Three years after the devastating earthquake that brought Haiti to its knees, the country remains a symbol of unfixable misery. Battling this image, native son Raoul Peck goes beyond the rhetoric of First World onlookers and their tendency to turn poverty into spectacle, shining a damning light on the damage done by international aid agencies whose well-meaning but ignorant assumptions turned a nightmare into an unsolvable tragedy. “Fatal Assistance” is a powerful indictment of the aid process, though Peck lets Haitian politicos off too lightly, and the voiceovers would be better on paper. Fests and ancillary will spread the message.
As a former minister of culture, Peck has unrivaled access to powerful players: For two years, he interviewed members of government, NGO leaders and community organizers, as well as filming high-profile visitors like the Clintons and Sean Penn. His aim, largely accomplished, is to sweep away the stereotype of Haiti as a “cursed” island, and to show a complex country trying to battle its demons. The problem, Peck cogently asserts, is that the rush of promised aide was never allowed to be controlled by the Haitians themselves.
Haiti’s reputation for corruption (whether earned or not, it’s something the film passes over far too swiftly) is one reason NGOs and similar outfits insist on doing everything themselves, but an even more key point made here is their need to maintain their organizational status. Well-meaning young internationals from various relief agencies flooded the country, convinced their “fresh” ideas would save the island, despite their fundamental ignorance of the place and its people.
The chief body here, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, co-chaired by former President Clinton and then-Haiti Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, is a case in point, and Peck shows the moment when IHRC member Suze Percy Filippini blasted the commission for ignoring the 12 Haitian members, whose voices were rarely consulted. Priscilla Phelps, an American senior housing advisor and a sort of hero here, questions why it’s so difficult to get NGOs to channel money directly to neighborhoods rather than inefficient intermediaries.
Another issue here is whether aid involves the economy of the nation being helped (something Peck explored more generally in “Profit and Nothing But!”). For instance, rather than purchase food already on the island after the earthquake, millions were spent on buying comestibles abroad and shipping them to Haiti. In addition, donors needed to be kept happy, so huge sums were earmarked for building projects, but debris removal, the vital step before construction can begin, was ignored (since rubble can’t be branded).
The pic is especially damning of Clinton, seen as too eager to present superficial improvements and too protected by his staff. The helmer should have similarly dissected some of Haiti’s own politicians, people whose reputations (good and bad) are generally unknown outside the country. In aiming to correct the general impression of Haiti as a nation destroyed by its own officials, Peck goes too far in the opposite direction, and the imbalance is noticeable. His implication that foreign diplomats influenced the last Haiti election is strong and certainly likely, though this point, too, could have been better developed.
Still, the docu is meant to be subjective, with its points made via male and female voiceovers. The male narrator represents Peck’s alter ego (in the French version the helmer does the job himself), while the female offers a collection of thoughts from the p.o.v. of a frustrated foreign-aid worker. Presented as a series of letters, each rather tediously beginning, “Dear Friend,” their poetic sentiments, while heartfelt and occasionally moving, would work best on the printed page. Music, of the piano and deep-cello variety, unnecessarily pushes emotions — odd, given how Peck wisely avoids easy sentimentalism elsewhere.