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Raoul Peck On ‘Fatal Assistance’ (Motivations/Inspiration, Reception, International Aid, More…)

Raoul Peck On 'Fatal Assistance' (Motivations/Inspiration, Reception, International Aid, More...)

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?

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.

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.

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.  

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”).

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

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.

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

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?

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?

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.

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

What impact do you hope this film
will have on International Aid?

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:

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