Raoul Peck’s Haitian Corner is rife with trauma; the psychological damage that Joseph cannot repress litters the film to brutal effect – a mesmerising performance from Patrick Rameau has you gripped throughout.
A poet from Haiti flees to America after being imprisoned in his native country. Recovering from the experience, he begins to examine his past. One day, he encounters his former torturer and becomes obsessed with taking his revenge.
Raoul Peck boldly starts Haitian Corner with the accounts of three former prisoners in Fort Dimanche. You feel that they still carry that trauma of what happened there. Of course, who wouldn’t? Though their scars may not be visible on screen, you know within yourself that they are still carrying their torture with them in their mind. It is a harrowing start to a film that rarely lets up in its portrayal of the mental punishment a person’s mind endures years after such punishment.
Peck wisely asks his audience if it is right to strike out for revenge, even against your torturer, or is it better to match their hate with violence? Joseph is a character struggling with what he has experienced, so it is almost natural that he and the audience would want him to get what is his to even up the score. However, if he does such a thing, he will become less human, an uncontrolled animal, just like how he views those who imprisoned and tortured many people like him.
By putting Joseph, and by extension the audience, in this position, he makes us have to battle with our moral compass to terrific effect. How do you move on from such a torturous experience if you yourself do it to others? Due to the sheer amount of trauma presented to us in Haitian Corner, with Michael being the conduit for those who were tortured, we see just how much damage has been done to these people. How simply trying to move on with your life isn’t as straightforward or as possible as we wish it to be.
Powerfully, Peck embeds us into this world of the victims; Hegel articulates better than anyone the physical and psychological trauma he went through when he talks about how he can’t forget even the smells and the noises of the prison. It is ingrained within him, and even after 8 years, there is no sign of it letting go of him. Yet, he keeps going because he has to; there are no other options. He keeps things to himself because of the pain and the shame of it all. This one vital scene in Haitian Corner agonises you as an audience member. People at those times in countries like Haiti have gone through moments we would never believe, but they are still there. An astounding scene that, as it continues, has you inching closer to the edge of your seat.
That scene is the epitome of Haitian culture, which doesn’t allow or give time for individuals to endure within themselves. They continue, like Hegel, but Joseph cannot do that, so when his mother admonishes him for not looking after his father for not keeping down a job, it isn’t because it is tough love. No, this is because she expects him to push it down and move on. After all, that is what everyone does. She is not equipped for him to wallow, as it is not their way. This makes the film and Raoul Peck’s script utterly fascinating.
Peck shows his future leanings to documentaries with how Haitian Corner is shot. Mostly static shows fill the screen, with only the odd flourish of movement here and there. You would almost believe that much of what we see is documentary-based or, at the least, based on. Although what we see is fictional, you wouldn’t be surprised if such situations occurred. That is the type of power that the film holds over the audience. You buy everything presented as if it is real because Haitians were needlessly tortured and killed. This is their experiences that we are seeing, and it wrecks you.
Peck utilises flashbacks to expert levels in what was his first feature film. As Joseph is confronted about not repressing his memories and his thoughts, those flashbacks from his torture flood his mind. He is clearly trying to do what his family and community ask of him, but he just can’t. Joseph needs to release it all somehow, and the only way he can figure it out is through violence.
Haitian Corner is an exceptional insight into a world a lot of us will know little of, but thanks to the brutality of humans throughout history, something too many of us can relate to in some form. It is a vital visual document that still deserves your viewing 36 years after the fact.
Haitian Corner is showing at the Visions of Haiti Film Season at the Barbican Cinema on Sunday 22 October at 18:30. Tickets are on sale now.
For more information about the season please click here.
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