A lot of the best documentaries we have on difficult subjects “luck” into capturing an important moment by happening to film something seemingly innocuous just when tragedy or an unexpected shift occurs. I’m not sure Serenade for Haiti qualifies as that exact type of happenstance, since the Haitian capital it was documenting, Port-au-Prince, is constantly undergoing some kind of fundamental change, whether political or Natural. The film does find a very specific lens to view the city’s biggest upheaval of the past decade through, however, by watching it unfold through the profile of Saint Trinité Music School, a very insular community in the larger picture of Haitian culture. By following staff & students of the music school in the years preceding & following the city-destroying earthquakes of 2010, the film finds a hyper specific frame for capturing the way Haiti has dealt with the once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe.
Founded in the 1950s, Saint Trinité Music School was founded as a charitable Catholic institution specifically meant to improve the lives of Port-au-Prince children who live below the poverty line. Early conversations with the students before the earthquake reveal lines like, “We want to show that people from our class can achieve wonderful things” and “Music is our refuge,” establishing just how important the school is to the community. Its results are easily detectable too, as Serenade for Haiti contrasts the angelic sounds of its longterm students with the unsure needling of its younger hopefuls. The school takes on an entirely different meaning after the 2010 disaster, with music becoming an act of therapy for students struggling with post-disaster PTSD. Their refusal to directly discuss the horrors of the earthquake that destroyed their school, city, country, and families is very much reminiscent of the way New Orleans (a city with strong Haitian roots) gradually recovered after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, especially once the healing sounds of music & Carnival culture creep back in through the rubble & the silence. The physical school of Saint Trinité is destroyed halfway into this film, but the school itself somehow continues to thrive.
The visual craft of Serenade for Haiti makes little effort to match the angelic sounds of its music, outside a few glimpses of Carnival celebrations or vibrantly-painted historic murals. The most the film has to offer as cinema is an intimate look at a tragedy most people are used to examining from a much greater remove. There might possibly be a more informative documentary to be made about the grand scale aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but by profiling members of a single music school within Port-au-Prince before & after the event, the film offers an intimacy & a specificity a more wide-reaching documentary could not accomplish. The filmmakers behind Serenade for Haiti would have had no way of knowing the significance of what they are documenting when the film first began production, but they stumbled into a personal, up-close look at a historic tragedy in the process. More importantly, though, they also happened to capture the cultural perseverance that emerged in its aftermath, documenting through music a culture that’s unfortunately grown accustomed to massive violent upheavals as a routine of daily life.