THE MAN BY THE SHORE (Raoul Peck, 1993)

The Man by the Shore is about Haiti, where its maker, Raoul Peck, served briefly as Minister of Cultural Affairs until he resigned in 1997. Peck himself was born in Haiti, in Port-au-Prince, in 1953, but he and his family, fleeing the dictatorship of François (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier, moved to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) when he was eight years old after his father secured a teaching post there. Peck’s highschooling was completed in France, after which he studied industrial engineering, economics, and filmmaking in Germany. In between his German studies, Peck visited the United States. Peck has homes in Paris, Port-a-Piment in southwest Haiti, and Voorhees, New Jersey.

The Man by the Shore, whose script Peck and André Graill co-authored, draws upon Peck’s own childhood memories of a frightening, brutal place where his father was arrested twice and many others contesting the government “were disappeared,” that is, made to disappear, that is, murdered. However, the film’s protagonist isn’t an eight-year-old boy but an eight-year-old girl named Sarah (Jennifer Zubar). (Sarah has two sisters.) On one occasion when the child is being routinely intimidated by the local military/police “chief,” Sarah, standing, wets the floor. I can understand the welter of feelings that might prompt Peck to identify his boyhood self in that terrifying environment with a girl instead; but I can also understand objections to this procedure.

One of the film’s indisputable achievements, however, is the integrity of Sarah’s childhood that it conveys despite all. Peck knows the difference between showing us one of Duvalier’s vicious Tontons Macoutes terrorizing Sarah and brutalizing the character himself. Peck appropriately distances everything we see—so much so, in fact, that when at the last Janvier, the Macoute, meets his own brutal end, not a single drop of glee rises in our hearts. Peck is not a sentimentalist; we watch Janvier’s end in pitiless horror and some relief, knowing full well that Duvalier will promptly replace Janvier with another one of his soulless army of Tontons Macoutes. Peck has devised his film, then, so that we take in an environment of daily political terror, through incidents large and small, rather than react to a cardboard melodrama that manipulates our emotions. Peck grasps that he can’t be credible arguing how certain regimes seek to dehumanize ordinary people if, as a sensationalist filmmaker, he himself is dehumanizing the characters who represent these ordinary people.

Above all, he employs the resources of cinema to achieve the distancing necessary to create a portrait of the social and political environment that we can think about rather than simply react to. In this regard, Janvier’s murder constitutes one of the film’s finest accomplishments—a masterful scene because it’s a masterful shot. We watch Sarah hide a pistol on her person, knowing that her father has taught her how to use a pistol. We see her and one of her sisters ride to the shore on their bicycles, all but inviting Janvier to mess with them. Janvier does, pulling Sarah’s older sister by the hair in order to rape her, and Sarah, her armed hand in closeup, retaliates. There is a click; no discharge. A second click fires; Janvier, in medium shot, falls to the ground dead. The camera moves screen-left to record the girls’ stunned escape; the camera, this time stunning us, moves screen-right to reveal that someone else, Gracieux (Patrick Rameaux, in a haunting performance), the girls’ godfather, whom Janvier earlier sexually brutalized with his thick stick, delivered the lethal shot. Gracieux, as gentle as Sarah and nearly as innocent, has been perverted into becoming a killer, as she might have been perverted into becoming a killer. A Brechtian filmmaker, Peck has his filmmaking bible: John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), where everything breaks and turns on who really does the shooting that we first think someone else did. Ford, too, devised a brilliant shot to show us who killed the villain, with the camera then moving to reveal who really did the killing. Peck’s film isn’t quite so momentous; the history of a nation doesn’t hinge on the widened knowledge that is disclosed to the audience with a movement of the camera, as happens in the Ford. Peck knows this; he also knows that his reduced application of Ford’s strategy yields a more intimate result.

The sisters have been all but orphaned. Their parents fled for their lives once Duvalier was in power. The children’s grandmother, Mme. Desrouilliere, is in charge of them; her righteously rebellious spirit underscores how powerless people are to oppose Duvalier and his minions. Duvalier’s local authorities dole out injustice with unqualified and vicious authority.

If there’s a better film than Peck’s for revealing to audiences what living in a police state is precisely like, I don’t know what it might be. (Compare this valuable film to Guillermo del Toro’s worthless Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006, about Franco’s Spain.) The Man by the Shore isn’t just recommended viewing. It’s essential viewing.

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