Montreal filmmaker Emanuel Licha’s new film—which won the juried award for best Canadian feature at Hot Docs—takes its title from the nickname Haitians have given the Toyota Land Cruiser, a popular mode of transportation among the humanitarian aid organizations ubiquitous in the country since the 2010 earthquake.
In “Zo Reken,” which means “shark bones,” a four-by-four becomes a kind of mobile confessional, as a driver navigates through barricades, demonstrations, and daily life of the Port-au-Prince streets while passengers urgently discuss the state of the nation, the president, neocolonialism, and humanitarian aid.
“Emanuel Licha uses cinematic metaphor to evoke the dignity of a people and the human trap that is the international aid industrial complex,” wrote the jury in the official statement about its decision. “[The film’s] minimalist controlled tableaus and carefully chosen conversations provide an unflinching gaze at the violent, often self-defeating consequences of foreign aid.”
In a conversation Friday, Licha tells Variety that his first encounter with the vehicle, 30 years ago, sparked his thought journey toward the film.
“Thirty years ago, as a geography grad student, I participated in a research project in West Africa,” he says. “I was very naive about international humanitarian aid. Soon after I—a white man—arrived, I was put into a four-by-four truck and also into this world of privilege. It was a shock.”
After ditching geography for visual arts, Licha began centering his work around specific spatial and architectural objects in order to examine how the human gaze is shaped. His first feature-length documentary, “Hotel Machine” (2016), which screened at several notable European festivals, looked at the work of foreign media in war or conflict zones by focusing on the hotel—the stereotypical haven in Hollywood war films.
“I was unpacking this object, trying to understand its agency in the way we look at wars,” says Licha, who took a similar cinematic tack in “Zo Reken.”
A symbol of power and oppression in many countries, the four-by-four in Haiti is also “a physical sign of colonization,” Licha says. “And the film is an attempt to decolonize that object.”
While scouting in Haiti in 2017, Licha hired Pascal Antoine, a multilingual video producer and citizen journalist, as his local fixer; when it came time to shoot the film in 2019, Licha asked Antoine if he would be the driver and conversation instigator, and he agreed.
“We deliberately blur the lines in the film, so [the audience] doesn’t know who the driver is, and characters are never identified—some are famous and others we met by chance,” Licha says.
During pre-production in Montreal, Rodeney Ciriu, a sociology professor from Haiti working on his PhD at the University of Montreal, helped Licha identify potential subjects. (Ciriu also was present during filming.)
“Rodeney knew people from his activist and academic connections that had something they wanted to say,” Licha says. “We also had a sign in Creole on top of the vehicle with the film title, what we were looking for, and a phone number—and people contacted us.” There were also unexpected passengers, including an injured man who needed a ride to a hospital in a dangerous part of the city.
“It became a metaphor of the country, in a way,” Licha says, “this driving around and around. At times it feels like there are two films happening, one inside the vehicle and the other outside in the street.
“It’s important everyone involved knows they are not being betrayed. It’s hard to explain but I think the reason the film works has to do with care—of the people in the film, of the filmmaking team, and the viewer.”
Distributed by Montreal’s Les Films de 3 Mars, “Zo Reken” was produced and directed by Licha, photographed by Etienne Roussy, and edited by Ariane Petel-Despots.