La Source: The Story of the Haitian Ivy League Janitor Who Brought Clean Water to His Hometown

La Source is an inspiring documentary made by Patrick Shen, a documentary filmmaker, whose independent production company Transcendental Media is based in Pasadena, California. The doc has been screened at every major documentary festival, including the prestigious Sebastopol Film Festival.

The documentary seems simple enough: Josue Lajeunesse, one of Haiti’s native sons, who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, returns to his homeland. But the story is much deeper than that; he has returned to his remote town of La Source, for a special purpose, and a purpose that goes back to his childhood.

La Source, which Lajeunesse says is a thirty minutes drive from the city of Jacmel, lacked a clean water source when Lajeunesse was growing up there as the youngest of five children of Carobert Lajeunesse and Gina Jean-Charles.

In 1989, Lajeunesse left Haiti for New Jersey. Like a great many new immigrants, Lajeunesse worked many odds jobs. Then in 1994, an acquaintance of his, who worked in security at Princeton University, told him about an opening for a janitor position at the Ivy League Institution. Lajeunesse applied and was hired for the job. Along the way, he used his earnings from that job alongside miscellaneous businesses he started (including a taxi service company) to channel money back home to go towards improving the lives of the townspeople back in La Source. Most important to Josue was that La Source be furnished with a water source, so that his townmates would not have to take dangerous commutes to get water.

Between working to bring La Source to a bigger audience and developing ideas for some new documentaries and planning a feature narrative project, the documentary’s helmer Patrick Shen broke things down for us. Kreyolicious also had a conversations with Josue Lajeunesse—the native son himself.

Q& A with Josue Lajeunesse

How do you feel about the fact that your town’s story is on the big screen?
When I was in Haiti, I was always involved in the community, doing things. I was part of my theatrical troupe in Haiti. It is what it is. I feel the same way as I felt before. Nothing has changed. I feel normal. I am a simple guy.

You came to this country in the late 1980s, as part of a group of immigrants who came to find a better life. What are you most proud of among all your accomplishments towards the American Dream?
I will give you three items. I love my family. I love everyone. Right now, I am proud of—not of myself—but of the people of the town where I’m from. We are in the process of building a school in the town [of La Source]. They have clean and purified water.

What are your earliest memories of growing up in La Source?
I was little, but I remember everything. The way people had to climb mountains to get to the water. It was a disaster. People would fall down everyday. Break their arms. The people would get sick too, because they didn’t have access to the clean water. So now, they don’t have to go up the mountain anymore. Now, they have the tower.

When did the clean water journey begin?
It was something we did little by little. Every time I had a little money, I send it. Maybe around 1998. My brother Chrismedonne and me, we thought about the people there. It was my dad’s dream, but my dad didn’t have the chance to do so. Me and my brother ever since we were little, we thought about it. When I was in high school in Haiti, I remember in physics they said when you lower the volume, you can increase the. My brother does construction; he does plumbing. He does a lot of stuff. With him, we will be able to do [the job of bringing clean water]. All the physical jobs, he’s in charge; he knows what to do. I don’t have any finance coming back to me or anything; everything is for the community.

Do you think it’s important for people to go back and give back to Haiti like you did?
I think it’s like an obligation. It’s mandatory for everyone to think of where they’re from. We don’t have a government in the world that can do everything for everybody. If everyone—so many of them successful—help, we can [achieve] big things. You have a lot of people who have a lot of riches. They forgot where they came from. I never forgot where I come from. When you have a good heart, you will do so many things you will never think you would do. If everyone put their hands into the pot, when you close you eyes, you will see that the food is done. You got a vision. You have an idea. You cannot live like you don’t care. You have to understand you come from somewhere. Why you’re not coming back to do some public service—to give back where you [went] to high school? Where you [went] to middle school? You have to go back. Give something to the community where you come from. Even if you earn $400 a week—I don’t care—you can do something for the community where you come from.

What message would you like to send to Haitians of all backgrounds, whether born in Haiti or elsewhere but living away from Haiti?
The message is: a kingdom divided cannot be successful. And even in the family, when you’re divided, you cannot make any progress. We have one country and one nation. And when we’re together, we are a big force. We can do anything to take the country [to the next level]. The people outside; the people in Haiti. The country can be beautiful like every other country.

