Going Back to Haiti: The Interview

On January 12, 2010, Haiti suffered one of the greatest natural disasters ever to occur. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake shattered, and destroyed the small nation, not to mention the lives, homes, and spirits of its people. In an already ravaged nation, food became scarce. Hope, even scarcer. But where water runs, life flows. Film-maker Patrick Shen followed the lives and stories of two brothers taking the tragedy of the world on their shoulders, and what unfolded was a back-breaking journey across two continents to bring the simplest of necessities to the greatest number of people. La Source, directed by Shen and produced by Jordan Wagner, documents the trials, tribulations, and victories – both large and small, in a place where victories have always been hard to come by. MaleStandard sat with Shen and Wagner to talk about La Source, Haiti, the meaning of it all, and where to go from here.

Hey, guys. First off, can you tell us a little about La Source and how it came about?

Patrick: Well, back in 2009 we released a film called The Philosopher Kings about the wisdom found among custodians employed at major universities in the United States, and one of the janitors that we featured is named Josue Lajeunesse who works at Princeton University. Once we got to know him and learned about his dream to bring clean water to his village in Haiti, it took the story in a different direction, but in a great way. He’s the kind of guy who didn’t wake up one morning and say, “hey, I want to be a humanitarian,” you know? This guy just genuinely has it in him. We were so inspired by his story and as it turned out, we weren’t the only ones. When The Philosopher Kings began screening around the country what would happen was, usually the first hands up were questions about Josue and how they could help bring water to his village, which was a big problem there. Before we knew it, we had a huge groundswell of support sort of building up around Josue and his cause and we thought, wow, this is fascinating. Maybe we should start the cameras rolling and see what happens. That’s kind of how La Source got started and before we knew it we were going to Haiti to tell this story of Josue making this enormous dream for his people a reality after several decades.

Jordan: Yeah, I think that’s pretty accurate. And it was just a natural thing that Patrick and I met at a screening, actually, of The Philosopher Kings last uh, what was that–

Patrick: June of 2009.

Jordan: Yeah, we met at an event there and he invited me to come see his screening. I watched the film and it was just such a natural tie-in because it’s what I’m passionate about as well. This organization, Generosity Water, that we started a few years ago raises funds to build water projects in several countries, and Patrick was like, “wow, you do that?” And it was so funny because in the film there’s this janitor and he’s bringing water to his village in Haiti. I was really inspired because it showed me that he genuinely worked very hard, he wasn’t all talk. He actually practiced what he preached by sending money to his family and working two jobs and we kind of sensed that he took on the weight of his village on his shoulders. There was something so genuine about that. We wanted to get involved and see what we could do to help mobilize people, help raise money, help see his dream come true.

Jordan, you’re the Executive Director of Generosity Water. How did your non-profit organization come about?

Jordan Wagner poses for a picture with some children in Haiti. Photo by Jess Koehler.

Jordan: In early 2008, I went to Africa. Before this, I was working as a Mortgage Broker/Real Estate agent, just having a good time. Then, the mortgage industry completely crashed and I lost a lot of the money that I had made. I kept investing money into my business thinking it’d recover but I never did. I got really frustrated, embarrassed, and kind of sad at the time. “How did this all happen, I was doing so well,” you know? Then, a friend of ours was doing some missionary work, a project in Uganda, and he invited me to come along with him. I decided I’ll just go out for a couple weeks, see what they’re doing and learn. But while I was out there I started to see that there were tons and tons of little boys and girls carrying– what we would transport fuel in, they were using to carry water. And they were walking five or six miles at a time. One time, I decided to go with them and when we got to where they were going to find water, and it was this dirty, muddy, kind of like ditch in the ground that just had water sitting in there. This water was so dirty we wouldn’t give it to our pets to drink. I didn’t even want to touch this water, but yet it was their only choice, their only source of water. I started learning that water was actually the number one cause of death in the world. There are millions of people in the world who don’t have access to clean water, something like a sixth of the planet. I remember coming home and my priorities started to change, my perspective changed. My problems didn’t seem so big any more compared to what people are going through around the world. I felt I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to bring a solution to this problem and not just know about it.

I hear you, it really changed your perspective.

Josue Lajeunesse (left) and Jordan Wagner (right) in La Source, Haiti. Photo by Jess Koehler.

