An interview with the Director of Heading South

By Peter Fraser

heading-south-laurent-cantet-1.jpgHeading South, 2005

As co-writer and director of Heading South, a film ostensibly about sex tourism in Haiti in the 1970s, Laurent Cantet found himself in, at least, a triply problematical position. Firstly, as a Frenchman, part of the rich world and citizen of the country that colonized Haiti and left the French language as its mark; as a man, depicting the stories of women who had arrived in Haiti to participate in sex tourism partly to escape forms of oppression in their own countries; and as a co-writer and director, manipulating his actors and the onscreen vision to create a fictional version of 70s Haiti. It’s no wonder, then, that Heading South is such a politically aware work.

However, it is also unsurprising that given its circumstances and the previous work of the director, the well-received films Human Resources and Time Out, Heading South is sufficiently complex to avoid any single message. Rather, when I met Cantet it quickly transpired that making the film had been as much a personal exploration of his own problematical position to the subject matter, to Haiti and the stories in Heading South, as a film that without doubt has something to say about a wide range of politically sensitive issues. Just as the characters in the film cannot be reduced to easy stereotypes of ‘exploiter’ and ‘exploited’ neither does Cantet’s own background necessarily presuppose a particular relation to the material. He resists abstraction and concentrates on specifics. The result is a film that first and foremost deals with people and the nuances of their relationships.

Peter Fraser: What made you want to make Heading South?

Laurent Cantet: First I went to Port-au-Prince without knowing that I was going to make a film there. I just went there to meet my parents who were working there and I really felt like I never felt anywhere else, asking myself what I was doing there, watching things, trying to understand things. Was it moral to be there without doing anything to justify your presence? Then after a few days in Port-au-Prince I had the idea of trying to write a film about this tourist status: what it means to be there with money in your pocket, with white skin, all that it reminds people of. On the way back to Paris I read the book by Dany Laferrière and it brought me back to what I felt when I was in the city, especially because a lot of the book speaks about the experience of the country by foreigners. So I built the story on the novel but also on the feeling I had when I was there.

PF: Was the novel itself based on a specific instance or case study?

LC: Most of Dany’s stories are based on his own life. In fact he was living in Port-au-Prince until he had to escape into exile because he was being persecuted by the Macoute, but when he was seventeen he was one of those guys. It was not professional prostitution at all. It was just trying to find something better. We didn’t work together a lot but we talked a lot and what he told me was to try not to make the film about a white American woman who had gone to exploit those poor Haitians. He didn’t want that kind of construction. He thinks that things are more complicated. That was what I felt too so we were in agreement.

heading-south-laurent-cantet-2.jpgHeading South, 2005

PF: How important was the historical context?

LC: It was important for me because I wanted to be faithful to the novel and also because I didn’t want to make a film that was like an abstraction: south and north, rich and poor, black and white. When I make a film I always want to put it in a real context and to avoid abstraction because it would have been easy to make ‘somewhere’ in the south but I wanted to put it in a real place, so why not Haiti?

PF: Do you think those characters in that setting could exist today?

LC: Not any more, there aren’t any tourists. The only foreigners are working in embassies and NGOs. Part of the film was shot in the Dominican Republic. Over there when you go to the tourist areas there are a lot of women from Canada, the United States and some from Europe, although a little bit less [than in Haiti].

PF: Do you think that the story is highly specific to its time?

LC: Maybe the tourism has changed from that moment. It became more and more industrial and the relations between people became more superficial than perhaps it was when just a few people were coming. The exploitation on both sides is more accepted now that the rules are to take profit wherever it can be found. I think it would have changed the film to set it in the current time.

PF: Do you think that there is exploitation on both sides?

