musicality of rara in order to focus on the band members’ individual stories.
Maybe they can reedit a more musicological version. Jeremy said they are going to pare it down from its current 75 minutes to one version less than one hour so it can screen on television.
Anthropologist Lois Wilcken responded very favorably to the film, ‘I really like that they provided a look into the life of working-class Haitians in Central Brooklyn in the context of developments in the homeland. It's one I've been living with these last couple of decades, and I think they captured it realistically and sympathetically. And it's so very true that Haitians generally evolved from a denial of their Haitian-ness to a celebration of it. That was expressed pretty clearly.’
Master drummer Frisner Augustine felt they could have dealt more with the spirituality of rara.
Wrapping it up, Lois Wilcken said, ‘They succeeded making ordinary people extraordinary.’ As for the filmmaker Robins, he feels he accomplished what he set out to do, make a film of complexity and depth exploring the lives of some Haitian-Americans, the history of Haiti and U.S. involvement and a look at the emigrant experience and Haitian culture.
A sneak preview just prior the West Indian Parade weekend at the BAM Cinema was very well received and the ‘insider’ audience of music and Haiti fans enjoyed the humorous insights’ there were a lot of laughs--as the story unfolded. This Diaspora story, Brooklyn story, and music story is now captured. Thank you, filmmakers!
The world premiere of The Other Side of the Water billed as part carnival, part vodou ceremony and part grassroots protest will screen at the Urban World Film Festival on September 12 at 10pm, 375 Greenwich St. in New York City.