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Haiti documentary gets mixed reviews at London screening

By Charles Arthur (Haiti Support Group [1])

Submitted to AlterPresse on May 19, 2006

There was a mixed reaction from the audience at a special screening of a new documentary film about Haiti at Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema last week. "Failing Haiti", a 60-minute documentary released in November 2005, seeks to examine why international efforts continue to fail to make a difference in the lives of Haitians.

Directed and produced by US American film-maker, Rod Paul, and written and narrated by the St. Petersburg Times’ Latin American correspondent, David Adams, the film centres on interviews with key political players in Haitian and US-Haitian politics with the aim of providing insight into why Haiti has suffered misrule for so long. A key issue explored in "Failing Haiti" is the end of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s presidency, and the role of the US in his February 2004 ouster.

Chris Chapman, who lived and worked in Haiti for a number of years in the mid-1990s for Peace Brigades International, said: "I found the film interesting and well-made, making good use of images and music, and with great access to a wide variety of key players."

Others though felt that the focus on US policy-makers and the lack of Haitian voices was a serious deficiency. Peter Hallward, who is currently writing a book on the Jean-Bertrand Aristide presidency of 2000-2004 (Haiti: Damming the Flood - Verso, spring 2007), bemoaned the fact that the most frequently interviewed person was Roger Noriega - President George W Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Leah Gordon, a freelance film maker and photographer, and director of an award-winning documentary about Haiti for Channel 4 television, said, "The film maker, while ostensibly allowing many different voices and opinions on the complex issue of the genesis of Haiti’s current situation, in fact puts across a deeply conservative message. The majority of opinions come from ex-army officers, pro-neo-liberal politicians, World Bank officials, and bourgeois factory owners, with a thin smattering of sound-bites from those with an engaged left-wing perspective." She concluded, "The director, perhaps unwittingly, has created a piece of work that purports to ‘let the audience make up its own mind’, whilst upholding and disseminating the ideology that has created the grave situation in this unfortunate state."

A different viewpoint was held by Christian Wisskirchen, who worked for the United Nations human rights mission in Haiti in 1995-6. He said, "One could argue that the film gave way too much air time to an assortment of recent US ambassadors and State Department officials, but at least they were allowed - and maybe that was intended - to indict themselves through their blatant insincerity and contradictions." But Wisskirchen echoed a general sentiment among audience members interviewed after the screening when he said, "Probably the greatest criticism must be how few Haitians were given airtime in this film. Patronising officials galore, but hardly a local voice."

There were other criticism too, as Chapman noted. "Some people I spoke to criticised it for leaving the viewer with a sense of hopelessness; while Haitians are not naively optimistic, they continue to be resilient and resourceful, and face the ongoing trials of their country with good humour and a refusal to be ground down."

The film was followed by a debate organised by the Haiti Support Group. The screening of ’Failing Haiti’ was a collaboration between the Haiti Support Group and the French Institute, and was part of French Institute’s 8th Mosaïques Festival of World Culture. It followed similar collaborations in 2005 - when the film screened was Juliana Ruhfus’ "When I am Misery, I Sing" - and in 2004 when Jonathan Demme’s "The Agronomist" played to a full house.

Speaking after the 9 May screening of "Failing Haiti", the French Institute’s Suzy Gillett said she was delighted with the attendance, remarking, "This is one of the best attended events of the festival so far."