DOC NYC Review: ‘Serenade for Haiti’ Has a Timely Message for the World

April 20 2017


Like many of my friends and loved ones, I was horrified and disgusted by the outcome of the Presidential Election last week. I spent twenty-four hours in a stupor scrolling through my various social media timelines and grieving a version of America that was so cruelly snatched from our grasp. A day later, I woke up and got real. Being an American in itself embodies a particular sort of privilege, despite my Blackness and womanness, my socio-economic status and education provide me with a particular lifestyle and cushion that many Black women across the globe could only dream of. Though I have every right to be paralyzed by Trump's ascendance into the highest office of our land, my self- pity stems from a particular type of isolation, one that often cuts off Black Americans from the rest of the African Diaspora; essentially enabling us to ignore the plights of others.

The island of Haiti has a remarkable history. One that includes the country's defeat of Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. If you know nothing about the Haitian Revolution, you've become accustomed to the images of a deeply impoverished and corrupt country ravished by natural disasters -- most horrifically 2010’s earthquake and most recently, last month’s Hurricane Matthew. In "Serenade For Haiti" director Owsley Brown cracks open those images and misconceptions, delving further into the rich culture and traditions of Haiti through the Sainte Trinité Music School in Port-au-Prince. The film opens in 2007, three years before the earthquake of 2010 would leave the school and much of Haiti's population in shambles. Following the school’s music director Father David César, several staff members, including cello teacher Bernadette Williams, and 9-year old student Marc Valens, the audience comes to understand the importance of music and art in a country with little opportunity.

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For the film's subjects and all of the other pupils and instructors at the school, music is solace; it’s a way to heal pain, to forget, and possibly serves as a gateway to an otherwise unattainable opportunity. Told over a seven year period from 2007 to 2014, "Serenade For Haiti" touches lightly on the school history and its students, never really diving in deeply to any one person's backstory. I felt that the 70-minute documentary may have benefited from connecting the audience more profoundly with any of the subjects; especially Marc Valens whom we see grow from 9-years old to 16 years old and whose sheer determination, warm spirit, and infectious personality bubbled over, bursting brightly onto the screen.

Still, the images, and videos of the 2010 earthquake destruction provide a sobering and horrifying glimpse into all that Haiti loss. Using the power of his camera, Brown positions us in this particular place and time. With over 300,000 deaths and 1.7 million people displaced, it is still the most catastrophic earthquake in Haiti's present day history. Sainte Trinité was just one of the many casualties. Images of the teachers and students dropping violin cases and drums out of crumbling facades are not images one will quickly be able to forget. Post-earthquake, Father César stands on the land where Sainte Trinité stood, a breath away from breaking down, while Marc’s mother recounts desperately searching for her son amongst the rubble for four days before finally locating him. Vignettes of school children clutching their instruments in one hand and chairs in another as they moved outside from makeshift area to makeshift area showed their weariness but desire to press forward.

Much more of a message than a fully encompassing documentary film, "Serenade For Haiti" might quickly gloss over the crippling effects of the 2010 earthquake for the citizens of Haiti and the people of Sainte Trinité Music School but it doesn't sugarcoat the trauma and anxiety that continues to permeate throughout the nation. Concluding in 2014, the film ends on a weary but hopeful note. Sounds of the Boy's Choir glide softly through the air while small children pick up their instruments for the first time amongst the loud banging of construction and rebuilding; it's hard not to consider the loss and despair that citizens of Haiti will encounter again in just two short years.

In America, many of us are grieving as is our right. Many of our lives and livelihoods are very much as stake, as they have been for centuries. However, Owsley Brown's "Serenade For Haiti" though just skimming the surface of the history of Sainte Trinité Music School and the island Haiti, provides a timely and much-needed message. We only need to stretch out our hands to reach one another to begin, to rebuild and look toward the future. It is hope, after all, that springs eternal.

The trailer for "Serenade For Haiti" is embedded below:

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Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: or tweet her @midnightrami

by Aramide A. Tinubu on April 20 2017

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