Jordan: Oh, definitely. When we got back from Africa that first time, we didn’t have a lot of money or any kind of non-profit status. We didn’t have anything but this idea to somehow bring a solution, bring clean water to these people. The next step was figuring out what the solution was and so we worked with a lot of local organizations that have been there for over a decade. We worked with government officials and we found out that to actually build a water-well that’ll provide clean water for 20 years– if treated properly, will only cost $3,000 to $5,000, depending on the community and how they make it. So we’re thinking, this is a crisis that is killing people more than anything else, yet the solution is rather simple: it’s drilling a well. So, it was around Christmas 2008 and I had asked my family, friends, and people that I just met once– [laughing] you know, people who probably would’ve never given me a Christmas gift ever, would you consider instead of giving me a gift, would you just donate to help build a water-well in this village? Within a month we had raised over $6,000 and that’s how we funded our first two water-wells in Uganda. It really just took me passionately sharing with people, just like I am right now, about need and solutions. After that, we started Generosity Water and we’ve done over 180 water projects in 17 countries, and it continues to grow and people are continually getting involved. Still, at this point we don’t have any government grants or huge corporate grants. It’s really just built on individuals and ordinary people using what they have to make a difference.

Well, God bless you man, hopefully it continues. Going back to La Source and Haiti, for those of us who haven’t been, or won’t be able to go there, what was the feeling like – the energy in the air?

Jordan Wagner, executive director of Generosity Water and co-producer of “La Source,” helps dig a trench for the water project. Photo by Jess Koehler.

Patrick: I had gone maybe 6 to 8 months before the earthquake… actually, maybe it was closer to a year before the quake, and then I had gone around March. Was that our first trip? March?

Jordan: I think it was a little less than a couple months after the earthquake. I think it was like early March, right?

Patrick: Yeah, yeah, so I had gone both before the earthquake and after the earthquake, and it was definitely… a surreal sort of feeling, but it wasn’t drastically different than the feeling that I got the first time around. I mean Haiti has been rocked time and time again, one disaster after another. The conditions that the people were living in [after the earthquake] were far worse, of course, but they have been living in survival mode for a very long time — that’s always very hard to see. The second time around it definitely had more of a post-apocalyptic kind of feel, people drinking out of gutters, taking a bath in the street… definitely a lot more of that.

Jordan: Yeah, I agree one hundred percent. We would drive by and see these displacement camps of hundreds of thousands of people in tents, and a lot of them had the potential to go back to their home or apartment but they didn’t want to because they were afraid another earthquake would come and the building would collapse and they’d die because they’ve seen some of their relatives or friends be crushed. A lot of people living in fear. Even when we first got there, we were kind of tense and not sure how to navigate this. It was definitely just like Patrick said, eery like a ghost-town in a lot of ways. Like, you would see these staircases leading to nowhere. The rest of the building just kind of collapsed.

Patrick: Yeah, I think one of the first reactions when you’re in a natural disaster like this is that it’s too big, too big to comprehend. Many of the humanitarian organizations in Haiti say they can’t focus on the big picture, they have to do it one person at a time, or one community at a time, otherwise they’ll just be paralyzed by the enormity of the issue. There’s so much going on there, it’s surreal how devastated this country is. And I don’t even think I’ve still comprehended it, fully. You know, we’re trying to tell this story in the film as best as we can, but it’s like, I’ve taken four trips there and these people living day in and day out amidst this destruction, it’s really… [long pause] It’s difficult to comprehend.

Yeah, I don’t even think I could imagine what that’s like. Immediately after the quake, there was this massive outpouring of financial aid from around the world. Were you guys able to see, or get a sense of where it went?

Patrick: I… I couldn’t see… You know, it wasn’t an easy thing. It wasn’t apparent when we got there, I mean where all the financial aid had gone. I mean, there were certainly a lot of tent cities, there were a lot of makeshift medical centers set up here and there, but how much money was thrown into Haiti? Millions of dollars. It was not apparent to me, at least at first glance where that money had gone, and I think that again speaks to the enormity of it. There’s so many millions of people there that don’t have a place to live, and I think one of the things that humanitarian organizations like Jordan’s and others have figured out is that Haiti’s problems run much deeper and that Haiti needs to restructure the way they think, the way they govern, and the way that they operate. It’s really a much larger problem than just giving them financial aid, it’s finding people within the communities that can rebuild their country and sort of begin the restructuring process in a more constructive, positive, and hopeful way.

