Whitney Dow: When the Drum is Beating
November 30, 2011
I had the pleasure of seeing When the Drum is Beating at the New Hampshire Film Festival (NHFF) recently. The documentary, directed by Whitney Dow, weaves together the history of Haiti with the story of Orchestre Septentrional, Haiti’s most popular band with a long history. They perform a unique and vibrant blend of Cuban big band rhythms and Haitian vodou beats. The film reflects the story of the Haitian people, celebrating history, music, and community. The film was shown at the Music Hall Loft, a venue equipped with excellent projection and sound, hats off to the festival organizers. After the screening I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Dow before his return home to New York. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation. The film is currently seeking funding via a Kickstarter campaign in order to secure the funds needed for a theatrical and home video release. Please join me in supporting the film.
David Tamés: How did you get involved with Septentrional in the first place?
Whitney Dow: I got involved with Haiti because a friend of mine, Jane Regan, who is also one of the producers on the project. She lived there for a dozen years, and she and her partner, Danny Morel, who’s also a producer on the project, had come to me after the fall of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and they had all this footage. They had traveled with the Cannibal Army and wanted to know if we could develop some films together.
Tamés: What films did you develop?
Dow: We developed three films: this film, one on democracy, and a third on betrayal that’s going to be about Aristide, the gang leader, based on Julius Caesar. I’m not sure if the third one’s going to get made. When I was down in Haiti making the film about democracy Jane and Danny introduced me to the band. I was really interested in the idea of making a film bout something in Haiti that worked, this band that’s been around for 60 years.
Tamés: And so you filmed the band, their performances, and touring?
Dow: I started to make a film about the band, and I thought it was just going to be about the band, just about music, and when I cut the film and showed it to people, it was boring. It didn’t have any context. So their talk about things being tough sounded like whining because the imagery was so pretty that things did not look so tough.
Tamés:What year was this?
Dow: I think I finished that cut in late 2007.
Tamés:So then what happened?
Dow: In 2008 I showed it to a lot of people. I took it back to the funders, and we talked about it. And I went back to the drawing board and decided to make a film that was about two stories, the rise of Nicole, the main character in the film, and the fall of Aristide and compare and contrast their leadership styles and what makes a successful leader. And I made that film and it was pretty good, I thought, and then the earthquake happened.
Tamés: And what happened in the wake of the earthquake?
Dow: It did two things. One, people wanted something about Haiti, you had to have the earthquake in it, and, Two, it made me realize that what I was doing by making the story about Aristide was again reducing Haiti to a particular component because before the earthquake, Haiti was Aristide. Before Aristide, Haiti was Duvalier. Before Duvalier Haiti was an American occupation. Before that it was colonialism. It’s always being reduced into this thing, and I said, in effect, if I want to get the earthquake, all these things have been earthquakes. Columbus was an earthquake. Colonialism was an earthquake. Slavery was an earthquake. The revolution was an earthquake. The American occupation was an earthquake. Duvalier was an earthquake. Aristide was an earthquake. All these earthquakes built up to create the conditions for this massive natural disaster to take place that was really, in effect, a human disaster built over 500 years.
Tamés:Part of what made it so devastating was the infrastructure was unprepared for any kind of disaster. It was so fragile to start with.
Dow: Yes. There’s no state in Haiti. I mean, it’s actually one of the things I like about Haiti, especially post-9/11 where the state is more and more intrusive into our lives on a day-to-day basis, how we could travel in the air, driving our car, what you can take pictures of. And you go to Haiti, and there’s no state. You have to enter this organism, which is the society, without a safety net. There’s 3,000 police for seven million people. There’s no one to go to, if there’s a problem. You have to figure out a way to navigate it yourself, and it’s an incredibly freeing, yet scary feeling to spend time in that environment.
Tamés: In the film you begin the earthquake sequence with stunning surveillance camera footage. Tell me about that. How did you find that footage?
Dow:I was looking for a way to tell the story of the earthquake, and I felt — and we’ve all seen so many images of disasters, news footage and everything, I was trying to figure out how do you tell the story so it doesn’t feel rote or disconnected or how do you make emotional connection? And a friend of mine, Mario Delatour, who also worked as one of the field producers on the project, was in the camps one day and this guy came up to him and said, “Mario, I crawled into the wreckage of the palace, and I found the hard drives from the security cameras. Do you want this footage? I’ll load it onto your laptop.” And he said, “Of course.”
Tamés: That’s an incredible scenario.
