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Whitney Dow: When the Drum is Beating

Haiti's most celebrated band has survived 6 decades of poverty, political unrest and, most recently, natural disaster, to provide its country with a pulse. Meet the filmmaker who lit upon their legend.

When the Drum is Beating

Tribeca: Tell us a little about When the Drum is Beating.

Whitney Dow
It’s the greatest music film ever made!


Tribeca: Fair enough! What inspired you to tell this story? How did you first hear about the band?


Whitney Dow:
I had done a film in 2005 about the Haitian elections, and I liked the film, but I came away from it a little disappointed in myself. I felt like I had done what a lot of people do, which is parse the current crisis du jour in order to understand Haiti, the what’s going on now and why is it going wrong? So when it came to this film, there were two things I kept in mind: one was that in order to understand Haiti, one needs to understand its broader historical context, and the other thing is that maybe people could learn more about Haiti and its problems and potentials by looking at something that had worked, as oppose to one of the many things that hasn’t.


My producers, Daniel Morel and Jane Regan, who also worked with me on Unfinished Country, introduced me to the band, and I was a drawn to them because here is a band that was 6 decades old in a country whose average life span is 49 years. Septentrional is a perfect example of an institution that had sustained itself with the intention that the band outlive the current band members. The band has been around for 62 years, but its musicians are constantly changing. It’s also one of the very few institutions that Haitians have been committed to sustaining. The people in the band talk about giving service. They see the band as something bigger than themselves.


The other thing that really drove me on the film was that a lot of times, in places that are in crisis, people confuse the context of the place with the narrative of people’s lives. They think that the context dominates everybody’s life—meaning that Haiti is understood as a place of deprivation and a place that needs something. In reality, if you listen to Septentrional’s music, they are writing songs about falling in love with girls, and of course they are! They’re no more dominated by their context than we are. Your life isn’t defined by the current political situation, the war in Afghanistan, etc. You are living your own dreams and aspirations, and I think many times we reduce people in places like Haiti to a composite of their needs.

Tribeca: It’s really clear in the documentary how vital the band is to the Haitian people. Some of the members say they have visas and could leave Haiti, but they choose not to because they know their people need the music.


Whitney Dow:
Absolutely. I think a lot of the time people, Americans in particular, see stories from places in crisis, and the first question they ask is, “Why are these people staying there?” Well, it’s because that’s their home and it’s who they are. I, myself, didn’t understand this sentiment until I saw the buildings come down on 9/11. The fact that something terrible was happening here made me more determined and committed to stay in New York. It’s my home and I love it here.



Tribeca: When did you start filming relative to the Haiti Earthquake?


Whitney Dow: We started filming in 2006 and it was pretty much completed in late 2009. Originally the story was more about the remaking of the band under the fall of Aristide. He had been the dominating story in Haiti for the last 20 years, but now it was the earthquake, so I thought, “Oh God, I don’t have a film anymore.” But this event actually gave me a chance to rethink the story I was trying to tell and to open up it up a lot more. This was just the latest in a long line of “earthquakes” Haiti has had to endure throughout history. Columbus landing in Hispaniola was an earthquake; when the French decided to colonize Haiti and import slaves, it was an earthquake; the American occupation was an earthquake, etc.  So it gave me the chance to look at the country with fresh eyes and try to understand what exactly the earthquake meant for Haiti and how it was connected to its past.

Tribeca: And with all these hardships Haiti has had to survive, it’s easy to understand why Septentrional’s music is so loved and needed by the Haitian people.


Whitney Dow:
Again, the Haitian people’s lives are not as dominated by the earthquake as we may think. The band members are simply artists trying to create art, and this disaster—as well as those in the past—has affected them in the sense that it stands in the way of them and their dreams.


Tribeca: A unique aspect of Septentrional and perhaps the factor that has allowed the band to stand the test of time is that it is constantly being “updated” with new, younger members. Can you talk a little bit about this tradition?


Whitney Dow:
I thought it was really interesting that the band feels like they have to remake themselves. The same patterns repeat themselves in Haiti‘s political structure, and this is partly due to the fact that they don’t bring in any new, younger ideas. One of the lessons from Septentrional’s success is their the willingness to bring in new ideas and people and change the way they do things in order to advance their cause.

Tribeca: Is it correct that the band is the youngest it’s ever been right now?


Whitney Dow:
Yes. This aspect of the band is also an interesting human story. I feel a kinship to Michel Tassy [a longtime vocalist in Septentrional]. There’s a whole generation of filmmakers coming in who have a completely different understanding of technology and distribution, and I feel threatened. I think that’s the perpetual story, this idea of wanting to embrace the future and young people and yet being scared of it and your own decline and eventual irrelevance.


Tribeca: But the band seems to be very comfortable with that notion.


Whitney Dow:
There is definitely some tension between the age groups in the band. For instance, Michel and some of the older guys will leave the stage and won’t sing backup for the younger guys. The young guys have to remember they are only there because the older members built the band, and they have to recognize the older generation’s contribution, but at the same time, they have the same passion, commitment and excitement that the older guys had when they were first starting out, so all the members are essentially the same. Their stories are all similar.



Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?


