Upon arriving in Haiti, Brenda immediately tracks down Legba, a young Haitian with whom she had sex three years prior. This introductory shot of Legba indicates to the audience that Brenda is in the position of power as she hovers over him sleeping.
Ellen returns each summer to Haiti to resume her relationship with Legba.
The opening scene disorients the audience as this respectable and dignified woman speaks these unimaginable words.
Her fifteen year old daughter wants to be a nurse but will likely be forced into prostitution.
Because this young woman is the mistress of a Colonel, she jeopardizes Legba’s life just by having this conversation with him.
While out shopping in the city with Brenda, Legba has to flee when a car abruptly pulls up alongside him. Frank, the driver of the Colonel’s mistress, pursues Legba on foot, firing a gun into the air.
Unlike the monologues given by the female tourists, Albert does not directly address the camera.
In this scene Sue talks about buying Haitian art cheaply and Ellen makes a derogatory comment about the Haitian people tolerating the “president’s lavish parties.” Legba’s behavior following these comments—leaving their company after downing his cocktail and requesting money for the bus—suggests that he is offended by their remarks.
When Brenda dances with Eddy on the beach, Legba angrily interrupts and scolds Eddy. Although unspoken, Legba seems to be protecting Eddy from becoming a prostitute while still so young.
Albert discovers the naked, dead bodies of Legba and the Colonel’s mistress in the early morning.
Similar to his last two films Cantet’s concluding scene includes a close-up on a central character. In contrast to his earlier films though, this shot includes a voiceover.
In contrast to Frank’s pointed realization at the conclusion of Human Resources, Brenda remains firmly in denial, which is represented visually by her turning away from the camera.
Heading South, is set in the late 1970s, which was a transitional moment both for global capital and Haiti. Neoliberalism began to gain credence in that decade and affected events in Haiti. During the 1970s, foreign money arrived in the small Caribbean country in several forms: tourism, aid, and investment. After the end of François Duvalier’s rule in 1971, the country did experience an increase in foreign spending as tourism expanded rapidly throughout the decade. [open endnotes in new window]However, by the 1980s tourism dropped off substantially due to Jean-Claude Duvalier’s repressive regime, worsening poverty, and the false rumor that Haiti had been a source for HIV. In 1973 the United States and other countries also renewed foreign aid after a ten-year suspension, and since the mid-1970s the U.S. has been Haiti’s largest donor. Because the U.S. has interrupted aid at different times due to “alleged human rights abuses, corruption, and election fraud” and other development agencies have followed its lead, the U.S. has wielded significant power over the direction of Haitian affairs. Foreign aid to Haiti has come with strings attached.
International development agencies played a key role in compelling Haiti to transform itself into a country open to foreign investment. Anthropologist Robert Lawless suggests that the United States made a pact with François Duvalier that it would support his son Jean-Claude Duvalier as the succeeding president if Jean-Claude would welcome U.S. private investment and create an export-oriented economy. The United States Agency for International Development (AID) acknowledged that Haiti would need to import grain because of this export-oriented development but welcomed “this historic change toward deeper market interdependence with the United States.” Between 1973 and 1980 Haiti’s external public debt increased dramatically from $53 million to $360 million. As part of its loan programs, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank coerced Haiti into neoliberal structural adjustment programs, requiring that spending on education, health, and rural development “be minimized” so that funds could be spent on export-oriented development. The combination of Haiti’s repressive government and cheap labor made it popular for the outsourcing of assembly work.
Heading South examines the U.S.’s infiltration into Haitian affairs directly through its portrayal of tourism and indirectly through the larger history to which it alludes. In the film, middle-aged white women, who find romantic relationships in the context of Western sexism to be unacceptable, seek sexual relationships with Haitian men in which they feel more powerful. While they sometimes claim to “love” their sexual partners, the film suggests that their sex tourism is connected to the larger exploitation of Haiti. Heading South uses sex tourism as both a concrete example of this exploitative relation and as a symbol of the lopsided power relations of global capitalism in which the national body of Haiti is available for purchase.
The choice of women as sexual tourists rather than men is important. First of all, there is some empathy for the women who are escaping undesirable situations at home. Ellen, who is a 55-year-old professor, says, “If you are over 40, and not as dumb as a fashion model, the only guys who are interested in you are natural-born losers or husbands whose wives are cheating on them.” Ellen also finds “repulsive” the romantic relationships of her female students because seeing them cry in the hallways, she imagines that their boyfriends “enjoy having those girls at their mercy.” Brenda is a 48-year-old divorcee who consumes Valium to the extent that it has little effect on her. Sue, who runs a warehouse, rarely dates at home in Canada but in Haiti feels like she becomes “a butterfly.” Because the problem of Western sexism makes sexual relationships at home either undesirable or unattainable and motivates the women’s travel abroad, the film more directly concerns cultural exploitation rather than individual perversion.
More important, the narrative better mirrors the relation between the First World and Third World during the era of giving aid rather than invading militarily—a guise of caring covers over the exploitation. While Cantet’s earlier films contain gestures of refusal within them, his later films are about the costs of the neoliberal economy. In particular, by portraying clashes between white, middle-class inhabitants in the First World and the impoverished inhabitants or refugees of the Third World, the films demonstrate the unbearableness of social relations at the bottom of global capitalism and the complicity of the First World.
