By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act April 15, 2013 at 12:09PM
Thanks to Martine Jean, who, once again, translated this interview for me from French to English.
A film that's high on my to-see list this year, and which I think will generate some discussion here and elsewhere (assuming it's released here in the USA) is Hatian filmmaker Raoul Peck's latest work, a feature documentary titled Assistance Mortelle (or Fatal Assistance in English), which made its World Premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, and which we reviewed positively HERE.
What promises to be an exposé that will offer the world a look at the international community's response and reaction to the devastating 2010 earthquake Haiti suffered, through the eyes of Haitians in Haiti, the 100-minute fim (culled from a total of over 500 hours of footage) was shot over 2 years, starting soon after the January 2010 earthquake, through last year.
Here's an official synopsis:
12 January, 2010. A devastating earthquake shakes Haiti’s capital. In an instant 250,000 people are killed and 1.2 million left homeless. NGOs from all over the world send experts for critical relief efforts. At first, everyone has high hopes: at an international donors’ conference billions of dollars are pledged and the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), co-chaired by Bill Clinton, is created to oversee worldwide solidarity efforts. But, two-and-a-half years later, you only have to set foot in Port-au-Prince to see the international community has failed. Hundreds of thousands are still living in tents; the IHRC is as good as dead and only a fraction of the funds pledged have arrived in Haiti. Filmed over two years, Haitian born filmmaker Raoul Peck’s documentary tries to find out how, in spite the international community’s promises, the needs of ten million people in the Caribbean came to be met in such a paltry fashion. He questions political decision-makers, private contractors and engineers – and of course ordinary Haitian people, who have begun a painstaking reconstruction of their own.
It obviously addresses the reported billions of dollars in foreign aid that were said to have poured into Haiti relief after the earthquake, although it's not entirely clear where all that money went, since many are still living in squalor.
A trailer for Assistance Mortelle has surfaced and is embedded below; but first, an interview with the filmmaker, Mr Peck, done in Haiti (an early screening of the film took place in Haiti), in which he explains his motivations for making the film - essentially to have Haiti itself tell its own story about the earthquake and its aftermath, instead of *outsiders* doing it for them.
The 20-minute interview was all in French, and was translated for us by Martine Jean. It's not the full interview translated, but she got the meat of it down, which you're encouraged to read below (hopefully we'll get a chance to talk to Mr Peck whenever the film heads to the States; in the meantime, this is a good one to read):
Did the idea for this film start after production began? Did you start shooting and suddenly thought you found an interesting theme and went in that direction?
No, it doesn’t work that way. I came back to Haiti after the earthquake not to shoot a film, but to help and be a part of the rebuilding process, like all my fellow compatriots. I didn’t come to shoot a film, but I became frustrated when I realized that my help was kind of useless. We all felt lost and helpless. And it’s out of that frustration that I decided to shoot a film. Initially, the goal was not to make a film about International Aid pouring into Haiti, but rather to follow the reconstruction, or at least what they called reconstruction. It was a rare occurrence to have so many eyes fixated on a little nation, so much money pledged, and a disaster of such magnitude since we don’t have earthquakes every year. The last one was over 100 years ago, so it’s an historic and important event. Even from that angle, it was important to discuss and follow the rebuilding.
From the get-go, I decided that I would take 2 years to make this documentary. Regardless of what would happen, I’d made that decision. Then there was the issue of having access to people. Because of my profession and my political connections, I knew I would have access where cameras usually aren’t allowed. This gave me the means to a make a movie that would be different and original. I wanted to turn the camera on those who usually have eyes on Haiti, those usually deciding for us what story to tell. Haiti doesn’t have a voice nor does it have an identity. I knew I had to reclaim the “storytelling.” WE have to be the ones in charge of the narrative. WE have to be the ones to tell OUR story. And that was the most important decision for me. For more than 30 years, what I’ve seen about my country does not match the image that I have of my country.
It’s rare to see the complexities and the many layers of Haitian reality on the big screen. It’s always a bunch of clichés that do nothing but worsen the problem and confine us in the role of victim. I wanted this film to refute those notions.
You had over 400 hours of footage. The movie is 1h40 mins. Are there things that you uncovered during production that you thought were best left on the cutting room floor?
No. Everything I wanted to say, I said it. I made some choices because I had to. I had a well defined topic, which was to examine the impact of Humanitarian, International and Developmental Aid. Every time questions arise about aid, the answers is always that Haiti is corrupt, the government is weak, Haitians cannot be trusted, etc. I had to break this constant refrain/theme, which prevented us from addressing the real problems. That was the primary goal. Everything that was not in the context of this discussion was not used. For instance, I didn’t use anything that had to do with cholera because that’s it’s own movie.
What was your target audience?
There was no target audience. I tend to make historic films, films for posterity. In Haiti, our cinematography is weak. To me, making a movie is preserving something, preserving who we are. Everyone is involved. Haitians are involved as citizens and humans. The rest of world is also involved because it has to recognize Haiti’s existence and identity. The film doesn’t belong to me anymore. The film belongs to those who will use it in their work. It belongs to those who embrace it. It will go to those to whom it speaks.
