Saturday, April 30, 2011

TFF: Discordant 'When the Drum Is Beating'

The trumpet section of Septentrional during a concert in Plain du Nord, Haiti. Photo by Daniel Morel.

“WHEN the Drum Is Beating” does a competent job of recalling the devastating effects that colonial rule, neo-colonial rule, corrupt dictators, poor fiscal policies, outside meddling and so forth have had on Haiti, the so-called poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Indeed, “When the Drum Is Beating” is a handy cliffnotes version of Haitian history. The footage of the acute poverty and squalor of this once beautiful country is affecting.

The documentary, making its world premiere at the 10th Annual Tribeca Film Festival, also tells a story of the country’s beloved 20-piece band, Septentrional, famous for its Haitian Voodoo beats and Cuban big band rhythms. Various members who have joined this institution since its founding in 1948 recount what it means to be a part of it. They express their hopes, dreams; they bellyache. Some have ambivalence about changes in the band; others express the necessity of it.

“When the Drum Is Beating” tells the story of the country and the band. Why then does it not resonate. Why is it not gripping?

For one, it fails to live up to its basic premise of explaining how the band has survived amid the country’s travails. Rather than interweaving these events, it tells them in a parallel fashion. It’s akin to watching tennis players trade volleys. On this side, a little piece of the country’s history. On the other, a few words from a band member or a rehearsal scene.

Ulick Pierre-Louis has been a member of Septentrional since its founding. Photo by Daniel Morel.

“When the Drum Is Beating” almost feels like two, separate documentaries. Events in the country and the band’s evolution against this backdrop are twain that rarely meet. On one rare occasion when they do – something about a song paying tribute to François "Papa Doc" Duvalier – it’s a passing mention that deserves a much fuller explanation. Here was an opportunity for director Whitney Dow to reveal something with real substance.

Speaking of revelations, the Haitian history in this film does not advance beyond anything one might learn from a Haitian schoolgirl or Wikipedia. The two biggest failures, however, of “When the Drum Is Beating” are its tendency to tell a lot more than it shows. On too many occasions someone is jawing about doing something, rather than being shown to be doing the thing.

Septentrional circa 1955. The band was formed in 1948. Photo courtesy of Orchestre Septentrional.

The film also falls short in its treatment of Septentrional. Too much time is spent on showing the band in rehearsals. Alas, the rehearsals do not hint at the great musicianship of these talented musicians. Further, Septentrional is reportedly beloved in Haiti, particularly in the north, yet one does not get this impression. Two pieces of concert footage don’t advance this notion either. Lacking more concert footage – and why is there not more? – this sense could have been conveyed through conversations with fans. Inexplicably, WD neglects to do this.

While well-intentioned and reverent, “When the Drum Is Beating” is ultimately unsatisfactory.

Additional screenings of “When the Drum Is Beating”:
Saturday, 30 April at 3 p.m. at Clearview Chelsea Cinemas

Visit http:// to learn more about the 10th Annual Tribeca Film Festival.

1 comment :

  1. I've just finished a review of the doc w/similar conclusions. (I'd been searching to see what others thought of the film but reviews are hard to find)


Creative Commons License
VEVLYN'S PEN: The Wright take on life by Vevlyn Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License .
Based on a work at .
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at .