Jordan: Yeah, I agree. I think it was hundreds of millions that was raised, but when we got there, my understanding was, wow, there’s going to be every aid organization out there in the streets picking people up, there’s going to be things going on everywhere. And then we got there and it wasn’t like that at all, it was chaos from the minute you step off the plane at the airport, to driving down the street. It was just nuts. The only way we could really tell where the money went were the logos on the tents. We were like, “where are these guys?” I’m sure they did a lot of great work and are continuing to, but this problem is so big, this crisis spread so far it was actually really hard to pinpoint and identify where the money actually went. One of our partners down there was telling us about these people who were living in homes: they weren’t necessarily the owners and they weren’t the landlords, they were just tenants. A lot of times, the landlords are people living in the Dominican or Miami somewhere, so when the buildings collapsed the landlords were like, just considering it a wash. They didn’t care about rebuilding so the non-governmental organizations and the government didn’t want to rebuild property for a wealthy landlord who didn’t even live there. They wanted to try and figure out how they can use this money that they raised to actually help the tenants. There’s kind of a catch-22 going on, but with any major crisis it takes time to put a strategy and a plan into action. You have this balance: how do I help with this immediate need right now and also plan to rebuild a nation long term?

Since you guys have been there and seen this firsthand, do you have any ideas where to start?

Director and co-producer Patrick Shen (left), Josue Lajeunesse (middle), and Jordan Wagner (right) take a picture in front of the coast of Haiti. Photo by Jess Koehler.

Patrick: That’s a good question. I think it starts with people like Josue, someone who can inspire their people to transform their communities in a constructive and sustainable way.
Their evolved mode of living is one of “survival” and “retreat” because many have the mentality that there’s going to be more disaster around the bend. It’s kind of a mentality shift that needs to happen. People like Josue can go back, sort of help them reshape the way that they approach the restructuring and rebuilding of the country… [stops to notice his phone] Oh, trip out– Josue’s calling me right now

Jordan: [laughing] Call him up! Just to add on to what Patrick’s said, he’s exactly right. I mean, I’m not an economist, I don’t know how to rebuild a nation, but I do think that it starts with some kind of inspiration to the people to want a better life. It’s easy to get discouraged disaster after disaster, but if people have a little bit of hope that tomorrow can be a better day then that’s kind of where it first starts. The second thing for me is probably with the children, educating the next generation. In a lot of these situations, like in La Source where you didn’t have clean water, the first step towards getting an education is to build a clean water project in their village so that kids are no longer spending hours fetching water but spending time to go to school.

Is there a message of positivity and hopefulness in La Source?

Director Patrick Shen takes a break from filming to pose for a picture in La Source, Haiti. Photo by Jess Koehler.

Patrick: Yeah, I definitely try to make that a consistent theme in the work that I do. Our motto here at Transcendental Media is, “to agitate the sleep of mankind,” which is a quote that I stole from Sigmund Freud when he was asked about his purpose in life. Positivity’s a part of it for sure, but even more so, it’s awakening people. It’s very easy for people to develop a very narrow sense of the world around them, one that’s easier to navigate. You open things up a little bit more and the scarier the world becomes.

And how can people contribute, or contact Generosity Water?

Jordan: Our website is GenerosityWater.org and people can definitely go there and read about how we work, what we do, and, our strategy behind building wells. They can see the countries that we’re working in, donate of course, and a new project that we launched called MyGenerosityWater.org, based on the same idea. It’s very similar to a Facebook page, it allows you to kind of create your own profile like MyGenerosityWater.org/[yourname]. You can upload your photos, you can set a goal: “I want to raise $3,000 to build a well.” Then you would send your friends to your page and people can donate and see how much you’ve raised. Once you’ve raised $3,000, you can choose which country to send that money to, to build a well and we’ll dedicate it in honor of you.

What about the film, La Source– where can people see it or what can they do to help make sure it gets seen?

Patrick: It’s not done yet, we’re still in post production but we’re hoping that it’ll be complete and premiering at some major film festivals within the next three to four months.

Patrick: It’s not done yet, we’re still in post production but we’re hoping that it’ll be complete and premiering at some major film festivals within the next three to four months.
As far as how people can help, at this point they can go to the website LaSourceMovie.com, they can share with their friends via Facebook, Twitter, start talking about it. That would help a great deal, that’s how a lot of independent documentaries succeed these days. It’s a very, very tough time for independent film-makers, we depend a lot on the audience to discuss it and to share it with people. We also haven’t raised any significant funding for the movie because this all happened so fast, but there’s a section on the website where people can help support the film and actually put a donation towards the film and receive perks in exchange: DVD’s, posters, what not.

