Fatal Assistance: Raoul Peck's doc questions the efficacy of Haiti earthquake relief


Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s Fatal Assistance is a sublime investigation into the aid debacle that followed the 2010 earthquake in Haiti—and a documentary that should be required viewing for every NGO, international aid organization, government agency, rich ex-politician and Hollywood star who rushes to the scene of a catastrophe in a developing country. Peck’s film is a deft critique of all aid distribution, and the corruption and exploitation it inspires, not in the government or the people of the recipient nation, but among humanitarian organizations and powerful individuals. It sometimes occasions a sense of hopelessness. Peck himself admits to having felt overwhelmed during filming, which is what led him to add an epistolary track. An anodyne for the audience’s disaffection, the letters, which are read aloud, reflect back on the compassionate impulses that initially save lives in a disaster area. Peck then illustrates how these well-intentioned motives get distorted into the devouring machinery, the “fatal assistance,” of international aid.

FJI: I would like to ask you about the epistolary device you use in the documentary. At what point in your creative process did you create that narration?

Peck: From the beginning of the film, the purpose was to observe the whole process evolving over a two-year period. Maybe I was not such an impartial observer. After one year, I was having problems understanding what was going on, so the hope of the film explaining itself was very quickly shattered. There was no way this huge machine would let me show its structure that easily. I thought at first that I would do voiceover narration, but then realized that would not work.

When I am shooting, I always keep a journal. I write about how my experience is evolving. I felt there was something missing, and I realized that there were things that if I said them myself as a Haitian, they would be flawed. The audience would think: This is Raoul Peck exaggerating again! So, I needed another witness who would see the whole thing from another point of view, and sometimes argue against my ideas. I realized that I already had something great, which was my correspondence with someone on Clinton’s team. [A month after the earthquake, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the former President to oversee Haiti’s reconstruction.] The letters are real, although they are somewhat restructured. This whole view of Clinton’s work, if I had said something like what is said in the letters, I might be attacked, or it would be written off somehow.

FJI: You had been cultural minister in Haiti, but during the earthquake you were just an ordinary citizen. Is that correct?

Peck: Yes, I was a regular Haitian person who went there to help. By the way, I did not go there with my camera. At first, I was helping. Like many others, I put myself at the disposition of the government. Within a month, I realized that there was nothing to do. We were not used at the level at which we could do good work. I realized that if I did not do something, I was going to go into a very deep depression. I came back to what I do best, which is making films.

FJI: When you mentioned your frustration just now, you reminded me of one of your subjects, Nader, the minister, obviously a brilliant engineer.

Peck: Yes, a man who did not have the tools to do his job correctly. By the way, nobody cared what he thought either. A lot of people with lots of money, lots of materials and lots of power wanted to do their own thing. It isn’t even conscious on their part; that is just what power does to people. When you are on the side of power, you do not feel the need to listen to people. That is the problem of charity and of wanting to do good: You are persuaded that whatever you do is good. That’s terrible because you can commit any crime thinking that.

FJI: After watching your film, I thought: Here are race and class differences being played out on a global level.

Peck: Yes, that’s right. I use the example of a homeless guy living near your building. One day, you give him a sandwich, and he refuses it and you get mad! That was exactly the situation in Haiti. We are dealing with states who cannot even resolve their own domestic problems, yet they think because Haiti is poor, whatever they do there is okay. They also think that in Haiti, giving out aid should be simple, but we have a congress in Haiti just like the U.S. Congress. It is just as stubborn and divided. Why would Haiti be any different?

FJI: There is this wonderful scene in Fatal Assistance in which a young man describes what happens to his shelter when it rains—and it rains a lot in Haiti. The house leaks. Overall, it is inadequately designed for the climate. That simple scene serves as a profound metaphor for the debacle you are describing in your film, doesn’t it?

Peck: Yes, and I had hundreds of examples like this in the 400 hours I shot. This guy is one of hundreds of thousands of Haitians who knows exactly what they need, but nobody talked to him. He knows how to rebuild his own house! What is good about this scene is that the man describes the problems in a very modest way.

It was as though nobody saw us Haitians. All of those young kids from NGOs felt they knew better what we needed. My film is about Haiti, but it is really about the state of the world right now. We are to a point where if we do not denounce these attitudes, we are all accomplices to it. This is what has been going on for 60 years of development policy. Everybody knows it’s not working. My title, Fatal Assistance, refers to dead people, and to the countries we are killing. The rules of engagement have been negotiated with NGOs. All international organizations have a sign on them: Do no harm. But guess what? The next thing happens and we are back to the game.

FJI: Are you saying that when it happens again, the answer is for the big powers and aid agencies to give cash directly to the affected government?

Peck: Yes, that should be the end result. Get the money directly to the people. I’m not saying that it is going to be easy to do, but take the time to do it the right way. It is the answer. Take out the intermediaries, because there is so much waste of money and energy when the money is given to them. Turn the camera the other way. The victims of the disaster are not the culprits.

I was reading a UN report yesterday about the money eaten up in corruption. One of the major problems in disaster areas is corruption, that the aid does not go where it needs to in order to help people directly. I would tell aid agencies to concentrate on immediate help when there is a catastrophe, but do not bring any material or merchandise with you. Buy it locally. Yes, it will take one or two days more, but do it.

FJI: Like that man whose house was inadequately built. If the aid agency had given him the money directly, he could have built the house himself?

Peck: Yes, or he would have hired local people to build it, so the money would circulate. He would know how best to use the money, too, because he knows that he does not have a lot of it. When organizations have a lot of money, their first step, for example, is to buy sixty cars. They imagine Haiti and its mountains, and they immediately assume they need four-wheel drive in order to be efficient. They need electricity everywhere as well as for their computers so they can send back their reports. That’s not the world we are living in! People are dying. Every single day, six million people in Haiti are not getting enough to eat.

I am sorry for my anger. I should say that I met a lot of well-meaning young people working in Haiti who were frustrated. After most people have been somewhere for two or three weeks, they know what’s wrong and these young people did, too. They knew the programs they were working in were not adequate. So, if you are this young person, you may have to fight with your boss, and then at some point you are afraid to lose your contract because maybe it’s your first or second job. That happened again and again after the earthquake. I do not want to rebuke people. I just want to say, let the human part of us emerge because it is the only thing that will save us.

Also see our Human Rights Watch Film Festival interviews with Nagieb Khaja, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami and Harry Freeland.