Zo Reken review – Toyota Land Cruiser becomes a safe space in conflict-ridden Haiti

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Debates on national identity and foreign aid are par for the course for car riders – though this documentary is itself tangled up in the country’s complex power structures

Zo reken” means “shark bones” in Haitian Creole, and refers to a traditional cane liquor purported to increase virility. It is also a local nickname for the Toyota Land Cruiser, a high-powered car that can breezily weather the tough road conditions in Port-au-Prince. Largely shot in the back of one of these vehicles, Emanuel Licha’s documentary is structured around a steady flow of conversations on national identity, political conflicts and foreign intervention.

Emerging from these discussions is discontent at the government of Jovenel Moïse – the country’s former president who was assassinated in 2021 – as well as a distrust of international humanitarian aid. One passenger, for example, laments on the irony of how support from NGOs has had the negative effect of increasing Haiti’s dependence on wealthier countries. Once the funding dries up and the medical volunteers depart, existing healthcare infrastructure is left worse for wear. And while the interior of the “zo reken” feels like a safe space for spirited debate, the camera also peeks through the windows to observe the tumultuous reality outside. Traffic stops are crowded with vagrants, and talk of young men being gunned down emerges from the winding streets.

Used by NGOs as well as the Haitian police, the Toyota Land Cruiser is itself a thorny symbol of power – even oppression. Zo Reken succeeds in dissecting this paradox, though the fly-on-the-wall style evidences a lack of self-interrogation on the film-makers’ part. Like the aid workers, Licha and many of the crew are outsiders, and Zo Reken was also produced with international funding. In other words, the film’s very existence is entangled within the same problematic structures criticised by its Haitian interviewees. If this complex position had been touched upon, this portrait of Haiti might have stretched beyond what is immediately visible in front of the camera.

 Zo Reken is available from 18 August on True Story.

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