Compassion has been the greatest of human virtues. It allows us to empathize with almost everything which exists. And with everything that’s human comes insecurity, an abstract probabilistic concept that turns us blind and cold. Sam Ellison’s camera veers across the fields of Haiti and lanes of Tijuana, a city in Mexico, capturing the quintessential privations of 10,000 Haitian migrants looking for a shot at life in his debut documentary piece “Cheche Lavi – Looking for Life” through the eyes of its two protagonists figures, Roben and James.

“The world was whole before we walked over it. Now it’s a fraction, with its variable denominator tending to infinity with each wall we build.”

The horrific earthquake of 7.0 magnitude which hit Haiti in 2010 claimed more than 1.5 lakhs lives and left a huge population stranded. With a rising demand for cheap labour in Brazil preceding the 2016 Olympics, a massive proportion of young Haitians left their homes for Brazil to make their living. As the Olympics reached its conclusion, the demand died down leaving the migrants in a perplexed state of uncertainty coupled with poverty. Rumours regarding the rehabilitation of Haitians in the asylums of the US prompted the workers to ascend to the US borders. However, things were never as smooth as they appeared to be.

The documentary starts with the aforementioned note introducing its audience to the severity of the issue it’s dealing with. The long-range opening shot of a seashore in blue palette merges into a landscape shot of a field in lush green which eventually transcends to the cluster of birds roving through the pale grey sky of the evening. The three domains of nature on which all the existence thrives know no boundaries, the birds in the skies know no boundaries but we do, and quite strikingly, the film ends with the shot of a wall being built on the US-Mexico border contrary to its opening shot showcasing the two ends of the spectrum and mocking the end we choose to live on. Sam Ellison, best known for his cinematography in Manchester by the Sea exploits his eye behind the lens to capture beautiful imagery enhanced through a vivid colour palette and dynamic frames that successfully capture the chaos, the tension, and the precariousness.

The sound design strikes a fine balance between the ambient audios and the musical score which lingers in your mind. The narrative is linear, laced with multiple jump cuts.

On the grey side, I’d opine that the documentary explores little of the lives of the other migrants besides its protagonists. It can also be argued that the protagonists are representatives of each human going through the plight and it was a deliberate attempt by the makers to keep the story revolving around the two to escalate the drama and stay focused. However, given the conditions of the settings, one can’t help but wonder how others get by since the story of every human is different.

On the positive side, the strength of Cheche Lavi [Looking for Life] is rooted in the strength of the people whose accounts it tells. Looking at life through the eyes of Roben, the centre of the documentary, we find how similar our aspirations are as humans and the degree of extraordinary wisdom most ordinary of humans can hold. You find a resonance with the characters for they have their thoughts and struggles aligned with ours. You seek asylum with them because they are the owners of a will power stronger than the strongest of borders etched on the surface of the earth, much like all of us.

Life is dynamic. Any stagnation can corrode it, make it uninhabitable. Our protagonists realize it. They don’t create their own mental boundaries. They discuss basketball and girlfriends as they would in any routine. The hanger to which they are ambiguously attached gets pellucid every time the camera zooms into the faces of our protagonists. We realize that they have a realisation and yet they are confused about the cruelty they’re subjected to, something which has fallen into their courts and something which has thwarted their lives.

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One would wish to have a conclusion, a closed end where things are much more arranged than they are throughout the course of the film. But pearls aren’t lying on the beaches to be collected at will. The oceans of life are massive and perfect storms await but every cloud has a silver lining. Perhaps, things changed for better while I watched them looking for life. Perhaps they’ll take another step to the light while you watch them looking for life.

Cheche Lavi Rating: ★★★1/2


Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Sam Ellison
Running Time: 74 minutes
Language: Haitian Creole, Spanish, English
Release Date: 2019
Cheche Lavi Official Site

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