Dow:Yes. So he then gave it to me and said, “This was just amazing footage, You should look at it, Whitney.” And I was really stunned by it because it was the first time I felt an emotional reaction, a very, very, personal emotional reaction to earthquake images through these objective computer-generated images by the security things. Because there was nobody behind the camera, it had much more impact just seeing those images.
Tamés: I was filled with a sense of fear and empathy for that person in the view of the camera trying to find a way out.
Dow: And you know what it is also because you know someone’s not behind the camera. You know he’s alone. You’re so used to — when you see a camera, you’re like — some people I hear say, well, there’s a guy with him. There’s a crew. There’s someone around, and he’s dying alone and you’re watching.
Tamés: There was that sense of helplessness. That footage really got me. It hit me in the gut.
Dow: The first time I saw it raw brought me to tears. I mean, I was stunned by it, and the other thing that was interesting about it is that as you watch the film — the palace is a recurring shot. You see the palace throughout the history of the country, and then you see it destroyed as a metaphor for the country. Seeing this constant in the country utterly destroyed is also very devastating.
Tamés: What led you to weave together the story of the band and the history of Haiti? In many music films there’s only a little, if any, context but with When The Drum is Beating it feels like I’ve seen two films in conversation with each other. There’s a film about Haiti’s history and there’s a film about these musicians and there’s a beautiful ballet between the two.
Dow: That’s exactly what I think it is; a conversation between the two films. This idea about context and context is something I constantly think about, the context of how I lived in America, the context of our conversation, the context of everything because content is driven by context. And I think that many times people confuse context with narrative or context with that people are their context. And what I wanted to do was show two things, this immediate context of Haiti today in the aftermaths of the earthquake but also this broader context of history, the events that you’re watching now doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Tamés: So what we watch connects us with the world?
Dow: It’s part of a point on a continuum, for me that was the epiphany moment in my development as an adult. I remember so clearly being in school and taking a course and suddenly realizing that everything I learned was one thing, that art was connected to history, was connected to politics, which connects to architecture was connected to music. And up until then I thought I was learning these individual disconnected ideas but without the certain political events … certain paintings don’t exist without the context of these things, it was all one thing. Going back to this idea, context provides a way of understanding the crisis de jour. I think it’s also an altruistic thing. When I did a film a few years ago called Two Towns of Jasper, I remember getting down to Texas after this murder, and I was so consumed with figuring out what happened. Well, the guy left here and he walked here. He was picked up there and they drove him. It was 2:00 O’clock in the morning. They dropped him off. And suddenly I realized, I think that by understanding what happened, I’m going to understand why it happened, and they’re two different things. What happened doesn’t really matter at all. Why it happened is a much more complex question and a complex investigation, and I immediately pulled off the case, essentially, and went into the community and started talking to the people. And again, that’s what I feel about the earthquake in Haiti. What happened in Haiti doesn’t interest me as much as why and the real why. You can’t take steps to go after [the story] until you can understand the why. You often hear people say, we must remember so this never happens again, but nobody really wants to remember. They don’t want to know. If you talk about September 11th, people don’t want to talk about the causes of September 11 since cause can implicate.
Tamés: It hits too close to home?
Dow: It hits too close to home (pause).
Tamés: What has been the band’s reaction to the film?
Dow: There’s been two reactions. One, they’re incredibly proud that a film was made about them, they were a little confused by the film because they thought I was making a film just about the band, and they didn’t know what to expect. The younger guys, loved it. I had them literally in tears over talking about it because they were so overwhelmed by seeing their story played out the way it does, one member said, “I’m so proud of this film. It doesn’t matter that I’m in it because my band’s in it. My country’s in it and it tells a story. I want this to go out to the world and people can see it.” I think some of them recognized that a story just about the band is not going to be that interesting, you need a broader context to bring people to the table. So in their mind the broader context brings people to their music. Maybe in other people’s mind the music brings people to the broader context. But they probably will never tell me what they really thought about it, because of my relationship to them. Oh, we love it. It’s great. Michel Tassy (vocalist) refuses to see the film.
Tamés: Really? Has he given you a reason?
Dow: He came to New York for the Tribeca Film Festival and wouldn’t come to any of the screenings. He didn’t want to watch it. He said, “I’m a singer, not an actor.” He said, “The movie business is for other people. I’m a musician.” All the guys would say, “Well, you’re the star of the film — one of the stars of the film,” and he likes that. When they came to New York, Tribeca had them play at the drive-in. I think his voice is slipping. He doesn’t want people to see that, if you hear the old music in the movie, his voice was just beautiful, I mean, just phenomenal. And now, it’s still the most interesting voice in the band, but it’s a different voice. It’s the voice of a 70-year-old man who smokes, as opposed to a 30-year-old man who doesn’t smoke.
