Does the President Have AIDS? (Haiti, 2006)

From director Arnold Antonin, this film tracks the trials faced by HIV-positive Haitians as they struggle to maintain their reputations and careers, while balancing their health with pursuits of sex and romance. The titular “president” is Dao (played by Jimmy Jean-Louis of Heroes), a superstar Compas musician and the “President” of the Haitian music scene—“the only president who can’t be overthrown,” as he puts it. To his manager’s chagrin, though, Dao is also a drug-user and inveterate womanizer, prone to unsafe sex.

Lifestyles of the Poz and Famous

Although HIV is a global health crisis, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Haiti is one of the highest in the world, with approximately 1 in 50 adults being HIV-positive. Historically, HIV has been closely associated with Haiti; in fact, HIV used to be called the “4H disease,” since it seemed to predominantly affect Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and homosexuals.

Even as Dao continues to have frequent unprotected sex in the midst of the AIDS crisis, he refuses to believe that he could possibly become infected. He tells himself in the mirror: “You are not ill. Nothing can happen to you.” And yet, he continues having frequent unprotected sex in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Despite his sexual behavior, Dao espouses respect for women. During one of Dao’s concerts, a man (Larieux) begins assaulting a woman (Nina), and Dao stops the concert to tackle Larieux. Following this “humiliation,” Larieux vows vengeance on Dao.

Like Dao, Nina comes from a poor family, but she maintains a confident and independent attitude. She tells her friend: “I don’t need a man to solve my problems, Carline! Why does it have to be a man to solve my problems?” Nina refuses to have sex with Dao unless he wears a condom, to which he reacts indignantly: “But I’m the biggest, the best—I’m Dao!” he cries. “Are you implying that I may be sick?” Nina responds: “Who’s to say I’m not a high risk girl myself?” Later, Nina implores Dao to see a doctor to “do yourself a favor, do us a favor.”

Matters of Faith

Vodou is a strong undercurrent in the film. Dao maintains an altar to the Erzulie family of lwas, including Erzulie Freda, the lwa of love and luxury. As he begins to fear for his health, he kneels before the altar and prays: “Oh my goddesses! Don’t let your lover down! Come to my rescue!” He tries to hide his illness, but those closest to him—his manager, his mother, and Nina, for example—suspect that he’s unwell. Dao’s mother suggests that he speak to her cousin, Bayawon, a houngan. At the ceremony, she cries: “Whoever the dead, lwas, spirits, whoever the invisible may be that eat away the body and soul of my child, I order you to go. Leave now if you don’t want to suffer as much as my child.”

An example of a Haitian Vodou altar. (Image: Calvin Hennick, distributed by CC BY 3.0 license)

The film takes a decidedly anti-Vodou stance. At one point, Bayawon tells another houngan that, by treating Dao, “We are emptying out his pockets. His illness doesn’t depend on us.” Later, he tells Carline that in order to win her boyfriend back, she needs to have a “threesome” with Bayawon and the spirits inside of him.

Indeed, Dao’s Aunt Ninon is horrified to learn that Dao’s mother took him to see a houngan: “Dao was brought inside the devil’s lair. Oh, heavens no! The world has forgotten that Christ is the only answer.” Nina agrees, calling Bayawon a bokor, or sorcerer willing to perform evil deeds. Ninon frantically takes Dao to see a pastor to heal him.

In the end, however, it is Western medicine in which the film places its strongest faith when it comes to dealing with the AIDS crisis. Following his diagnosis, Dao declares that after all he’s been through his music will have a new, “sensational” sound. He shocks his fans when he announces: “I have AIDS. It’s unfortunately a disease that lots of Haitians have and they must go on with their lives like the others. They must respect themselves, avoid contaminating others, and continue living in harmony.”

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SistaGod (Trinidad and Tobago, 2006)

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