Do you think international aid is more stifling for Haiti than it has been for other nations?
No. It’s across the board: Africa, Latin America, even some Asian countries. It didn’t just start in Haiti. It goes back more than 60 years. We’re just figuring out that Development Aid does not live up to its name. It is neither an aid nor a development. Looking at the majority of African nations that have received Development Aid, we wonder: where has this aid been successful? Has anything changed? Those countries who’ve received that aid, how much progress have they experienced? Are they better equipped to defend themselves? Is there less inequality? Of course there are victories, like the Aids epidemic, for instance. But even with massive assistance (at least on paper), the results are weak. Aid is deceiving. 40 to 60 percent of Aid money remains in the country that pledges it. So is it really an “Aid”?
The players that provide International Aid are diverse and have divergent interests? Why can’t Haiti use that to its advantage?
You are correct and in fact, that’s an asset that a strong government, with strong infrastructure, has at its disposal. We have a tendency to think there is an homogeneity among all the nations helping. We think they are all in perfect harmony. That is not the case. They each have their interests, whether it’s political or economical. Even the international organizations, obviously the nations that comprise those organizations have their own interests.
It would be naïve to think the U.S. does not have an immense influence on the World Bank or the IMF or even the Security Council. If we (and I include other nations) had the ability, the intelligence and the power to negotiate on equal footing, on a leveled playing field with them, we could reap the benefits.
Why did CEH fail? (CEH is a worldwide partnership for reconstruction in Haiti, under the auspices of the “Conference Episcopale D’Haiti”).
Because its members felt excluded. I don’t think it was done on purpose. Simply, it was not well organized at the time. Lack of money, lack of capable people, even the post of Chairman, which went to Gabriel Verette, was supposed to go to someone else. Dysfunction from the start contributed to the Haitian coalition feeling excluded. If Haiti had a bigger voice it could’ve served as an intermediary with the Haitian people, the congress, the ministers, but they all felt ostracized.
CEH went through several incarnations. In the beginning, there was a lot of enthusiasm and willingness to work, to finally create an institution that could manage the rebuilding, in the same vein as the post-tsunami model in Asia. However, there were inequalities and power struggles within the CEH that led to having 2 co-presidents, which was a compromise. The initial set-up of the organization was difficult and intense. Some member-nations didn’t want to give money too soon because everything seemed disorganized. Some didn’t know what role they would have in the organization, how much power they would have and how the money would be spent. All of this caused crucial delays.
To me, CEH was not a bad idea because it was an opportunity for everyone involved to put their cards on the table and be transparent, to give the real numbers, clearer objectives, and have open dialogue. All of the nations that gave more than $100 million were forced to have open dialogue, which they were not obligated to do before. That was very positive but then politics crept its ugly head, the elections took place etc and some people felt more comfortable wanting to manage the money without having to ask for anyone’s permission. That was the beginning of the end. Coupled with the fact that the political class in Haiti did not trust the CEH, the Haitian congress had no trust in the CEH whatsoever. There was an obvious lack of information on the CEH’s role. Like Phelps said in the film, all of this contributed to making the CEH easy to dismiss.
Former president Bill Clinton is prominent, almost playing the role of the Joker in the film. Do you think he lacked the vision to work seriously for real rebuilding of Haiti?
We shouldn’t question Clinton’s willingness or even his sincerity, but the results are what they are. There was a fundamental lack of knowledge of the realities of Haiti, an absence of discernment of the many layers and subtleties of Haiti’s political landscape. Clinton thought that a “willingness” to help and a deep Rolodex would be enough to change things. At times, he was a great debater and moderator, facilitating discussions during CEH sessions. But I don’t think he had time to really delve into the problems of the CEH. He wore many hats, at least 5, each one of them was a full time job. And when you wear many hats it’s difficult to do any of them fully. However, the blame doesn’t lie solely with people like Clinton or any one person. It was a perfect storm of problems and politics that contributed to the failure of the CEH.
What were the best and worst reactions you got for the film at the Berlin International Film Festival?
There was nothing in particular. Just being invited to premiere the film at the Berlin Festival gave the film credibility. It’s one of the top 3 festivals in the world, with more than 1,500 journalists attending, so potentially you have access to the world. I was proud to present the film in Berlin.
Secondly, I was afraid the film wouldn’t be well received because it was shot from a different point of view. I turned the camera on those who usually do the observing. I thought that would be jarring, but the audience understood the film and why it was made that way. It generated a good discussion and that was the goal. The goal was not revenge nor was it to perpetuate the image of Haiti as a victim, but rather to start a discussion that should’ve started 10 years ago.
What impact do you hope this film will have on International Aid?
It depends on what people do with it, including you. There is a lot of interest in the film, both in Haiti and internationally. People are starting to question their work, question the status quo. International Aid as a means of development is a major failure, and not just in Haiti. On the other hand, Humanitarian Aid could be better coordinated. That realization is a big step, now things have to change. The film is a small contribution towards that discussion.
Here's the original French interview, for you French speakers; and underneath, you'll find the trailer:
And here's the trailer: