Film Review: La Source

In this short, gleaming little gem of a documentary, a Princeton janitor devotes seemingly everything to the cause of bringing fresh water to his Haitian village. It’s the rare example of an issue film that lets its subjects sell the story instea

Despair is never far from any thinking person’s mind when considering the nightmarish thicket of problems that plague modern-day Haiti—and that was before the 2010 earthquake which shredded much of what was left of the nation’s infrastructure. Considering the scope of just one of the problems endemic in Port-au-Prince alone (sanitation, safety, food supply) would do the trick. In Patrick Shen’s documentary, though, a smaller, manageable case study is found: the problem of the village of La Source.

For over 30 years, the villagers there have been forced to take a dangerous and lengthy mile-long hike up the mountains just to get fresh water. Unlike so many of the larger crises enveloping the country, though, La Source’s problem has a (comparatively) simple solution: build a system to pipe the water down to the village.

Josue Lajeunesse left La Source in 1989, and has been working as a janitor at Princeton University and driving a cab. Like many immigrants, he’s supporting not just his own family (raising four children in New Jersey as a single dad) but also sending money back home. Just to add to his responsibilities, he’s also taken it upon himself to spearhead a project to deliver clean drinking water to La Source and so fulfill a dream that he and his bricklayer brother Chrismedonne have had since they were young.

Shen’s film begins in the cold winter of Princeton, where Josue works his two jobs with little complaint. His steady discipline in the snowy north is contrasted vividly with the riotous colors back in La Source. Shen and his co-cinematographer Brandon Vedder shoot both settings very cleanly, but in Haiti they amplify the tones, blowing out the reds and richening every shot until it’s almost delirious with color. Chrismedonne is similarly colorful, a religious man with a ready smile and a palpable gentleness to him. Josue, while more reticent, nevertheless inspires dedication from the students whose dorms he cleans. His connection with the students is strong enough that when his cause to raise money for La Source’s water system ($25,000 in total) is publicized in the local media, many of them pitch in to help.

While La Source spends some time dealing with the particulars of fundraising and the NGO that’s coordinating the project, it keeps the story more personal and human than many narrow-cast documentaries of this sort. The importance of clean water, and the absurdity of there being cholera outbreaks in the Western hemisphere in the 21st century (as there were in post-earthquake Haiti) are laid out with broad strokes. That directness helps provide Shen’s film with its emotive, memorable impact. The modest running time of 71 minutes and the unassuming generosity of spirit displayed by so many of the people here (particularly the Lajeunesse brothers) is in stark contrast to other documentaries of this sort, which pad the theme and amplify conflicts unnecessarily. By the time the film arrives at its rhapsodic, lyrically shot conclusion, it becomes difficult to think of a more earned reward.