In my opinion, wasted potential is at the top of the list of a filmmaker’s greatest disappointments. When a great director, or at least a director of great potential, seizes a topic – especially one filled with richness and vigor – it is assumed that he or she will dive into it greedily, basking in its power. The result should be the creation a cinematic vision that will remind the viewer of the power of film. But when that individual instead takes such sound subject matter and prefers only to graze the surface, favoring sloth to imagination and assumed self-importance rather than deference to the craft, it is truly a tragedy. And in this particular case, the disaster in question is called Heading South (“Vers le Sud”), Laurent Cantet’s French/English film from 2005 that explores sex tourism in 1970s Haiti.
More specifically, the film follows Brenda (Karen Young), Sue (Louise Portal) and the queen bee herself Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), middle aged white women who come to Haiti annually. There, they provide cash and gifts to young, impoverished Haitian men in exchange for sexual favors and their company. Legba (Menothy Cesar), the resident hottie and particular favorite of both Ellen and Brenda, becomes caught (naturally) in between the growing feelings of each woman. As I watched the story unfold, I became increasingly disillusioned as Cantet. Here was a filmmaker quite content to create a story set in late ’70s Haiti, and yet never once did he even attempt to explore the nation’s rule by Jean Claude Duvalier.
A determined despot, Duvalier and his crew ruled the island with a violent, bloody fist. Colonialism, poverty, class, race, and political oppression are all salient themes for a film of this nature. Sadly, each is barely addressed within the confines of the story. It makes me question why Cantet would prefer to sell his subject short, creating a film that is in many ways equally insensitive and offensive to Haiti’s heritage. He could have made a film that created a nuanced portrait of a topic riddled with dimensionality. Instead, he chose the easy way out.
Not only did Cantet – whose previous films Ressources Humaines (“Human Resources”) and L’Emploi du Temps (“Time Out”) received immense critical acclaim – feel content to bask in the glaring omissions in his art but so did The New York Times. In a review of the film, Stephen Holden makes no mention of the issues of race and class, when he should recognize that said subjects are implicit in the very nature of the film. Neither is there a mention of the overriding issues of colonialism. What then is the duty of the filmmaker to his/her subject? Can art fail? What is the burden of the creator? Heading South is only one example of many of promise wasted and inherent richness taken for granted.