Lovely and Painful, This World Is Relentless: 'La Source' and 'Once in a Lullaby'
While Once in a Lullaby leads viewers through a familiar, uplifting story structure (rising and falling action, triumphant finalé), La Source is more impressionistic
When Li Deng read a newspaper article about Josue Lajeunesse in 2009, she was surprised. She knew him as a janitor at Princeton, where she was a student. "All of a sudden," she says now, "It clicked together for me why he was so exhausted." Primarily, this exhaustion stems from his several jobs: apart from cleaning floors and tables at the university's Whitman College, he drives a cab, and looks after his four children. The article pointed out something else too, that Josue was one of eight subjects in Patrick Shen's 2009 film, The Philosopher Kings, all janitors at universities across the US.
As Li Deng describes her moment of revelation here in La Source, Shen's next film, you understand that Josue's story has not only continued, but also developed and become more complex, as he pursued the construction of a water supply system for La Source, the village in Haiti he left in 1989. Like the previous film, i>La Source is beautifully shot, helping you to understand Josue's daily life -- the dust he unsettles when cleaning a skylight, the yellow trash barrel he pushes down long hallways -- as well as his extraordinary dedication.
That dedication is tested following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and as the documentary crew accompanies Josue during his travels between Haiti and New Jersey, the filmmaking becomes part of his story. This complicates his story, as the movie documents his experience, described by one observer in the film as "like a local celebrity, like everybody's hero." A similar description might be applied to the figure at the center of another film selected for DocuWeeks (both are opening on 3 August in New York and 10 August in LA). Once in a Lullaby: The PS22 Chorus Story follows a hardworking individual, in this case Staten Island music teacher Gregg Breinberg. As he encourages his fifth-grade chorus to feel confidence in themselves, he discovers a way to make that confidence available to a wide audience when he starts posting videos of their performances on YouTube.
If the chorus consists of some 60-70 children, the film finds focus with a few, and especially follows Breinberg, who urges his students to understand singing as a "whole body experience," so they engage in energetic swaying and gesticulating as they sing. Their performances -- and their millions of YouTube hits -- catch the attention of Bruce Cohen, producer of the 2010 Academy Awards. He invites them to sing "Over the Rainbow" at the close of the telecast, and suddenly, the kids prepare to be on stage in front of some 34 million television watchers.
The movie, directed by another music teacher, Jonathan Kalafer, recounts the preparations and rehearsals, the sometimes stressful moments that come while herding 70 10-year-olds. Breinberg leads New York Times reporter Noah Rosenburg into the school during the film's opening moments (a device the film soon abandons), he explains, "It’s great to see kids getting excited about music, that's the most important thing." He's a cheerleader if ever there was one, and as much as he urges his students to express themselves in music, he also speaks for them, repeatedly. "This means the world to them," he says, smiling widely, "The experience they get."
Once in a Lullaby: The PS22 Chorus Story (2011)
The film shows a bit of that experience from kids' perspectives, peeking in on Mohamed at home, where his parents are eager to show how he came to singing ("My wife," says Mohamed's father, "She's been singing since she was 12 years old," an interest she demonstrates insistently while watching her boy eat breakfast). One of the soloists, Azaria, is introduced as being formerly homeless: when her mother and father remember this recent past, the basements they slept in illegally, the poverty they faced. Her mother tears up as she says, "No matter what we went through, it never affected her. I don't want her to have her go through what me and her father have gone through." At this point he looks at her, the camera low and removed.
More often, the shots in Once in a Lullaby are close, suggesting an intimacy the skip-around storylines don't quite sustain. When Azaria is briefly expelled from the chorus, it's not clear why or how she's come to her crisis, only that she gets back in and is grateful for it: the scenes where she and other girls sing on their own evoke a kind of infectious energy and genuine joy. As the big day approaches, Gregg lets the camera in on his strategy, telling all the sections they're most import, pushing his singers to believe in themselves and to be as perfect as they can.
While Once in a Lullaby leads viewers through a familiar, uplifting story structure (rising and falling action, triumphant finalé), La Source is more impressionistic. The essential trajectory is plain enough: Josue will get the water project done, with help from Princeton student fundraisers, Generosity Water's Jordon Wagner, and David Darg of Operation Blessing. But apart from following that action, the film offers terrific images that allude to internal states, loneliness and worry, resolve and poise.
Josue meets with his brother, Chrismedonne, a bricklayer in Haiti with seven children to feed. They hug, they set to work. When Chrismedonne describes the risk of climbing a long hill to the spring to fetch water, Josue looks off screen: they know one another's stories, they know the use of performing themselves for the camera. As Josue drives through Princeton in his cab at night, or he and Darg ride through past rubble and broken walls as they pass in and out of La Source, both sets of mobile frames insinuate rough roads, but more than that, they suggest the sort of contemplation that fuels Josue's passion, his views of the world in temporal as well as spatial dimensions. Lovely and painful, this world is relentless.