The opening scene of Heading South makes clear the harsh, unbearable choices available in Haiti: give your fifteen year-old daughter away to a middle-aged man or risk being killed and having her stolen and forced into prostitution for the military. At the airport a mother pleads with Albert, a hotel employee escorting a tourist to the resort, telling him that she and her daughter “once had a nice life” but since her husband, who worked as a public health inspector, was arrested at his office and never seen again, she has been penniless. Not only can she not pay her rent or daughter’s tuition, but worse she knows that “unfortunately, being beautiful and poor in this country [her daughter] doesn’t stand a chance.”
While the film portrays tourists only briefly glimpsing the poverty and military rule that constrains Haitian lives—either through the windows of the vehicle as they are transported to the resort or of the soldiers standing guard at the airport in camouflage and with machine guns—the film contains scenes without tourists, such as the opening one, that encourage the audience to view the tourists’ critically. In particular, several scenes provide the audience information about the life of Legba, the young male gigolo who romances both Ellen and Brenda. While several of the women tourists claim to love Legba, they remain completely ignorant about what his life is like when he is not at the resort. For example, in a street scene where boys are playing soccer, two men—who are apparently cops—take soda from a young vendor without paying for it. When the young boy asks for payment, the cops knock over his box of bottles and cans and threaten the boy, asking for his permit and ID. Eddy, a young adolescent who hangs out with the male gigolos at the resort, defends the young boy, but Legba steps in telling the cop that there is “no problem,” clearly fearing for Eddy’s life.
Legba’s understanding of life as threatened under the Haitian dictatorship is validated later in the film when he is murdered for an encounter with a young woman. This encounter also points to the lack of choices that Haitians face. While walking along the street, Legba is ordered into a car with tinted windows by the driver of this young woman, who seems to have been a former girlfriend of Legba’s. She tells Legba that two months ago she was made the mistress of a Colonel who is married and has children. Legba, whose masculine pride seems injured, is critical of her. She insists, “When those people want something, they always get it. I had no choice.” When Legba asks if she was raped, the girl explains:
In a further attempt to explain, she mentions her sister who works as a live-in maid and has to sleep with her boss and his son and says she and Legba were not made for that. In contrast, she made the “choice” to become the Colonel’s mistress and a government prostitute just as Legba makes the “choice” to service foreign tourists in order to support himself and his mother. While she is forced to service the military, Legba represents the selling of the national body to the First World, particularly the U.S.
The maître d’ Albert represents the national resentment towards this selling of Haiti. Of course, as an employee of a tourist resort, he is also forced to serve the Americans. The film includes four monologues. Three of these stories are from women visiting the resort—Ellen, Brenda, and Sue—and they speak directly to the camera, and one is from Albert, and his monologue is heard in voiceover as he prepares food in the kitchen for Legba at Brenda’s insistence even though he had said it was against house rules. Albert, who comes from a family of patriots who fought the Americans during the 1915 occupation, says, that if his grandfather “knew I was a waiter for Americans, he’d die of shame.” However, Albert is left with few options because the newest invasion of Americans is harder to fight:
Generally, the tourists remain ignorant of this resentment. In this same scene where Albert gives his monologue, Brenda and Sue say that they are surprised at the racism of the Haitians when Albert forbids Legba from dining at the resort’s restaurant. Of course, they misinterpret Albert’s resistance and are not cognizant of their own racism that combines with class exploitation. They do not consider how they can purchase anything they want in this country—whether that is the art Sue buys at the market for $3 a piece or sex from young Haitian men—and they remain unconscious of how they exploit the Haitians. Ellen’s exploitation, however, becomes visually apparent to the audience when Ellen photographs Legba naked. Although he wants to face the camera, she insists on capturing his image from behind with him not looking at the camera: “I want to see your face asleep and your ass.” She wants to take home with her a picture of Legba caught passively by the camera.
Brenda’s exploitation is more explicit. During her monologue, she tells an uncomfortable story of imposing herself sexually on fifteen-year old Legba whom she and her husband had “adopted” and fed. She describes the episode as “literally, so violent I couldn’t stop screaming” and that violence is what makes her orgasm for the first time. Legba still understands this power dynamic three years later. After Brenda buys him chicken for dinner, they go for a walk on the beach and he strips naked. Brenda ‘s monologue in which she reveals her crime of statutory rape is filmed as if she is confiding in a friend—she’s sitting relaxed on her bed and speaks directly to the camera, implicating the audience who shares this secret with her.
The film concludes with Brenda’s response to Legba’s death. While Ellen retreats home, Brenda decides to voyage to other islands and become the perpetual sexual tourist. Even before Legba’s body is discovered, Brenda begins to transfer her affection to other men when she goes alone to a dance and makes eye contact with several men until someone asks her to dance. After Legba is killed, she admits that maybe she did not love Legba, but she knows that she “loved the way he looked” at her. It is this position of power in her sexual relationships that she continues to seek, but she masks it with an exoticization of the islands and the men on them. The closing scene of the film begins with a close-up on Brenda’s face with a satisfied smile and the ocean in the background. She states in voiceover:
The screen then goes black and the film ends with only the sound of the ocean in background as credits roll. The ending of the film is unsettling as Brenda chooses an ongoing exploitative lifestyle even after she’s been confronted with Legba’s death. The film leaves the audience contemplating the intersection of the Western exoticization of Third World countries and the unbalanced power relationship between the First and Third World. It calls into question the unequal social relations on which global capitalism depends and how the rhetoric of aid, similar to the women’s rhetoric of love, masks the exploitative relationship between the U.S. and Haiti.