Tamés: It is what it is.
Tamés: The film is currently in the festival circuit. It got very positive reception at Tribeca and the audience here at the New Hampshire Film Festival loved the film. What are your plans for the film? How are you going to get this out into the world beyond film festivals?
Dow: Everybody wants their films to be seen, and I’ve been lucky enough to make this film. It’s been at a number of really great festivals, Silver Docs, Hot Docs, Traverse City, and a couple Korean festivals. It’s going to IDFA. It’s doing as well as a documentary can be doing, and because of that I’ve had two offers. First Run Features has picked up the film, and they want to put it in the theaters in February, and PBS is going to put it on Independent Lens in April, however, there’s a caveat: I’m in deficit on the film, and I need to raise money for rights clearances. I need to raise money to clear the archival footage because I never thought I was going to have so much archival footage in it. I also made a deal with the band that if the film was done and we got distribution, I’d pay them a fair rate to the rights to their music used in the film.
Tamés: So how are you going to raise the money you need to get the film into distribution?
Dow: I’ve started a Kickstarter campaign where people can go and contribute to the campaign. In return they can get rewards that include downloads of the music, DVDs, albums, tickets to the premier, depending on your level of contribution. I feel this is a context setting film, and I hope, when people see it that it helps them see Haiti and, by extension, places like Haiti, differently, and that they see the people not necessarily as helpless victims of their circumstances, but people who live their lives within those circumstances, not who are defined by it. I remember so clearly the War in the Balkans, you’d see Sarajevo on the news and two women crouching in doors with kids with snipers shooting at them, and I was asking, why are they there? Why don’t they leave? Why are they staying there? And it wasn’t until September 11th, I live in Lower Manhattan, and my first reaction was Goddammit, these motherf*ck*rs, I’m not going, did you think that I would leave my city? I’d been in New York 20 years at that time, when I first really felt like a New Yorker. This was an attack on my city, and there was no way that I would leave there. Now, I don’t think I necessarily did a good Kickstarter pitch in that answer.
Tamés: Perhaps not, but this conversations is not just about Kickstarter. My wife and I have a friend who lives down in the Wall Street area. I remember standing on her roof deck and looking over at the World Trade Center only a few blocks away. We were visiting her only a few weeks after 9/11 And I can relate to the reaction so many people I know in New York had at the time, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Dow: Yeah. It’s like, this is my home, dangerous smoke or not.
Tamés: Let’s get back to Kickstarter, why is it so critical to get funding from your audience?
Dow: People think of movies as sort of this business, and in a sense the documentary world is not a traditional market the way a Hollywood movies are. It’s more like the non-profit world where you get money from PBS for a film, they’re not looking for a financial return on it. They’re looking for me to create something that communicates a message and gets something out, and I think that that’s how now you have to look at these films, that it’s not a market. And so because of that, we, as filmmakers, are now put in this position. We’re always been fundraising, but the traditional avenues of fundraising are getting more competitive and shrinking. And this great thing about the Internet is now you can avoid gatekeepers and be your own gatekeeper and go out to bring your project to the world. So I hope that people will visit the When the Drum is Beating page on on Kickstarter and look it over and if they think it’s a valuable project and a valuable message, that they’ll consider contributing to it and help get the film out there. The deal is, if I can raise this money, it will be seen by millions of people. It’s a sure bet. I’m not someone saying, fund my film. When I get it done, it’s going to be great. I have these offers on the table from PBS and first run. If I get the money, it will be seen by millions of people.
Tamés: So there’s a high likelihood of success in this campaign if it resonates with enough people. [Disclosure: I have contributed to the campaign.] Success from the point of view that if I donate, you’re going to achieve your goal?
Dow: Yes. The film is finished. It’s won awards. It’s been to a number of festivals. It’s doing well, and how many documentaries get actual distribution and national hard feed broadcast slots? There’s not that many slots out there. So to have that opportunity and be able to take advantage of it is something that I’m really hoping will happen. I think it’s important.
Tamés: It’s great you have those slots waiting for you. Now, it’s up to us through Kickstarter to help you get there.
Dow: Absolutely. Have you been involved in other Kickstarter campaigns?
