“Stones in the water do not know the suffering of stones in the sun.”
This Haitian proverb is spoken after shots of wall-tacked photos of people from that culture, and a title card dating the film in the late 1980s period after corrupt president Jean Claude Duvalier’s exit. All of this makes very clear in its opening scene what Stones in the Sun will be. Through snapshots of the lives of Haitian refugees in New York, writer-director Patricia Benoit charts the displacement of a headstrong people chased out of their home by internal abuse and violence. The film charts their multi-faceted struggles to rebuild their lives, and is both distressing and heartening in its echoes with modern diasporas, creating a beautifully essential drama.
Making her feature debut, Benoit makes wonderful use of the bigger canvas by painting much more complicated life problems than immigrant-film cliches typically allow. The structure of the film, after quickly introducing the characters in turn, takes large chunks of its 90-minute runtime to focus on each pairing in order, using the time economically and stopping for moments of sparse dialogue and delicately handled emotion. After its photo-wall prelude, we first meet Vita (Patricia Rhinvil), who is reunited with her partner Ronald (James Noel) in Brooklyn but rubs up against severe trauma when trying to support their relationship and living together. They find solace at a local protest radio station, where Gerald (Thierry Saintine) broadcasts updates and messages of support for his fellow Haitians, but risks having this turn against him when his father Max (Carlo Mitton) shows up helplessly at his door, having been ousted from the military in a power struggle. This forces him to wrestle with familial obligations old and new, the latter being his impending fatherhood with white American wife Rebecca (Diana Masi). Former teacher and protester Yannick (Edwidge Danticat) also finds mixed family experiences, moving in with her sister Micheline (Michele Voltaire Marcelin) and becoming quickly frustrated by her downplaying of Haitian customs, in favour of suburban banality in Long Island. The three groups of characters cross paths in ways that never feel contrived and only lend authority to the statements made on their common hardships.
In filling out these lives, Benoit also delves into flashback scenes for each that are sometimes poignant, sometimes alarming, and always immediate and relevant. Her shooting on authentic locations – New York, Haiti, and even the airport where she and her crew had their layover – goes a long way to show “how the past can sort of radiate pain”, affecting the characters’ present in ways big and small, despite their best efforts.1 The authenticity is buoyed both by characters both speaking predominately in Kreyol and by a bevvy of terrific actors, may of whom have an imperceptible paucity of screen experience. While all do great work, a particularly noteworthy performance would be Patricia Rhinvil. She plays Vita with heartbreaking poignancy, always carrying a pragmatism from her poorer past life but finding delight at such simple new luxuries as a running bath tap. Her manner in playing this is immediately sympathetic and eventually heart-breaking when we delve into her particular flashback, in a deeply distressing sequence that Benoit handles masterfully. Also of high note is Carlo Mitton, who plays his incredibly difficult role as Max with extraordinary grace, garnering sympathy in his regret and need for companionship, but still seeming vulnerable to committing abuses of power. Benoit fills all her characters with such humane contradictions, and it will be exciting to see who else she can create in future projects.
With the complexity of the drama secure in both her script and cast, Benoit and cinematographer Eric Lin shoot in an unobtrusive, careful and efficient style. Most interesting is how they and production designer Nadya Gurevich create vibrancy and colour in the Haiti locales. This stands as a constrast to the drained urban and suburban abodes of New York, and forms an instinctive feeling of home even when the worst abuses are being committed in it. We see this yearning in the characters as well, thanks to exchanges and close-ups skillfully edited by John F. Lyons and Dominique Petrot, both of whom have impressive experience behind them and show it. Enis Rotthoff’s orchestral score is a bit pedestrian, but is unobtrusive and admirably complements the characters’ emotions without feeling the need to play on Haitian motifs, which is done well enough through licensed songs playing diegetically in car scenes. Thus, the film is ably crafted and engaging in all technical aspects.
What becomes clear in this woven tapestry is that the intersection of these characters includes not only their literal appearance in the same places, but the particular “invisible wounds” they carry and how they deal with them.2 The film acknowledges but hardly limits its view to issues of race, affecting its characters also through pressures relating to class, political protest, and sexism. None of these are inflicted by an other, only highlighted by the foreign surroundings that the characters must make peace with, which some have done more ably than others, and even that is debatable. Furthermore, the film’s status as a period piece feels like a technicality, since the conflicts on display are undoubtedly relevant and transpiring more than twenty years later within numerous other refuge and asylum-seeking populations around the world. The film has a topical immediacy suiting its tone and style, yet deftly avoids being an easy morality tale and treats its characters and their heritage with the respect that intricate character drama entails. Like important memories, Stones in the Sun continues to resonate long after viewing.
Stones in the Sun screened as part of the Sydney Latin American Film Festival. You can find details of the film, festival and other screenings here.