Q& A with Patrick Shen

Was your initial meeting with the Lajeunesse brothers as inspiring as the project? How did you meet? At which point did you decide that it was a worthwhile project to pursue?
My initial meeting with Josue took place under very different circumstances. I didn’t know anything about his dream to bring clean to La Source. I only knew that he was a janitor at Princeton and that he was originally from Haiti. He was a bit of a mystery and something about him was very intriguing. Josue was one of 8 janitors I featured in my last film The Philosopher Kings, which was a documentary about the lives and wisdom of janitors employed at universities throughout the United States. It wasn’t until the end of a long interview with Josue that I learned about La Source and the water project, which he mentioned to us very matter of factly as we were about to pack up our equipment. I thought instantly, “Looks like we’re going to Haiti”. It wasn’t until we arrived in La Source that I was able to see the scope of Josue’s dream for his village. That was also the first time I had met Josue’s brother, Chrismedonne. We were all instantly drawn to the brothers, the village, and the cause. In The Philosopher Kings audiences got a glimpse of Josue’s dream for La Source and his frustrations in fulfilling that dream. That film premiered at the AFI/Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival in June of 2009 and Josue became an instant hero that audiences really gravitated toward. People started throwing fundraisers for Josue – money came in from all parts of the country – and before Josue knew it, completing this water project in the way that he had always imagined was becoming a reality. Among those we encountered at Silverdocs was Jordan Wagner, executive director of Generosity Water. He instantly fell in love with Josue and offered his full support in helping Josue complete the water project.

How ironic is it that the little town that the documentary La Source is about, had water issues. After all, La Source does mean The Source.
I believe the town was named La Source because the natural spring in the mountain had been the source of water for many villages for decades. There are no historical records in La Source and any information about the origins of La Source had been passed down through generations and details were not entirely clear or at least not translated in a way that we were able to comprehend fully.

None other than Don Cheadle is the narrator of the project. Was it a challenge getting him involved with your project?
It all came together pretty quickly. We reached out to his agent on a Friday and met Don at studio in Santa Monica the following Friday to record the narration. His agent loved the film and really had a heart for Haiti, as does Don, so I don’t think it took much convincing to get him on board.

How did you and the rest of the La Source crew feel about being one of just 17 projects to be selected for screening by the International Documentary Association for DocuWeeks?
It’s such an honor to have the IDA’s support. The DocuWeeks showcase exists solely to support a handful of films each year that the IDA believes has Oscar potential. When you’re in the throes of making a film, Oscar potential is the last thing on your mind. Whether we get nominated or not, it’s been great to know that people have responded to the film like they have. It’s rewarding after all the years of hard work and struggle.

Has the community of La Source seen the documentary?
We’re in the midst of raising funds to do this. Because there’s no electricity there are some logistics and costs involved in screening the film in La Source. Not only do we have to arrange to bring a generator, screen, and sound system to La Source, the film also needs to be translated. We’re hoping to make a trip out there in [this year].

Is this documentary the last time you’ll be involved with Haiti?
Josue and the people of La Source have become like an extension of my own family. My involvement as a filmmaker might end here, but not as a friend. In fact, we’re in the midst of launching a social action campaign alongside the release of the film – the hope with this campaign is to raise enough funds to continue helping Josue fulfill his dreams for his village, which include a school for the children in La Source.

Did you come across any hardships as you sought to put together the documentary?
Hardships and documentary filmmaking are totally synonymous. Funding is always a struggle as is following a story that is unpredictable and unfolding before your eyes. Beyond that, the language barrier was tricky to navigate as we didn’t have enough funds to hire a proper translator for the first two trips we took to Haiti and had a hard time knowing what it was we were getting early on.

Be sure to purchase the La Source documentary , and help support Josue’s work!

[Photos: Transcendental Media, except for photo of Josue in the black-suit…Credit: Angela Weiss]

Last Updated on November 10, 2023 by kreyolicious

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