A filmmaker friend just told me about his 2 months spent in Chad, interviewing victims of Darfur. I was like, “Woah.” I then told him that I just returned from Haiti, having shot footage for a short documentary on Wyclef Jean’s inspiring organizaton, Yele Haiti. He was like, “WOAH!” I guess that should give you some impression of what I was getting myself into…
Haiti is a unique country—the first born out of a successful slave revolt, and currently the poorest in the Western Hemisphere—and we saw it through several unique lenses. By “we” I mean myself and Jenna, from Press Play Productions, who brought me on to the project.
Another unusual thing about our trip was the extremes that we were presented with. On one hand, we were rolling with bodyguards in expensive SUVs. On the other hand, we were shooting in some of the most downtrodden and notoriously dangerous slums in the world. On both ends of the spectrum, we were likely traveling in a manner atypical of your average Haitian.
(That's not Wyclef.)
First, we were seeing the country with “Wyclef’s people,” and there were several subtle and some not-so-subtle reminders of the almost godlike status he holds in his native land. (And no, he was not on the trip with us. I can only imagine how hard it would have been for us to get anything accomplished in the maelstrom if word had gotten around that he was there. Apparently last time he was in town, people literally broke down the gates of the hotel where he was partying to get at him!)
(That's not Wyclef.)
There is also the lens of the NGO itself. Part of their job is identifying the biggest problems in Haiti in order to help alleviate them, and since our job is to tell their story, we witnessed several of these problems—poverty, corruption, hunger, lack of opportunities for women, lack of education, unsanitary conditions—first hand.
And, of course, there is the literal lens through which I was seeing the country—the camera lens. I was very grateful to have that physical separation between myself and my surroundings, to help me to focus on getting the work done in emotionally challenging circumstances.
We arrived in Haiti and proceeded directly to the “Diplomatic Lounge” at the airport, which is where foreign dignitaries, government people, and the like wait while their customs info is being processed. We met a World Bank official, sat in plush chairs, and sipped on espressos. It was all very high brow compared to the zoo that was the Delta terminal at JFK. And then the lights went out. Twice. And everyone continued their conversations and Blackberry exchanges without missing a beat. Oh yeah, I guess I am in a third world country.
We went straight from the airport to Cite Soleil, known as the most dangerous slum in the Western hemisphere. BAM. Straight into the action. I was familiar with the area thanks to the documentary Ghosts of Cite Soleil, which I happened to select for the San Francisco International Film Festival when I sat on their Golden Gate Awards committee a few years back. The documentary took place during a particularly bad period in Cite Soleil, when the district was besieged by a violent war between drug gangs, so I was expecting the worst.
Fortunately, things have improved considerably in Cite Soleil in the last few years in terms of the violence, and it is hard to imagine it being so dangerous when the streets are filled with people. What I did witness, though, were unpaved roads, no trees protecting people from the relentless heat, dust, rubble, thick piles of garbage, concrete shacks, hollow eyes and an intense stench of many bodies and little sanitation.
The purpose of this first visit was to see some of Yele’s impressive projects and try to identify a family to feature in our video who could really portray the story of Yele’s success. We visited one of the Yele Cuisine kitchens which was apparently operational even through the crisis period in Cite Soleil. At the Yele Cuisine kitchens, women are employed to cook and deliver food to schools without cafeterias. This accomplishes multiple objectives—jobs for women, local food distribution, and encouragement for kids to attend school, as the meal provided will likely be their only one of the day.
From Cite Soleil we finally checked in at our hotel, where the real shock set in. The difference between the filthy slum and our gorgeous hotel up the mountain, reportedly the nicest hotel in Port-au-Prince, is hardly calculable. As we drove through the city, it looked somewhat healthier than Cite Soleil, with vibrantly colored buildings and more trees, but it was obviously poor everywhere until we ascended up the mountainside where the wealthier Haitians and foreign businesspeople live in well-protected homes and where hotels like ours cater to diplomats and NGO executives. From up there, looking down at the crystal Caribbean waters, leafy palm trees and mountains beyond, it was hard to imagine all the suffering that was happening below.
We only had five days to scout, cast and shoot our entire piece and, as always with docs, things came together in unexpected ways.
We knew that we wanted to tell the story of a mother who works in one of the Yele kitchens and whose kids are educated at a Yele-funded school. Originally, we planned to have the mother’s story intertwined with that of Killa, a former gangster who was influenced by a meeting with Wyclef to change his life, and now works distributing food to poor families with Yele.
Killa seemed like the perfect candidate—a charismatic and colorful guy with a fantastic backstory and a true investment in YeleHaiti. Unfortunately, he also has musical ambitions and a serious rep to protect. He wouldn’t even admit on camera to no longer being part of a gang, for fear that there would be repercussions with its members. After shooting for one of our precious full days with him, where he walked us through his ‘hood (“This is where I started selling drugs when I was 14…”), he pulled out and wanted nothing more to do with the project. He later demanded certain favors from the organization in order to continue.
I have to give Jenna major character-judgement kudos on this front. She sensed this potential outcome from our very first meeting with Killa. Despite our day of shooting with Killa, we still needed a critical shot of him handing rice from Yele food distribution off to our mother character, in order to link their stories together. It looked like we weren’t going to get it but, as always, the show must go on. I always say that the best AND worst thing about documentary filmmaking is that you never know what's going to happen.
So the next morning, we started filming with Lenise, our "mother character." Lenise is a handsome woman with short, elegant cornrows and a worry-creased face. She is a single mother with five kids ranging from age six to teenaged, and they all live together in her small, three-room concrete house, along with two of her nephews. She works in a Yele Kitchen at a Yele-sponsored school where her children attend class and participate in soccer training. Yele is literally providing a life for this family and preventing Lenise from, in her words, crying herself to sleep every night worrying about how she would take care of her kids, and doing "bad things" to help feed them.
One thing that really impressed me about Lenise was that, despite her circumstances, she managed to keep all the kids clean, polite, and more well-behaved than most kids I know. She does this in part by running a tight ship at home, where everyone wakes at 4 AM and does homework by candlelight while she cleans, prepares them for school and makes breakfast if she has any food, so that they can all be ready to take the dusty one-hour walk to school by 7:00. We shot these morning rituals and then piled Lenise and the kids into our cars and continued filming them at work and school for the rest of the day. This included shooting Lenise's work in the extremely hot Yele kitchen, where she and about five other impressive women cook using two countertops, four open flames, and no refrigeration for around 1,500 kids. During our interview with Lenise later, she said that she felt like a star and it had been the best day of her life.
While scouting at the school, we met Jimmy, their handsome young Administrative Director. As he assisted us with logistics, he told Jenna of his own story--having been raised in Cite Soleil himself but getting educated and deciding to work at the school to help make a better future for his community, despite better professional opportunities elsewhere. Once again, her producer instincts kicked in and she thought we just might have found a compelling replacement for Killa in our story.
As we got to know Jimmy better, it became more and more evident that he would be an amazing person to help tell Yele's story. The Yele folks wanted to make sure that we didn't just present Haitians as victims, and here was a young, passionate, articulate community advocate with high hopes for a better future for his country despite his own underprivileged upbringing. (Remind you of anyone?) We ended up shooting lots of great footage of Jimmy in Cite Soleil and at the school, and he gave us a fantastic interview. Ultimately, the Yele folks will decide between the two men, but no matter what happens, I am so glad that we got to meet Jimmy.
WELCOME HOME, OK?
Overall, It was a FASCINATING trip, and challenging too--both physically (shooting hand-held in direct 98 degree sunlight for hours) and emotionally (meeting kids who walk an hour to school in said heat to get one meal a day). When we arrived back in the U.S., I almost kissed the poor customs officer whose thick Brooklyn accent mumbled, “Welcome home, OK?”
As trite as it sounds, I really did think about how lucky we are to live in a land where, though we have many problems of our own, there are opportunities and freedoms that others simply don’t have. I thought it was no wonder that people want to come here from all over the world to try to make a better life. And then, lo and behold, my cab driver from the airport was Haitian! We had a long talk wherein he waxed poetic about the good old days in Haiti before Papa Doc’s outrageous corruption, when tourists visited and noone locked their doors.
It wasn’t until Jenna and I had shot in Cite Soleil several times that one of our hosts casually mentioned the slew of foreign kidnappings and beheadings that happened during the lockdown of that area about five years ago. I remember being asked about my dream career during a college internship. My reply included terms like “travel,” “education,” “storytelling,” and “being creative.” I am living that dream career now. Unfortunately that means that sometimes, in places like Haiti, I am witnessing other people’s nightmares.
As I embark on editing the piece this week, I take some comfort in hoping that our piece will help YeleHaiti spread its message more widely and ultimately do more good work.