Tamés: So far only as a donor to several projects. I know a number of filmmakers who have used Kickstarter to help fund their films, it’s rewarding to see someone you have contributed to reach their goal and know you helped make that happen. I hope to do one for a documentary currently in development that I’m involved with, but that’s a ways off. I think it’s important to demonstrate that the funds you are contributing will result in a project being completed, getting into distribution, some major milestone.
Dow: What’s interesting about Kickstarter, one of the nicest thing about it for me has been the community, for example, the guy who’s really running the Kickstarter campaign, started a music festival in Florida on Kickstarter. Raised the money for it. Called me and said, “Can I have your film?” And I looked at what he was doing. I said, “Sure. Of course you can have the film and show it.” He really liked the film, and now he’s helping me run the campaign. He said, “I love what you’re doing. I love the film. I want to help it succeed. I’m not really doing much right now. I’ll work on it. I’ll help you.” He’s been my coach, gave me a list of 10 things I have to do every day, and I’m meeting people who are in the same boat. If you donate to me, I donate to you. We can build this community to support each other’s work. I’ve helped him, and he’s helped me.
Tamés: Well, the good thing about movies is just because somebody watches your movie doesn’t mean they’re not going to watch my movie. I mean, people watch a lot of movies.
Tamés: It ties into what Tiffany Shlain was saying a while back about how independent filmmakers have to start thinking of themselves as interdependent filmmakers and help each other out because there really are two film businesses. There’s Hollywood, and then there’s the rest of us.
Dow: Hollywood is a franchise, basically it’s a marketing program with story grafted on top of it. So you can’t get stuff made in Hollywood without having all the marketing tie-ins built into it first and the product base and all that stuff. And then the stuff is retrofitted with an action movie or romantic comedy, and that’s not to say there aren’t some great films that come out of Hollywood. I think that there is, but in general that it’s a very different thing that people are doing in Hollywood than independent filmmakers. Whether they are documentary filmmakers or narrative filmmakers, it’s a very, very different thing that we’re doing.
Tamés: I hope your Kickstarter campaign is successful and When The Drum is Beating gets the release it deserves.
Dow: And thank you for coming to the film. Again, I hope that I can find a way to position it so that it does find an audience.
Tamés: Will there be a soundtrack album?
Dow: I’m trying to raise money for that as well. Branford Marsalis has agreed to produce an album, if I can raise the money.
Tamés: That would make another interesting Kickstarter project. Before we wrap up, let’s get back the film. I’d like to hear more about why this topic, why this approach?
Dow: I had the opportunity, I had access that nobody else had in Haiti. I wanted to make what in my mind was a big concept film. While doing the first film I read a ton on Haiti. I read tons of history. I watched tons of things. I saw movies and books and everything, and it was a big epic story. And I felt that it was a story that hadn’t been told before. When I thought of the idea of music and history, it scared me, something I haven’t seen before, and my thought was, I don’t know if I can pull this off, but, if I do, it’s going to be amazing. And I really took it as a personal challenge that to try and undertake this idea. Haiti’s history was a big canvas.
Tamés: And why you, as an outsider?
Dow: I’m very wary of perspective, I look at myself and ask, who am I as some middle-class white guy to think he can tell some sort of definitive story about Haiti? Why should I do that? And I feel I’m very, very sensitive to this idea of white people telling black stories, and I was — and I’m — sort of doing films on race, I’ve thought a lot about this and that why — who am I to be telling this? And I got a lot of push-back originally. What do you have? And I really sort of felt like it was more for me in a selfish way an artistic undertaking that I really wanted to tackle as a way of challenging myself as a filmmaker. A big portion of my body of work is on race, and I think about it. It’s one of the things that fascinates me. It’s something that I constantly think about and am working at.
Dow: I think also that race is — I’m not the first person to say it, but race is — a fault line in America that we’re constantly navigating and constantly look at. That’s the reality that we live in. And I also think that our experiences living in the world as white, black, or Latino are so fundamentally different that we are fundamentally different. Under the skin we’re not the same. Our experiences are so different that we’re living in a fundamentally different reality, and so of course we’re different. We have different experiences but we’re attracted to the difference. We’re attracted to what’s different about us. I’m attracted to difference. That’s what excites and interests me, as opposed to being attracted to something that we share. I’m not so much interested another film about some horrible thing that white people did in the past or the current.
Tamés: We could talk about this for another hour, but I know you need to get on your way to New York. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your film.
Dow: Thank you.