Raoul Peck’s “Assistance Mortelle”

haiti

In “Berlinale–Haiti Feeling Aftershocks,” David D’Arcy (Outtakes) writes about Haiti as seen through Raoul Peck’s documentary film Assistance Mortelle [Fatal Assistance] (Haiti, France, USA, Belgium, 2012, 99 minutes). He focuses on the irony of Haiti’s dependence on outside intervention, although it was the first country to win independence in Latin America, and references authors who have recently tackled similar questions—Amy Wilentz, Jonathan Katz, and Laurent Dubois. Here are excerpts with a link to the full review below:

In its title, Fatal Assistance evokes the deadly rage of a rejected lover from a one-night stand – remember Glenn Close? — but non-governmental organizations (NGOs) stayed much longer in the Pearl of the Antilles. While they didn’t kill Haiti, Peck’s doc shows that they left it on a perilous life support, if you can call it that, since most aid has been withdrawn. Peck’s film, which premiered at the 2013 Berlinale, isn’t the kind of boilerplate tirade that you would expect from the Right against international relief to address natural disasters, refugee problems or collateral damage from wars. The problem isn’t that Haiti didn’t need help, but that the help was awkwardly administered in an approach that went over the heads of the people who needed it most.

Fatal Assistance premiered in Berlin just after two new books appeared on the attenuated pain of post-earthquake Haiti, each by a journalist who didn’t just parachute in with the NGOs. Amy Wilentz reached similar conclusions about foreign aid in Farewell Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti, and AP veteran Jonathan Katz put his judgments in the title of his new study, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left a Disaster Behind. For more history try the recent Haiti, The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois, who teaches at Duke.

These three authors echo Peck’s grim take on the flood of well-meaning philanthropy after the earthquake, an institutional aftershock. Shrewd in its analysis and poetic in a voice-over narration, Fatal Assistance suffers from the problem that Haiti is no longer the crisis of the week. The doc will play in festivals, which tend to show films that exhume long-neglected trouble spots. Yet theatrical release seems unlikely, except in rare cases, so Fatal Assistance’s odd fate is that it may screen at events sponsored by non-governmental charities, perhaps some of the same institutions that it skewers at feature-length.

The veteran Peck (The Man by the Shore, Lumumba-Death of the Prophet) travels along a timeline as interviews and nightmarish archival footage examine the devastation that the earthquake brought to his native Haiti. He then tracks the international help that would soon put it deeper into the hole. [. . .]

Haiti hasn’t lacked for leaders, just for good ones. In Fatal Assistance they emerge at election time like an endless number of dark-suited characters exiting a car at the circus. Peck also gives us plenty of footage of dull meetings with Haitian leaders (mostly silent) and top personnel from all over the world, led by (but hardly limited to) Bill Clinton, who chaired the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). Insiders joke that, when the camera-friendly Clinton was around, the relief umbrella organization was called “Haitian Reconstruction: The Movie.” This wasn’t the Dream Team that Haiti needed. Relief wasn’t just about exposure for politicians. Most of the money spent went to firms and contractors in the donor countries, we’re told.

Yet the talk-aholic Bill Clinton was far from the worst adviser to take up Haiti’s time. Peck shows haunting footage of the return of the ghostly aged “Baby Doc” Jean Duvalier, Haiti’s brutal ex-president-for-life, who flies in with a once-chic wife (bearing battle scars of too much plastic surgery) when there’s a leadership void. Who says former tyrants can’t suffer? Haiti did not immediately imprison the former dictator, but exonerated him of crimes against humanity, proof that there were other problems facing the island than the bureaucratic inertia and ineptitude of the NGOs. And there were. A vast plain outside Port-au-Prince was covered with houses of concrete and wood, which lacked plumbing but still leaked, without transport or any amenities – hundreds of reminders of the rich friends who decamped for the next disaster.

Peck’s doc is distilled from hundreds of hours shot, attesting to a substantial budget – and the help of NGOs? In cutting so much to reach the doc’s current length, the stories lose continuity and context. Much of what he leaves out are also the many instances of violence, gangs and rampant corruption — the obvious clichés, Haitians like Peck might say, but still ugly truths in that still-desperate country. Lyrically filmed, given the subject matter, Fatal Assistance is a timely reminder of the inadequacy and incompetence of so many relief efforts worldwide – including unfinished efforts in the US for Katrina and Sandy. It’s also testimony to how quickly the moralists of the major institutions forget.

For full article, see http://blogs.artinfo.com/outtakes/2013/02/23/berlinale-haiti-feeling-aftershocks/

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