There’s a haunting moment early in director/co-writer Patrick Shen’s documentary, La Source, in which Chrismendonne, brother of the film’s subject, Josue Lajeunesse, matter-of-factly discusses the financial reasons he was unable to complete his education. Above his shack in the eponymous Haitian village of La Source hangs a swaying blue canopy emblazoned with the FEMA logo.
Bringing potable water from the mountain to the surrounding villages was part of Josue and Chrismendonne’s late father’s modest-but-passionate ambition, but a corrupt national government in a state of turmoil following both Western and internal power struggles through the 1980s and 1990s frustrated smaller efforts toward modernization. La Source teases with this piece of backstory that also implies reasons behind the heartbreaking poverty in Lajeunesse’s village and beyond. Although audiences may find themselves similarly frustrated by the film’s reduction in scope, it nevertheless effectively focuses on the efforts of Josue Lajeunesse and his vision of building out the foundation laid by his father for one of the more basic needs of civilization.
At a brisk 71 minutes, Shen’s story begins with Josue accepting The Journey Award at Princeton—where Lajeunesse, a single father of four, works double duty as both a janitor and taxi driver—the very personal story of one man’s struggle against adversity to better the lives of his family and friends back home feels a bit slight. Nevertheless, not lingering too long on the interpersonal and logistical challenges intrinsic to raising $25,000 and planning, engineering and implementing La Source’s irrigation and faucet system frees the filmmakers to direct their gaze squarely on Lajeunesse himself, beginning and ending with the aforementioned award ceremony.
Narrated by Don Cheadle, the film follows Lajeunesse through the motions of a typical day in his life in New Jersey. He’s having trouble paying for servicing his car (which also serves as his taxi cab), dusting tall corridors on the Princeton campus, barely staying awake in his cab waiting for a fare, and getting his kids to school. He’s an easy champion to rally behind, and it captures the imagination and spirit of the students he’s gotten to know. As a couple of NGOs become involved, the project of fresh drinking water for La Source gains traction. Standing in what’s likely inadvertent contrast to memories of FEMA and the UN, NGOs Project Blessing and Generosity Water are shown as caring, dedicated forces in both the U.S. and Haiti. Likewise, the Princeton students come across as similarly genuine—not merely concerned with how good their efforts look on their grad school applications.
Since there’s never any question of whether or not Lajeunesse succeeds in his endeavor, it makes the footage of devastation from 2010’s catastrophic earthquake coupled with a cholera outbreak in nearby Port-au-Prince tougher to watch. Again, the odd blue FEMA tarp appears, but the rest of the city is only piles of shattered wood and brick. It becomes impossible not to wonder whether Lajeunesse’s story would ever have emerged if not for the horrific natural disaster and ensuing media coverage.
Still, regardless of the specter of larger travesties that occurred and continue to occur nearby, one has to be the most dedicated of cynics to remain unmoved by the joy on display when the people of La Source turn the spigot, making fresh water accessible to a population of 5,000. Pulling heartstrings due to tragedy is certainly a time-tested and effective method of stirring social change, but Shen and company are ultimately content to underscore one small triumph to inspire. And who knows? Even a small triumph like freshly piped water from a mountaintop could have a lasting trickle-down effect.
Direector: Patrick Shen
Writers: Patrick Shen & Brandon Vedder
Starring: Don Cheadle
Release Date: Varied