LC: What interested me in the film was to show two groups of oppressed people together. If it had been white men arriving with their dominant status it would have been more difficult for me to look at the story without judging anyone. Here I think the women are oppressed because they live in a country where being a woman over forty means that you are not desirable anymore, that you don’t exist, that you have to conform yourself to a model in which you don’t recognise yourself. So they arrive like one oppressed group in front of another one, which are the young Haitians. I don’t want to make any scale between the two groups. Of course it’s easier to be an American woman sometimes than it is to be a Haitian boy during the dictatorship, but if the two groups are oppressed people I don’t think that they exploit each other. I think that they help each other more than exploit each other. For Legba [the main character] the only place where he can feel like a human being is the hotel. Any time that you see him outside he’s just a dog to other people, but when he is in the hotel people look at him, listen to what he has to say. There is tenderness and that’s important for him too as well as all of those little luxuries like being able to drink a coke on the beach. I think that Legba is looking for these things more than for money. There is an exchange between the two groups.

PF: ...and you feel that it would have been impossible to make a film involving northwestern men and sex tourism? It would have been very different?

LC: Yes, because of the status of the male would have been very difficult to avoid. I can’t really imagine that it would be the same kind of story. One of the other things that interested me about this story is that I think that one of the last taboos in cinema, and maybe beyond cinema, is a woman’s desire. You don’t see or hear a lot about it and it’s strange because even now when the film was released in France I felt that the main problem that people had with the film was that one. For example, listening to a woman describing her first orgasm at the age of forty-five is really shocking for a lot of people... I like the way in which the women are trying to find the right words to describe their desire and their relations with men. I think it’s difficult for them to say these things.

PF: Did you find it difficult as a male director to represent female desire?

LC: At the beginning I was quite frightened about that: making a film from a novel written by a man with a co-writer who is a man. In fact, after a few days working I’d forgotten the concern. I don’t think that I feel more distance between myself and Ellen or Brenda than between myself and Vincent in Time Out [Cantet’s previous film]. I think that men and women share a lot of things, especially the fundamental existential questions that this film is dealing with.

PF: Are the monologues in Heading South an attempt to allow the women to speak for themselves?

LC: Yes. In fact I’m used to rehearsing a lot before shooting. This time it was not very easy because Charlotte Rampling was in various places, Karen Young was in New York, Louise Portal was in Montreal, Menothy Cesar [who plays Legba] was in Port-au-Prince. I managed to have the luxury to bring everyone on the set one week before shooting just for them to get used to each other and to work together. That week we rehearsed those monologues and changed some words but the actresses assumed the roles without being aware that a man wrote the text. What makes me very happy is when people tell me that if they hadn’t known that I was the writer of the film they would have thought that a woman wrote it.

PF: The women and Alberto, the Haitian waiter, express themselves in monologues but Legba doesn't. Why?

LC: I think there are different reasons. The first one is because he is very young and he doesn’t have self-reflexivity on what he is living: he is just living things. Also because he is always living in a precarious situation where you don’t have time to ask questions and think. You just experiment with things, you enjoy things, you suffer from them but you don’t speak about them when you are young. It’s all about the survival process. Another point is perhaps more related to the narrative. It’s what he says to his friend when he’s playing football: ‘women are not interested in you because you talk too much.’ I think to be mysterious like that can be a very seductive strategy and I like the idea that he kind of looks like a young god without any past. Nobody knows where he is really living for example. You have to wait until the end of the film to see his mother, so you don’t know who he is. He can be a kind of god as he is to the women.

heading-south-laurent-cantet-3.jpgHeading South, 2005

I like the idea that Legba has been built by her and by lots of different women for different reasons so that he has different roles to play. I like the idea that they build him and definitely the stronger political statement of the film is that by being there you create a reality that could not happen if you weren’t. In a way you are involved in what’s happening in the world even if you don’t feel like you are very important.

PF: Do you consider Heading South to be a political film?

