'Looking for Life' ('Cheche lavi)': Film Review | Rotterdam 2019

International Film Festival Rotterdam
A refreshingly calm take on controversial border issues.

Sam Ellison's U.S.-Mexico-Haiti documentary on Caribbean migrants in Tijuana premiered in a competitive section of the long-running Dutch festival.

The plight of migrants is observed with poetic empathy in Sam Ellison's slow-burning debut Looking for Life (Cheche lavi), a behind-the-headlines chronicle of two Haitian friends in Tijuana patiently awaiting admission to the USA. Highly topical in its subject matter, the soulful, ruminative documentary premiered in a competitive sidebar at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and should prove a popular choice for programmers of non-fiction festivals and channels over the coming months — not least because the issues it touches upon are likely to remain pressingly controversial for the foreseeable future.

The New York City-based Ellison has worked on a range of high-profile productions in camera operator roles over the past few years, including Manchester by the Sea, Run All Night, Vox Lux and last month's Sundance hit Luce. He now steps into the directorial chair to deliver a low-key, small-scale, empathetic work of clear-eyed humanism, capturing the pains, frustrations and fleeting pleasures of those forced to depart their homelands by harsh economic and natural forces.

Introductory onscreen text spells out the background: Following the catastrophic earthquake of December 2010, many young Haitians fled the devastation and sought work as laborers in Brazil in the run-up to the Olympics and World Cup. In 2016, rumors circulated that citizens of Haiti might get preferential treatment if seeking residency in the U.S. This resulted in many hundreds of such people heading to Tijuana (end-titles note that around still 3,000 remain there), including the film's twentysomething protagonists Robens and James.

The duo kill time on the streets of the Mexican city as they patiently anticipate their interviews with American officials, having traveled together all the way from Haiti through Brazil, Peru and Panama. Their bond of friendship, forged over years of shared hard knocks, seems to be a solid one. But this genial, laid-back bromance is ruptured just after the halfway mark when James is suddenly whisked into the American immigration system and cuts off all communication with his friend.

Ellison then alternates between the two men as they experience fluctuating fortunes, often victims of "cruel injustices" and geo-political upheavals. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 is inevitably a crucial turning-point: Looking for Life's latter half is haunted by the steady, symbolic transformation of the U.S.-Mexico border barrier from ramshackle-rusty, corrugated fencing into a high, mutely functional wall of concrete slabs.

The director-cinematographer's eye for telling visual detail enlivens the essentially static business of waiting around. After a soothing prologue shot at the Haitian seaside during an idyllic-looking dusk, Ellison (who also co-edits with Janis Vogel) moves fluently between the island and Tijuana. He unfussily conjures the atmosphere of each place, and the widescreen compositions are especially effective in magic-hour and nocturnal scenes. Ellison manages to find beauty in the quotidian — such as the pink glow of storefront neon illuminating a casual chat.

An over-reliance on Michael Beharie's score is the chief giveaway of his inexperience, the composer's mournful, elegiac tones contributing to the evocation of mood but also at times counter-productively competing with the dialogue. James and Robens' fragmentary conversations and comments — sometimes philosophical, sometimes humorous, always shot through with overlapping longings as their aspirations crumble in the face of tough realities — say all that needs to be said.

Production company: Sam Ellison
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Sam Ellison
Producers: Nora Mendis, Rachel Cantave, Kyle Martin, Abraham Avila
Editors: Sam Ellison, Janis Vogel
Composer: Michael Beharie
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Bright Future competition)
Sales: Sam Ellison (samellisonfilm.com)

In Haitian Creole, Spanish, English
74 minutes