Whitney Dow:
Trying to shoot a concert for 25,000 people in high definition in a city that has no electricity, except for a couple of hours a day, and really no equipment, was mayhem. The concerts you see in the film were these massive events that would take place in the center of town; to shoot and record them was an incredible undertaking. The first year the stage and PA booth caught on fire, but all this made me realize I needed to let go. I had wanted to control everything and thought I needed to plan everything perfectly, but once I realized I could control almost nothing that was taking place in Haiti when I was on location with this big crew, things started to go much better.


And returning to the idea of places being dominated by context, early on in the process of the film I was with Daniel and Jane and we were driving in Gonaïves where a cannibal army who overthrew Aristide is centered. It’s a place that had just suffered a flood that killed thousands of people and it’s a really tough town. I was really worn down as we had had just had some very scary experiences in parts of Port-au-Prince, and I remember looking out the window, and it was the corniest thing, but there was this beautiful butterfly flying alongside the car. It shocked me, but then it reminded me: why wouldn’t there be something beautiful like this in Haiti?

Tribeca: What’s the biggest thing you learned while making When the Drum is Beating?


Whitney Dow:
As a director, your name goes on the front of everything, but you have so little to do in some ways with the actual creation of the film. The generosity and support that I got from the production community here in New York was incredible. This was not an easy film to make, and the people that came together to help make it possible were invaluable.

Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from When the Drum is Beating?


Whitney Dow:
People are the same as you in so many ways, and they aren’t defined by their condition any more than you are. When I made this film, I was really hoping that I could create a different access point to Haiti. What people have at the moment is a vision of violence, privation, unrest and poverty, and I really wanted to offer people a different way in. I hope that when people watch the film, particularly the opening sequence, they will see it as a celebration of Haitian culture.


I’ve seen so many films about Haiti that open with a squalid scene and some big-eyed child, and that absolutely exists there and we don’t ignore that in the film, but this will give people a different way to look at and understand Haiti. When you look at the old footage of Haiti in the film, it should become clear to you that nothing in the country was preordained. Haiti’s future could be a bright one, and the members of Septentrional who are working hard to create their music are proof positive that this is the case.

Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers?


Whitney Dow:
Marry someone rich, and have a lot of money! It’s a winner take all world now, whether you are in finance or real estate or filmmaking. You’re either a blogger working for free or you’re a top journalist. There is no middle anymore. So everybody is going to tell you no and that your film is a bad idea. Nobody is going to be interested. They will tell you you aren’t the right person to make it and that there isn’t any market for it. So the only way you can get a film made is to be committed to it to an unhealthy degree.


Tribeca got around 5,500 submissions this year, and it’s mind-boggling because these are only the films that got finished. There are probably ten times that amount that never got finished. There are incredible opportunities for young filmmakers who are able to do a lot of things. People shoot, edit, and produce my movies, but the new generation of filmmakers that I see coming in have incredible skill sets—and I think that you are going to need to have that in order to succeed.

Tribeca: What are your hopes for When the Drum is Beating at Tribeca?


Whitney Dow:
It’s great because, being a New York based film, so many of the people that were involved are going to be at the Festival—from the editors to the sound mixer to the interns. It would be great to discover that there is a broad audience for a film like this.

Tribeca: Septentrional will also be here and will be performing at the Drive-In!


Whitney Dow:
I’m so excited for the band to be here. I just finished the film last night, so they have no idea what I’m up to. I know there is going to be unhappiness and jealousy, as I shot close to 300 hours and it's now down to 90 minutes, so a lot of people aren’t in it. But the film is not about individuals, it’s about an institution. I also hope that the film will provide some sort of platform for the band and bring more people to their music, as they really struggle to get by.


Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?


Whitney Dow: Terrence Malick
, because his work was very inspirational for this film. His visual storytelling constantly reinforces the themes he is getting at, and he is also completely comfortable disengaging from conventional narrative. Another would be Werner Herzog eating my shoe.


There are also a couple of films that I come back to a lot. One is Hands On a Hard Body. It was shot terribly—they missed every important point they should have captured on film—but the story was so great and so well told. It’s a riveting, fun film. You always tell yourself what you need to make a great film—this equipment, and this location—but if you have a good story, well told, you don’t need a lot.


The second film I go back to is Brother’s Keeper, because it’s proof that documentaries can be incredibly cinematic and beautiful. One of the reasons I shot this film on large format HD is because I wanted the audience to have a cinematic experience, and I worked hard to make sure the visual storytelling was supporting the narrative.  

Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/TV show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?


Whitney Dow:
There are three books that I keep multiple copies of in my house and give out to visitors. One is E.B. White’s Here is New York, an essay he wrote for the New Yorker in the ‘50s. I give that to people who have just moved here. The other one is Healing Back Pain by Dr. John E. Sarno, which has transformed my life, and the third is a book by this incredible writer Adam Haslett called You Are Not a Stranger Here. It's a series of 9 short stories, and it’s one of the best works of modern fiction that I’ve read. What’s even more aggravating is that he wrote it while he was at law school getting his degree, and it was a Pulitzer finalist.

Tribeca: What would your biopic(s) be called?


Whitney Dow:
I’d probably swipe the title of Adam’s book: You Are Not a Stranger Here.


Tribeca: What makes When the Drum is Beating a Tribeca must-see?


Whitney Dow
: It will change the way you see Haiti forever.


Find out where and when When the Drum is Beating is playing at the Festival.



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