LC: When I’m filming I always try to show how difficult it is to understand what is happening around us, how difficult it is to find your place in the world and how people are involved in the world. I try to make people conscious of the role that they have to play. I like it that the film has many different entrances and I would never say that there is one main entrance because I think everything is linked together. In fact Alberto [a Haitian waiter at the resort] is maybe the most interesting character in political terms. I met a lot of people like him. They all have in mind the country’s heroic beginnings when they sacked the French and built the first black republic in the world. They are still very proud of that and a mythology surrounds it. At the same time most of them feel the indignity of what happened following that, shared with this very heroic past.

That’s the reason that I wanted Alberto in the film. At the same time I don’t think that he can just be a symbol for that. He is also someone who is very human and I think that you can see that from the first image. I don’t want to create schematic characters. I would like them to exist before becoming significant.

PF: Why was Charlotte Rampling appropriate for the role of Ellen?

LC: First when I read the book and then started to work on the script I saw her face and then I met her quite early with a few ideas about what the film could be. We met and we talked a lot and I didn’t know exactly what to say to her because the film was very vague at that time and she asked me a lot of questions. I felt that she understood exactly what I was trying to write and then I sent her the script. She hesitated because the character is quite heavy, is not very sympathetic, has such cynicism at the beginning but is so weak, so destroyed, at the end. Finally she said ‘yes’ and then was with me all the way through.

PF: Do you think that Brenda and Ellen are as far removed from each other’s perspectives at the end of the film as they seem to think?

LC: I think that the whole film is based on the idea of a relay in which a baton is passed from one person to another. There is Brenda who is starting a journey that Ellen is finishing and Eddy who is starting the life that Legba had before him. You can find a lot of correspondences between all the characters even if in the story I don’t point to all those links. So I think that Brenda and Ellen are really linked in this way and ten years later Brenda will be as disappointed as Ellen is.

PF: There is the second narrative in which Legba’s female friend, perhaps a childhood sweetheart, uses her sexuality to gain a financially advantageous relationship with a rich colonel. Can you comment upon this?

LC: I decided right at the beginning of the writing process that things would happen in the film without any preparation maybe because it’s what you feel when you walk in Port-au-Prince. You feel that anything can happen to you at any time: you can get killed, you can fall in love and you can meet strange people. I wanted the film to take this risk. I think that the scripts that people usually write are always a little too logical and that the reality is much less logical. I think that Heading South is constructed in that way for Legba. Unexpected things happen to him and he has to cope and see what happens. He can’t do anything against it.

PF: How did you find Menothy Cesar who played Legba?

LC: I spent three months in Port-au-Prince walking the streets. I think that I met more than two hundred guys aged from sixteen to twenty-two. One day Menothy came to the auditions. He was there with his cousin and didn’t want to test for the role at first but I was sure that it was him from the second that he came into the room. From the first step he was able to wait, to look, to be, without speaking. That is quite rare for an unprofessional actor at a first test. Then we had to change the shooting schedule because we were supposed to shoot in the year that Aristide was exposed. I lost Menothy and spent one month trying to find him, asking everyone. It was like a police investigation.

PF: Heading South is a film about sex tourism but it isn’t very sexually explicit. Why is that?

LC: I like the idea that the most erotic scene in the film is a monologue. I think that words are very powerful. Also it’s because I didn’t need more sex in the film. I wanted to feel that there was a very sexual relationship between the characters but maybe I didn’t want to show it because I’m a little bit prudish.

PF: What is the role of language in the film?

LC: I like the way that the different languages mix. You don’t only listen to what they say; you understand why they speak one language rather than another and language is also an expression of power over the other.

PF: Do you feel that the filmmaker and viewers are also tourists?

LC: Making the film helped me to find my place in that country and to know what I was doing there. It also helped me to communicate with the people through everyone that I worked with.

Heading South is released for theatrical distribution in the UK by Soda Pictures in July, with a DVD out in August. For international release dates see

Peter Fraser is the Marketing Coordinator for Vertigo Magazine, Deputy Editor of Close-up Film magazine and a freelance journalist and writer.