230,000 dead. 300,000 wounded. 1,500,000 homeless. The January 2010 earthquake has taken an unbelievably cruel toll on the struggling Haitian community. One might think surviving this nightmare is enough of a blessing. Raoul Peck, a Haitian born documentary filmmaker and activist, proves that sometimes surviving is just the beginning of yet another nightmare. This time not natural, but human-caused.
Tragedies, especially spectacular natural disasters, have always been a turn-on for politicians, organizations, celebrities…and businesses. They sell well, are attractive PR-wise, and give all the potential “helpers” a chance to build their image while rebuilding shattered communities. Because, one would think, reconstruction would be the country’s #1 priority after more than 50% of its buildings have been reduced to rubble. A perfect opportunity for international aid, and building schools, hospitals, local centers, etc. Such desperate need for housing provides an opportunity for numerous international companies to chip in, trying to persuade the public that they can create jobs (keyword!), which (coincidentally?) perfectly suits the local market best.
However, most of the time, these ideas are not taking local needs, lifestyle, and tradition into consideration. As one of the foreign experts featured in the film aptly states, “People see Haiti as a blank slate you can project any crazy idea you’ve ever had in your lifetime”. Miracles must be immediate if anyone hopes to gain the attention of donors. Precarious shelters are built in any open space, city plans are dumped, and everything becomes temporary. Then, imperceptibly, these momentary solutions turn into a permanent fix and an everyday reality that the victims–by the time it happens, usually left alone–have to live with.
After the earthquake, Haiti was flooded with various foreign rebuilding solutions, one more sure of its genius than other. The main obstacle that held all its attempts to overcome the tragedy was prosaic: rubble. And, as one of many experts featured in Peck’s film rightly point out, debris is “not sexy enough”. It doesn’t look good on pictures. The ever-present rubble, impossible to be removed without external funding, holds the country’s future hostage in the midst of political games. They are, like Haitian rubble, everywhere and impossible to get rid of.
Immediately after the tragedy, the international community responded and promised not to leave Haiti alone. Several donors–including countries, companies, humanitarian organizations and funds–obliged themselves to provide 5 billion dollars in over 18 months, and 11 billion in over 5 years. One of Haiti’s biggest hopes was The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), a Haitian-led international partnership overseeing the rebuilding projects, led by former president Bill Clinton and the country’s former prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive.
IHRC’s mandate expired on October 21, 2011. Due to notorious organization problems, only a fraction of hundreds of approved projects were completed or properly financed during its functioning. The director indirectly suggests that Bill Clinton, along with other famous faces, was in it mostly for publicity, unable to properly lead such project due to too many simultaneous commitments piling up.
Peck points out that there were too many NGO’s (over 40,000!) involved, creating organizational polyphobia and chaos. Most of them came to Haiti with good intentions and motivated by the force of positive habit, but failed right when it should’ve mattered. Lack of communication led to several duty overlaps, decreasing rebuilding effectiveness instead of improving the situation.
Peck’s strongest, and–at least in the microcosm he presents, valid–observation is a lack of trust and the persistence of prejudice, casting a shadow over what “advanced countries” perceive as “third world”, as the fear of corruption and ineffectiveness was stopping donors from dealing directly with the Haitian government. Instead of helping local people by teaching the country how to become independent, the donors effectively straight-jacketed it with their power. Vast amounts of money were delivered to the international community, which formed a financial scheme that ended in about 40% of the funds being taken back by the parties operating it, and away from those truly in need. When Haiti’s prime minister, desperate for clarifications, asked for them, he got only a couple of explanations back. It was, and still is, a vicious cycle: perceived as too weak, Haitians are subsequently denied the opportunity to grow stronger.
Peck’s political stance is clearly visible throughout the film, but does not take away from its inquisitiveness and informative power. Fatal Assistance is an important lesson on much needed social attentiveness as wise activism. In a voice-over, Natalie Paul and Herbert Peck recite a correspondence of love between a Haitian man and a foreign woman. Their intimate dialogue elegantly frames the film with a nostalgically romantic narrative, creating a much needed counterpoint for the extremely pragmatic and dense content of the documentary. Peck focuses on a tragic story of one country, but his film can be easily read as a general observation on the abuse of power and the patronizing attitude that wealth provides. The film opens and closes with the same shot, a devoid-of-context fragment of surveillance footage, capturing the moment of the earthquake; suggesting that what seemed to be the end, can just as well be a beginning. Or the other way around.