VIFF 2021 Review: Zo Reken

The driver of the minivan in Zo Reken, Pascal Antoine, is a fictional driver. The passengers are real minivan passengers and they have a lot to tell.

What do I look like in this vehicle?

This van draws attention for all the wrong reasons.

I’m sure most people outside of Haiti have never heard of a ‘Zo Reken.’ The documentary Zo Reken is as much about the vehicle itself as it is about the political and living situation in Haiti.

The film begins with Pascal Antoine performing his music at a night club. After the show, he and his bandmates have drinks and then pack their gear up in a vehicle they call a ‘Zo Reken’ and head off. We learn a ‘Zo Reken’ is the nickname in Haiti for a Toyota 4-by-4 Land Cruiser minivan. It’s named after the ‘Zo Reken’ drink which consists of letting a shark bone sit in it. The vehicles most commonly called a ‘Zo Reken’ in Haiti are normally used to transport humanitarian aid to hospitals or various other sites.

However a violent coup to overthrow Haitian president Jovenel Moise has happened and brutal protests in the streets of capital Port-au-Prince have occurred. The nation is in a strict lockdown and Zo Rekens are no longer allowed for humanitarian aid. Antoine hacks a Zo Reken and uses it to help transport other Haitians around the capital. One thing is he will have to find routes along the bumpy roads that don’t collide with the violent fiery protests. Also he must he aware of people he passes throwing rocks at the vehicle.

The first passenger he transports is a man up a hill and avoiding barricades of fire set by protesters. As the man is transported, he talks about the humanitarian aid from non-governmental organizations, or NGO’s as they’re commonly called, that it’s more hinderance than a help. In a lot of ways, he sees the humanitarian aid from the NGO’s and international community as broken promises from these nations. They promised to bring Haiti out of the poverty and recover, but the poverty continues, as it has for decades. That explains why he and other Haitians see the Zo Rekens that transport the aid representing the NGOs or the continued repression, or simply power.

Later on, he transports another man. This Zo Reken is intended to be a vehicle to protectively transport many people across the capital during this turmoil. Soon this Zo Reken comes to represent a bus for many Haitians who otherwise would have to walk on foot. The second man he transports talks about the hidden anger among the impoverished to the rich. He understand why many would want to throw rocks at the Zo Reken. Anything that represents the wealth gap is seen as a target of wrath from the people. The types of people he transports along the way are various. He transports one man as he’s to have a job interview for a very rare opportunity for prosperity and timeliness is make-or-break. He transports a woman passenger and she has a lot to say of the situation for the women in Haiti.

The Zo Reken he drives soon finds itself in part of the drama. A man is badly injured during the protests. Protests have been violent to the point they’ve claimed a lot of lives. Pascal has to transport this man to a hospital. It’s not an easy thing as he has to avoid other protesters and barricades. He comes across one barricade: a burning trunk of a tree. He has to find detours to get the man to the hospital as one person carries an IV bag. It’s like this Zo Reken becomes like an ambulance.

late at night, Pascal is relaxing outside a bar, sitting outside his Zo Reken. His friends come and drink, but they speak their mind about all that has happened in recent days and what is happening in the country. They talk of the rich and powerful and how they kill the people and how they may face their own comeuppance one day. They talk of the international community that they feel they do not help the nation and more the cause of the problem than the solution. Many feel feel they don’t want international aid and feel that it’s better off Haiti hold its own and develop on its own terms. They have that much of a lack of trust to foreigners. The documentary ends with Pascal driving the Zo Reken off as we see a rear-view image of the path he’s leaving behind.

The driver Pascal Antoine is fictional. Pascal acts as the driver of the Zo Reken each and every time. The passengers are real. Their situations are real. The Haitian riots of 2018-2020 and the overthrow of president Jovenel Moise are real. Haiti is the most impoverished nation in the Americas. The country has been through decades of brutal rule, whether be it in the form of dictatorships or democracies. You can go back as far as 1957 with the Duvaliers until Baby Doc fled the country in 1986, then Aristide in the 1990’s and now Moise.

What you have is an angry country. Most of the nation has known nothing but a lifetime of disease, death and poverty. The nation is mostly known as the world’s biggest producer of baseballs, but their economy is not known for much more. You have a big gap between the rich who own most of the nations wealth and the poor who struggle for simple change to get food to eat. It’s like the coup d’etat to overthrow Moise exposed a lot of anger inside the Haitian people. It was like their anger was inside a bubble and the bubble burst.

The Zo Rekens became a huge presence after the 2010 Haitian earthquake that claimed anywhere from 100,000 to 160,000 Haitians and affected 3,000,000. As aid workers are not allowed in the vehicle and one man uses it to transport people, you can hear from people the voice of the common Haitian. You hear the anger of what people feel in a country with a huge wage gap and poverty all around it. You hear the anger they have towards the international community upon the failure of these nations to live up to the promises of helping build up a stronger Haiti. You hear the anger of the neocolonialism percieved among the people. You hear the anger people have towards the soon-to-be-deposed president and their feelings that he was worse than the Duvaliers. You hear how people fear for the most vulnerable during this critical time in their nation.

As you hear their voice, you can easily see why these Zo Rekens during a time of political turmoil are now seen as oppressors to the people. As you see Pascal wash the Zo Reken in the morning, you can feel he can’t wash away its bad image. Equally, you can also see why this depot holding the medical supplies and various goods for transporting could be seen as a bigger villain than the Zo Rekens that transport those goods. As you see the depot holding these goods in place, you sometimes wonder why is this depot holding everything in place? Why can’t the hospitals simply have these items in need rather than have them waiting at a centralized depot? Why should the Zo Reken take all the blame from the people?

This documentary is a very good eye opener. It sheds a light on a nation few people outside of it know of other than the time it makes the news. Most of the time, the news is dreadful, whether it be of a deposed ruler or of a natural disaster that devastates most of the nation. As Antoine transports the people in the Zo Reken, you hear the voice of the common Haitian among the passengers and those just standing outside. You see the wrath and contempt of the people as the Zo Reken passes them on the street. You even see how Antoine uses the Zo Reken in a crisis situation as it transports a wounded protester to the hospital. During the film, you’re left with the impression that this is the biggest help this Zo Reken did in its entirety in Haiti.

Admiration from writer/director Emanuel Licha. He creates a scenario of a fictional driver in a real crisis situation. He does a good job of not just showing life in an impoverished country like Haiti, but a scenario that exposes poverty through a global lens. What you see happening in Haiti can happen in other impoverished countries too. The marginalization of people in Haiti and the anger of the people can represent the anger of people in any impoverished nation in the world. Pascal Antoine may be the fictional driver of the Zo Reken in the film, but he does a good job of being the centrepiece of this documentary. Him being the central focal point helps as you see Haiti unfold as we watch this documentary.

The documentary Zo Reken is a big eye-opener. It not only introduces you to a country most of us don’t know enough about, but fills you in on the people too. The people are shown as they are in a heated moment in Haiti’s history and what you hear from their mouths say as much about them as their personal feelings.

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