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.”

Up Next…

SistaGod (Trinidad and Tobago, 2006)

Good Morning, Luang Prabang (Laos, 2008)

First things first, a brief disclaimer: I didn’t realize until after the DVD had been delivered from Cornell’s library that it didn’t have English subtitles. Since I don’t speak a word of Lao or Thai, I found a couple articles about the film and followed along as best as I could. Here are the links to those summaries:

“Good Morning, Luang Prabang—and Hello to Laos’s Film Industry” by Andrew Buncombe

“Thai & Lao Culture in ‘Sabaidee Luang Prabang'” by Sirinya Pakditawan

A Tale of Two Countries

Directed by Sakchai Deenan of Thailand and produced by Anousone Sirisackda of Laos, Good Morning, Luang Prabang was actually a joint production between the two neighboring countries, and the first commercial release in Laos since 1975, when the country adopted communism.

The film begins in Bangkok, as Thai photographer Sorn prepares to travel to Laos to visit his grandfather. His culture shock as he begins his travels is evident. As Pakditawan observes (and as Sirisackdan confirms, based on Buncombe’s article), the film highlights differences between Thai and Lao culture—between, for instance, bustling Bangkok and comparatively quiet Laos. In another example of the contrast between Thailand and Laos, Sorn tells his (English-speaking) mother on the phone while in Pakse: “The weather’s nice, but the food takes some getting used to.”

But Good Morning, Luang Prabang also emphasizes how Lao culture differs from Western culture. When a white tourist asks to have his picture taken with the female lead Noi (a Laotian tour guide), he puts his arm around her. She tells him multiple times not to do this, signaling the inappropriateness of such physical contact, especially between strangers, in Laotian etiquette.

A Break with the Past

At first I thought to myself, “Wow, this film isn’t exactly heavy on plot.” But then I realized how ridiculous it was of me to think that; since I don’t speak Lao or Thai, about 90% of the film’s plot—any lines not spoken in English and anything not captured in meaningful glances or the musical score—is essentially lost on me. That’s why the plot summaries provided in the links above were so essential to me as I prepared to watch the movie.

A view of Luang Prabang, the film’s titular city. (Image: Thomas Drissner,distributed by CC BY-SA 3.0)

Even so, based on what I can tell, and corroborated in Pakditawan’s essay, the film is essentially a tourism film—a more benign form of propaganda than standard Laotian media. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the primary goal mostly seems to be the promotion of tourism. The movie highlights the historic sites and tourist attractions of Pakse and Vientiane as well as the title city, three of the most culturally significant cities in Laos.

That said, Buncombe notes in his article that Sakchai himself admitted that “We wanted a soft storyline so it would not be too hard to get approval from the Lao government.” Furthermore, the Laotian government had some control over the film’s portrayal of their nation, redacting any content they found offensive. To be fair, though, their concern was not completely unfounded; Buncombe describes a history of Thai films ridiculing Laos and Laotian culture. With its vaunted release, Good Morning, Luang Prabang signaled a strong break from that tradition.

Up Next…

Does the President Have AIDS? (Haiti, 2006)

Travellers and Magicians (Bhutan, 2003)

This film, directed by the Nyingma lama Khyentse Norbu, tells the story of Dondup Norbu, a government officer in a small Bhutanese village called Khumbar. Secretly planning to apply for a visa to the United States, Dondup is highly Americanized; he is visibly different from his neighbors, with a shag haircut, an “I Heart NY” shirt, and a denim gho. In order to apply for the visa, he has to be in Thimphu within four days, and it’s a two-day journey from the isolated Khumbar.

On the Road

While waiting for the bus to Thimphu he meets an old apple peddler and a monk. The monk tells Dondup: “There’s no point staring at an empty road. You know, Buddha said hope causes pain.” It’s as easy to sympathize with Dondup’s restlessness amid such isolation as it is to scorn him for his obsessive desire to leave his post.

A view of Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. (Image: Douglas McLaughlin, distributed by CC BY 2.5 license)


Finally, after missing the bus, Dondup and his fellow travelers hitch a ride on a truck, where they meet a drunk, a rice paper maker, and his nineteen-year-old daughter Sonam. Sonam didn’t do well enough on her exams to get into college—or so her father thinks. In reality, she did excellently, but she decided to stay and help her father with his failing livelihood. As she tells Dondup, “Isn’t it our duty to look after our parents when they’re old?” These words must have stung deeply for Dondup, considering his plans to essentially abandon his family for better things in America. And yet, a shy, unspoken romance develops between Dondup and Sonam, complicating his American aspirations.

The Monk’s Tale

The film contains a story-within-a-story, told by the monk to the other travelers. Tashi is a young man studying magic in a tiny village. However, Tashi thinks less about magic than he does about women. He yearns to leave the village, and one day, after getting drunk, he mounts an unbroken horse that carries him to a house in the middle of the forest. There he meets an old man named Agay, and his much younger wife Deki.

When Tashi asks why Agay and Deki live so far away from town, Agay refers to his wife’s youthful beauty. Agay tells Tashi: “We may grow old, but our minds don’t age. Our jealousy stays young.” Living among other (and younger) men, he suspects, would jeopardize his marriage. In fact, Agay’s paranoia is justified; Deki and Tashi begin a secret affair. Deki confides in Tashi: “I’ve tried to leave many times, but he always finds me.” In order to preserve their budding relationship, they concoct a gruesome plan, revealing the terrible lengths to which illicit lovers can go in the name of love.

Loose Ends

When the next bus finally arrives, there’s only one vacant seat. Dondup lets the apple seller take it, presumably because he doesn’t want to leave Sonam. The monk remarks to Dondup: “The minds of human beings are so convoluted. What we hoped for yesterday, we dread today.”

Or, perhaps, the things we hope for are closer at hand than we might think. Travellers and Magicians is a classic iteration of the merry band of misfits trope, exemplified by films like The Wizard of Oz. As Dondup and his fellow travelers follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Thimphu, each treks with their own purpose in mind. In Dondup’s case, that purpose is not to return to his own personal Kansas, but rather to reach his ultimate Oz: America. However, the film’s abrupt ending leaves many questions unresolved. This seems particularly fitting, given its overall dreamlike quality. Which pull ends up stronger for Dondup: America’s, or Sonam’s?

Up Next…

Beyond Silence (Germany, 1996)