Patrick, I have to ask you about your previous film, The Philosopher Kings. Your company, Transcendental Media, was kind enough to send us a copy and I have to say it is truly uplifting, touching, and inspirational. Where did you get the idea to follow the lives and stories of custodians at American Universities?

Patrick: Originally, we didn’t know that it was going to be custodians. We wanted to make a movie about wisdom found in unlikely places and we started with cooks, garbage men, people who shine your shoes at the airport– that kind of thing. We realized pretty soon after that we needed to kind of narrow it down to one group of people, and we thought the classic example of an unseen individual in our culture is the janitor. We decided it kind of gives the film more context that way by just sticking to janitors. Back in high school, I had read Plato’s Republic, and that’s where the term “philosopher kings” comes from. I took that idea and that title around with me and I just liked the sound of it, the tone of it. I remember thinking, someday I’m going to make a movie called The Philosopher Kings. [Laughing] I don’t know what it’ll be about, but I like the title a lot. Then in 2001, I’m interviewing a professor for my film previous to that, Flight From Death, and he says a sort of offhand comment about how we shouldn’t be interviewing professors for our film, we should be interviewing custodians. That they’re the ones with more insight into what it’s like to be human. We sort of laughed it off and then it hit me later on: I’m like, wow, that would actually be pretty cool to do a whole film about the wisdom of janitors. Then I remembered “philosopher kings” and the two just kind of came together.

And when you met Josue, did you immediately know this was your next project?

Brothers Chrismedonne (left) and Josue (right) Lajeunesse take a break from interviews to pose for a photo in their village of La Source, Haiti. Photo by Jess Koehler.

Patrick: There were a few projects right after Flight From Death that we were entertaining, but of all the projects, this was the one that people got most excited about and this was the one that I was most excited about, too. When we met Josue, we knew that he was a compelling individual and that he would be in a large part of the film, but we didn’t know about his Haiti stuff and we didn’t know about the water project. It wasn’t until the very end, at like a two and a half hour interview that he mentioned this offhand comment about how, “yeah, I got this work that I’m doing in Haiti. I’m trying to bring clean water to this village.” We were like, “What?! Why did you save this until the end?” We had to elaborate and that’s when we were like, wow, we’re going to Haiti.

Okay, so given what you guys have seen, experienced, and continue to do, what would you say is your MaleStandard?

Patrick: That’s a good question. It evolves on a weekly basis for me, but Bruce Lee has this awesome philosophy about being water. Have you heard this?

It sounds familiar.

Patrick: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” If we approach life in a rigid way, trying to force ourselves to adapt to things and things to adapt to us, we find ourselves very unhappy and meaningless. We have to be shapeless as we navigate life. Hopefully, that makes sense.

It does.

Patrick: Anyway, that’s one, and “to agitate the sleep of mankind.”

Jordan: That’s a great question and it’s definitely constantly evolving and changing. I wish I had this profound answer, but honestly something that I guess determines how I live is to love people as much as I love myself. If I really love people, I want to be generous, I want to give, I want to help people. I think that’s a quote from the bible, but it really does represent and stick with me. Also, to really just be grateful for what we have. Whenever we want more than what we currently have, that’s when depression comes, having anxiety, we’re stressed. With perspective, there’s always somebody with less off than we have so we should be grateful for what we have, right?


Jordan: I guess those are the things that would be my life. I don’t know if that’s profound or anything, but they’re definitely things I live my life by.

That sounded pretty profound to me for being put on the spot.

Patrick: I think one last interesting thing about Josue that I was thinking about, is what’s fascinating about him, a janitor, is he’s taking on the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. The idea of this very normal, every day human making such a big difference and taking on such a huge crisis is inspiring.

Jordan: He’s a janitor, which by society’s standards you think of as the lowest job. When he goes to Haiti, when we were over there, he’s like a celebrity. I mean, he was their hero. We couldn’t even drive into the village with Josue in the car without him having to stop every five minutes to talk to everybody, and they just wanted to shake his hand and give him a hug. It’s this interesting contrast of him being a janitor at Princeton, but at the same time being a hero and celebrity in his village. This film really kind of sums up what we’re about because it’s about an average person, Josue, using what’s in his head, using his influence, using any kind of gift, talent, or ability that he has to really make a difference in the world. I really believe that if we as individuals use what we have and work together, we can really change the world.